National_Jet_Systems_Boeing_717-200By Reuben Adams

Friday, 19 June 2015

NINE WA resources industry workers took their own lives during a 12 month period between 2013 and 2014 – the catalyst for a parliamentary inquiry into fly in, fly out mental health launched by the state’s Education and Health Standing Committee in August last year. The Queensland government has also started a similar investigation.

The WA inquiry, due to report on 18 June, will scrutinise the contributing factors that may lead to mental illness and suicide amongst FIFO workers. It covers the current legislation, regulations, policies and practices for workplace mental health in WA; current initiatives by government, industry and community; and recommended improvements.

In Queensland, the parliamentary Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources Committee is investigating the impacts of long distance commuting on workers and their families, the effects on rostering practices and the costs and benefits of a FIFO workforce. That committee will report its findings by 30 September.

New research, released in June, found that FIFO workers suffer from depression at more than twice the rate of the general Australian population. Researchers surveyed 629 WA FIFO workers and found that 28 per cent exhibited significant signs of depression, compared to just 13 per cent of the general population. FIFO workers also exhibited higher rates of stress and anxiety than the general population and non-FIFO mining workers who live in remote and rural areas.

Lead researcher Philippa Vojnovic from Edith Cowan University School of Business said these statistics highlighted the need for robust support systems to be in place at FIFO workplaces. Ms Vojnovic is a member of the FIFO Australian Community of Excellence (FACE) network, where she collaborates with fellow researchers – including Murdoch University’s Libby Brook and Curtin University’s Dr Dawson Cooke – to examine issues related to FIFO work, lifestyle and health, including mental health.

“No one actually knows the [real] number of FIFO worker deaths by suicide, even the coroner has had a difficult time estimating that,” Ms Vojnovic said.

“Parliamentary inquiries certainly have the potential of leading to positive outcomes – whether the recommendations are implemented largely depends on information sharing and commitment to change by stakeholders. Let’s hope that the Queensland Inquiry is also informed by the WA submissions.”

FIFO schedules and mental illness beyondblue head of Research & Resource Development (Workplace) Nick Arvanitis said FIFO workforces did feature a particular high-risk demographic.

“What we do know is that these fly in, fly out workforces have a particular demographic – men aged between 25 and 45 – which we know are the ages when men are most at risk of developing a mental health condition, and are at greatest risk of suicide,” Mr Arvanitis said.

“Although there is no definitive evidence that says FIFO workers are more at risk, we know that some of the factors associated with working in FIFO workplaces, such as the social isolation and less access to social support, highly demanding work rosters (long shifts, three to four working weeks in a row) are risk factors for developing a mental health condition.”

FACE network researcher Dr Cooke is a clinical psychologist registrar in private practice, a research associate at Curtin University and PhD candidate. He said that while some studies had shown no difference in mental health issues between FIFO and non-FIFO workers and families, the evidence was not conclusive.

“There are other studies (and common sense voices) saying repeated long shifts, high compression shifts and unsupportive work cultures are toxic to workers, their families and communities,” Dr Cooke said.

“These concerns regarding the risks are echoed in the recommendations of the recent federal inquiry into FIFO work practices and the two current state government inquiries in WA and Queensland.”

Company responses

Mr Arvanitis said that some larger mining companies were already providing a range of mental health programs for their employees. These usually started with onboarding programs, which ensured that workers were prepared for the conditions inherent to FIFO work.
“[The companies] provide things like pre-employment medical assessments, employee assistance programs and training,” he said.

“We know that the larger organisations are doing that. We are uncertain about some of the smaller organisations, and the extent of the support and services that they are providing.”

Australia’s resources industry is characterised by male-dominated workforces. According to Mr Arvanitis, males are more likely to attach stigma to mental health conditions which means they may be less comfortable seeking treatment and support. The WA enquiry also highlights the fact that FIFO employees may be concerned about discrimination if they speak up and disclose a mental health problem. In light of this, organisations are encouraged to think about how they could reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions.

“It’s one thing to have all these services and support available, but if an organisation isn’t thinking about ‘what are we doing to reduce the stigma?’ then chances are, when these workers are struggling they might not be comfortable seeking treatment and support,” Mr Arvanitis said.


FACE network researcher Ms Brook is a registered psychologist, lecturer in organisational psychology at Murdoch University and a Doctor of Psychology candidate, and has supervised numerous research studies on FIFO workers. She said that thorough onboarding processes assisted in the smooth transition to FIFO work and helped set realistic expectations, with some organisations working towards implementing best practice in this area.

However, she said company interventions tended to be reactive rather than proactive at times, with some influenced by the culture on site.

“Our research found that bullying is an issue for some FIFO workers,” she said.

“We also found that perceived supervisor support can influence workers’ intentions to quit. This shows us that something as simple as training supervisors to support their workers is important, and it also shows us that some companies already have supervisors who are demonstrating those skills and who are actively supporting their workers.”

Further, the research found that some workers’ partners needed support as well, and that some were unaware that Employee Assistance programs (EAP) could also be accessible to them.

Dr Cooke said that the evidence pointed to this a “disturbing truth” that partners of FIFO workers tended to bear the brunt of a greater burden of stress compared to non-FIFO partners.

“A high proportion of FIFO workers have a family with young children and this is a stage of life that doesn’t need additional sources of stress,” he said.

“Chronic stress is known to be detrimental to children’s early development, with lifelong effects.”

Reducing the stigma

One of the most effective ways to reduce the stigma around mental illness is to have people share their personal stories of depression, anxiety and mental illness, according to Mr Arvanitis. beyondblue encourages organisations to invite guests that have had an experience in mental illness to speak in the workplace.

“We also encourage senior managers and leaders of organisations to speak openly about mental health and mental illness, and share any personal experiences they might have around mental illness,” he said.

In one partnership between beyondblue and the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA), AMMA chief executive Steve Knott and beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett developed a video that discusses mental health in the workplace.

“Normalising these conversations around mental illness in the workplace, so that people feel comfortable about opening up, is important,” Mr Arvanitis said.

A mentally healthy workplace

Organisational leaders are very powerful influencers on the working environment and culture. Dr Cooke said that the management team of a mentally healthy workplace was not fearful of addressing the risks faced by their workers, including social and emotional risks.

“Company leadership is responsible for setting a positive and supportive tone, which builds a healthy workplace culture, with workers who can readily seek and find support if they are struggling,” he said.

Mr Arvanitis said it was important that middle managers and supervisors had the skills and confidence to manage mental health issues in the workplace.

“That might be ‘how do they approach someone they are concerned is struggling’, and if that person does disclose to them, how do they provide ongoing support,” he said

Broadly speaking, Mr Arvanitis said, everyone needed to look out for each other.

“If they spot a work colleague whose behaviour has changed, it’s about having the courage to go up to them and ask them if they are ok, and if there is anything they can do to help, ” he said.

“It’s not about diagnosing someone with a mental health condition, it’s about noticing that someone’s behaviour has changed and thinking about how they can support that person to seek treatment and support.”

The benefits of a mentally healthy workplace are widespread. A March 2014 report by PWC, Creating a mentally healthy workplace, concluded that with the successful implementation of a program to create a mentally healthy workplace, organisations could, on average, expect a positive return on investment (ROI) of $2.30 per $1 spent.

These benefits typically took the form of improved productivity, via reduced absenteeism and presenteeism (reduced productivity at work), and lower numbers of compensation claims.

Mr Arvanitis said that many companies understood that there was a return on investment for taking early action.

“What we have tried to do through Heads Up [] is highlight some positive messages around mental health in the workplace. ROI is one benefit, but that effectively just covers reducing the impact of mental illness within the workplace.”

There are also positive benefits that flow on from creating a mentally healthy workplace.

“Not only are workers less likely to experience a mental health condition, but we also know that in mentally healthy workplaces workers are more likely to be committed and engaged, and more prepared to go above and beyond,” Mr Arvanitis said.

“It’s actually a win-win situation.”