FLY In Fly Out (FIFO) worker Blake Wood and business partner George Helou are on a mission to eradicate suicide among FIFO workers.
Their program, FIFOZero, aims to teach workers practical problem-solving skills in order to confront issues of mental and emotional stress they say are exacerbated through the isolation that often comes with FIFO life.
Mr Wood worked in the FIFO sector for nearly nine years before he was forced to face his own demons.
He struggled from panic attacks, chronic anxiety and suicidal thoughts and, after the suicide of a close colleague, he was driven to do something about it.
After taking Mr Helou’s EP7 seven step program, the two developed FIFOZero, a nuanced response to the challenges of engaging FIFO culture in a serious discussion of preventative mental health measures that can stop workers reaching crisis point.
Mr Wood said that FIFO workers are twice as likely to suffer from mental distress, but a lot of people also thrive in the FIFO industry.
Mr Helou believes that the key to eradicating suicide in the FIFO industry is to prevent crisis before they happen.
“FIFO-zero is actually a very doable – it’s not a stupid, lofty goal,” he said.
“If you understand why people get pushed so far that it becomes an option, you realise that there are so many things along the way that could have been identified to prevent it.
“One of the things that became very clear for us was that the mining industry had to follow good practice, that they provide professional services for workers who are in trouble – psychologists, counselling, EAP.
“The thing was that FIFO workers were not in a hurry to use those services because of how they thought they might be perceived.
“So we’ve identified ways to go deeper into the problem.
“If we can shift the thinking to a problem-solving approach, we can equip people with a set of practical tools that allows them to deal with life pressures before they build up and blow out.”
The main skill FIFOZero teaches is to understand that the first step to solving a problem is to look at it objectively and identify when a wrong perception may be at the heart of a problem.
Mr Wood likened the ability to look at a problem objectively to the skills needed to work a trade.
“We’re working with people on the ground to help them deal with their problems in a practical way,” he said.
“A lot of the training I had seen before was for leadership to identify when a worker is struggling, rather than to give workers the tools to help themselves.”
A ‘site activation’ involves a three-step process that starts with workers on the ground, management and is also integrated into the OHS, just as Take5s and other safety initiatives are.
Stage one involves a preliminary workshop dedicated to helping people understand the pitfalls of extreme perceptions.
Stage two is a four-hour workshop that helps workers and management create an ‘environment of practical problem solving’.
Stage three actually builds mental safety into the safety book, something that Mr Helou believes is just as important.
The duo use humour to break down barriers and expose the absurdity of extreme perceptions, while driving home the serious ramifications of inhibited responses to stressors in peoples’ lives.
“We keep it tangible,” Mr Helou said.
“We’re hitting home that its normal to have struggles in your life.
“We want to normalise it, if you’re having relationship problems of course you’re going to feel down about it – that’s okay.”
While the response to the program has been positive, the pair said that the credibility of the program could only be established through a continued and concerted effort to change the culture.
Mr Wood said that the industry was able to make so many leaps and bounds in workers’ physical safety culture because of industry-wide backing from top down.
“We got there with safety by immersing the community in a constant repetition of principles and standards,” he said.
“But with mental health programs, they might be run once a month, once a year, and so the community is not engaging with the ideas and the importance of looking after emotional wellbeing – people just think of it as another box-ticking exercise.”
In 2019, FIFOZero made headway with Rio Tinto, activating six of its mine sites in WA, and the company has its sights set on Mackay with GNS Engineering keen to take the program on board in a one-day three-stage activation.
And in 2020, Mr Wood will be returning to FIFO work.
He said that his perspective had shifted after learning the skillset needed to understand his emotional wellbeing.
“I honestly am going back with a completely different relationship to it,” he said.
“Some people struggle, some people thrive, I used to struggle and now I want to thrive.
“No one starts a FIFO career hating their job, they are excited about the opportunities it will bring them.
“So we’ve got to learn how to keep and maintain that enthusiasm.”
Early in 2021, FIFOZero will be launching a sophisticated $1.2m app, designed to reinforce the principles and tools taught in the seminars while allowing direct access to professional help at any stage.
The app is anonymous at an individual level, and will help mine management to monitor the efficiency of programs like FIFOZero in the camp through the use of big data to asses the overall wellbeing of workers at the mine.