A researcher has been shocked by the backlash over a study that found most fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers did not seek mental health support because they felt they should toughen up.
Senior lecturer at CQUniversity and co-author of the study, Dr Amanda Rebar, said social media comments and emails sent to her since the study was released only confirmed what FIFO workers already felt.
“There’s been quite a bit of contact from people saying that people need to suck it up and that they know what they signed up for,” Dr Rebar said.
“It’s so discouraging.”
One social media post, which attracted 295 reactions and 78 comments mostly in support of the comment, read:
I’m sorry are we supposed to feel sorry for these families?? These FIFO workers aren’t forced into their jobs, they take them because of the high salaries. Effectively they get well compensated for ‘sacrificing’ their time yet still get plenty of time to see their families.
Makes me laugh when the rich of society complain how tough life is.
Another comment that attracted 136 reactions and 45 replies read:
Title should read “Families put money above happiness in an attempt to gain happiness”.
The study was published in the British Medical Journal on the same day it was revealed a 14th FIFO worker had taken their own life at an LNG plant in Darwin.
A former worker at the plant said there had been about one suicide every three months and attributed this to a lack of mental health support and rosters that kept workers away from their families for six weeks at a time.
Dr Rebar said these issues were among the main themes that came up in her study.
In addition, FIFO workers felt they did not have a right to speak up because they were earning a high income, so the public backlash was disheartening.
“Seeing that perspective was genuinely shocking because there’s such a disconnect between the money you’re making and your mental health,” she said.
“When you take a step back and think about what that means, that’s really scary.
“People are feeling isolated and the last thing you want to do is make them feel ashamed of that.”
Dr Rebar said it was brave to seek help and support.
Call for more flexible hours, better internet
Dr Rebar said organisations were responsible for workers’ mental health and wellbeing, and although they offered support, many workers felt it was tokenistic.
“One of the World Health Organisation’s main priorities is improving health and wellbeing in workplaces, and in Queensland and Western Australia, one is six people are FIFO workers so we can’t ignore that some of these issues are popping up.”
Dr Rebar said more organisations needed to be more transparent about what the challenges were when taking on a FIFO role, and help workers mitigate those.
More flexible hours and rostering, stronger internet access for communication and even helping families visit the worksite would help, she added.
Farewelling the FIFO career path
Up until last year, Mr Harney worked with the same company for more than 20 years, and found it difficult to find a job in central Queensland that was not FIFO.
“We put out heaps of resumes out there, but people didn’t know who you were and it was hard,” Mr Harney said.
After months of searching, Mr Harney found a job only a 20 minute drive from his home, but it was a lucky break through someone he knew.
Now he can spend time with wife Bec and watch his four children play sport, or just sit on the couch with them at night-time and talk face-to-face.
Taking a toll on the family
Over the years, his job saw him work rosters that would take him away from home for three to four months at a time.
“You would just had to push through. You were just thinking about stuff all the time, trying to go to the gym and keep yourself motivated,” Mr Harney said.
“In the end, I was doing 10 days on and four days off.
“By the time I got home those four days went fast and the next minute I was driving back there again.”
Mrs Harney said she looked back now and wondered how she coped.
“At times I thought Craig was having all the fun away, because he didn’t have the stress of having the kids and they are with you 24/7.
“I’d ring up and he’d be all alone and that was just a dream for a mother.”
Mrs Harney said she now had an appreciation for what Mr Harney went through while he was away.
Although his employer brought in mental health support over the last few years, Mr Harney said few people would access it.
“No one wants to talk — I don’t, anyway, I try and sort it out myself.”
Mr Harney said he missed a lot of time with his eldest child, but has seen more of his youngest, who has just turned five.
“It feels as though life has just gone that fast. My eldest is 13 years, and 13 years — where has that gone?
“That’s the thing, you lose all that time.”
Devil in the roster
The FIFO lifestyle suits many people, including Angela and Brendan Warren in Yeppoon, but it all has to do with the work roster.
Mr Warren works seven days on at a mine three hours away, and then is home for seven days.
“It works a lot better than the lifestyle roster they call the four and five,” Mrs Warren said.
“It was difficult living away that way, but now he’s on the seven-seven, he has a lot of time to fit back in.”
Mrs Warren said it would be difficult for her husband to get out of the industry because he had no experience outside of it.
“We’ve never known any different. It’s always been the mining industry for us.
“We look at it as he works six months of the year by the time he has annual leave, so we think it’s actually a positive.”