Psychological distress is significantly more prevalent in the remote mining and construction workforce than in the general community, new research has found.
Social isolation, roster patterns and the strain on relationships are all adding to the distress of workers and their families.
A survey of 1,100 workers revealed more than 20 per cent have rated their own mental health as poor — in comparison to 15 per cent in the general population.
The research published in the Medical Journal of Australia indicated that 30 per cent of those surveyed were suffering high or very high levels of psychological distress.
Fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) worker Mitch Hill lived in Perth but flew in and out of the Pilbara mines, and he said it put a strain on many of the workers.
“You’d fly in, do two weeks’ work, a week of day shift, 12-13 hour shifts, then you have a day off and do a week of night shift and fly out after your last night shift,” he said.
“The demands it puts on anyone being away from family and friends for that period of time, you end up spending two-thirds of your time at work.
“It seems like every second person you talk to out there is going through a divorce proceeding.”
Mr Hill said he saw firsthand the levels of psychological distress faced by workers.
He recalled a morning when one of the men on his crew did not turn up to work.
“The company policy [was] if they didn’t call in sick you had to go and check on them,” he said.
“So our supervisor at the time drove back to camp and found this particular guy in his room — he’d attempted to overdose.”
Awareness is growing, expert says
Jennifer Bowers, chief executive of Rural and Remote Mental Health and lead author of the latest study, said FIFO workers were in an ideal position to recognise the mental health issues that can arise.
“They will fly in and they’ll see mates and they can see change,” she said.
She said workers could approach their friends “and say ‘look, what’s happened mate you don’t seem to be yourself?'”.
“And equally when they go home if they understand some of the signs, they can talk to their families and think ‘well I know about this now’,” she said.
Dr Bowers said companies, employees and communities at large were more aware of the issues surrounding FIFO.
“There are many programs available,” she said.
In terms of how committed companies were to such programs, she said it was “variable”.
Mental health is now a requirement in work health and safety.
“My impression is that if some [companies] can feel that they can tick the box … that they do try to tick the box and it is more tokenistic,” Dr Bowers said.
But she said supporting FIFO workers was not just the responsibility of employers, it was also the general population’s responsibility.
“It means that GPs, doctors and medical professionals need to be empathetic and understanding what these issue are,” she said.
“It’s important for banks and financial advisors to understand the issue, because they can then support … or better manage some of the financial stress that leads to some of these problems.
“So it’s not just any one sector of our community.”
He said ‘I can’t do it anymore’
Nicole Ashby’s husband has been a FIFO worker for the past decade and she said some years have been tougher than others.
“We went out for Valentine’s Day and I looked at him and I said ‘why are you being such a prick?’,” she said.
“He just looked at me and his eyes welled up and he just started to cry and said ‘I can’t do this anymore’.
“He said ‘I have to put up a wall to go away and that wall is just getting too big anymore, I can’t do it anymore.
“That was the first time I’d seen him be so vulnerable and express that.
“I just thought he was really moody, but it was the issues that he was having in leaving us and then missing multiple Christmases and school assemblies and sports days … moments that you can’t get back.”
Her husband now works on a month-on, month-off roster, but that work is insecure.
“When he has to fly out to Broome and then he has to stay overnight in Broome and then it’s a two-hour helicopter ride to the middle of the ocean for the oil rigs,” she said.
“So you can’t do a turnaround. I think two weeks would be better.”