Long work hours in a harsh, remote climate are pushing people and relationships to breaking point, according to a Darwin-based couples counsellor and sex therapist.
While fly-in fly-out workers on projects around the country face similar pressures, Nina Booysen said she believed the problem was particularly bad in the Top End, where large numbers of men work on contract.
“FIFO workers, Inpex project workers and high levels of Defence [employment],” she said.
“More and more men are exposed to difficult conditions over long periods of time.”
Unions raised concerns about the mental health of FIFO workers on Darwin’s Inpex Ichthys gas project last year, saying that seven employees had taken their lives over three years.
Ms Booysen said the strain on individuals spilled over to affect couples and families and that the problem was still going widely unacknowledged.
“Everybody just has this ongoing attitude of, ‘just push through, just push through, this is not forever’.
“But by the time you push through, there’s so much damage done you can’t come back to it.”
Emotional strain and unhappy sex lives
Ms Booysen said couples were coming to see her struggling with emotional issues around anger, resentment and aggression.
“The men kind of tend to think, ‘well I’m earning the money, we’re paying the bills, I’m working my butt off, leave me alone’,” she said.
“Then the partners tend to say, ‘I get that it’s hard work, but…’.”
She said these pressures were affecting intimacy within relationships.
“They seem to have disconnected sexually and there’s a massive drop in male sexual desire [for their partners] here in the Northern Territory.
“A lot of the workers are engaging with sex workers and excessive pornography … because it doesn’t have an emotional connection, it’s just easier to get that relief or to engage in that.
“Then over time they actually lose the ability to engage with their partner.”
Help available but often unsuitable
Despite more mainstream coverage of the health and mental health issues affecting FIFO workers, Ms Booysen said many people failed to recognise that something within them had changed.
“The biggest step as far as being resilient and being able to cope with mental health issues is to acknowledge that it’s going on,” she said.
“Have some self-awareness and acknowledge that something is different.”
And she said many who admitted they could use some help were hesitant to take advantage of support that was being made available by more employers.
“They don’t want internal staff, they don’t trust confidentiality,” she said.
“They always think, first thing, ‘I’m going to lose my job’.
“We need to look at the barriers that [prevent] people to actually interact with these services.”
This piece was first seen on ‘ABC News’, 26 November, 2016.