People take up FIFO employment for a variety of reasons. In many cases, it’s predominantly about the money. FIFO jobs pay well compared with the same urban-based jobs and with clever fiscal management, people can make a substantial dent in their household debt, notably mortgage and housing loan repayments.
However, working FIFO also comes with downsides that sometimes all the amount of money in the world can’t adequately compensate for. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, mental health and substance abuse problems abound within the FIFO workforce. Also, unfortunately, some FIFO workers and their families get caught up in a cycle of dependency on FIFO income levels that can be very hard, or almost impossible, to break free of.
Living the lavish lifestyle and developing excessive spending habits have a tendency to rack up financial commitments ie CC debt, forcing people onto a treadmill where they’re obliged to keep doing a job they don’t particularly enjoy just to keep creditors at bay.
Whilst these factors are well known to have a health impact on the workers themselves, what’s often overlooked or underestimated are the effects they may also have on their family and friends, particularly their partners.
FIFO partners can also experience significant mental health issues
Mental health (both within the FIFO workforce and for partners) can be gauged by a series of basic metrics and how much someone experiences or feels each one applies to them.
* – these metrics are also used to measure suicide risk.
The WA MHC figures, and what they reveal about FIFO partners ….
Surveys done over the past several decades have built up a general picture of FIFO partners:
What is also interesting about these statistics is that the percentages of FIFO partners experiencing low levels of psychological distress in each of these 3 age groups (27.5% / 36% / 56.3% respectively) are lower (considerably so for the 2 younger age groups) than the female population norms (63.1% / 64.7% / 64% respectively). Could this be a reflection of the greater financial security that comes with having a FIFO worker partner earning good money?
The other interesting trend is that where the tendency towards high to very high levels of psychological distress in FIFO partners appears to reduce (41.3% / 32% / 18.3% respectively) as they get older, the reverse happens in the wider female population (11.7% / 13.7% / 15.4% respectively).
The person – coping with a FIFO lifestyle, FIFO partners, and personal / family relationships
Research shows that ‘person factors’ – how a FIFO worker copes (their ‘coping style’) with the stresses of the FIFO lifestyle and the degree of ‘connection’ they feel with their job – appears to have some bearing on:
“…. affective relationships are defined as those interpersonal relationships that satisfy our needs for emotional interactions with significant others; they include the needs for emotional support, exchanging warm attention, and giving nurture.” The Affective Relationships Model
A disengaged, unemotional coping style, a detached relationship with work, and poor personal relationships with work colleagues is often associated with negative wellbeing and mental health issues in an employee.
Not surprisingly, research indicates that families and relationships in which the FIFO worker is like this are more likely to be dysfunctional, with the partner in particular experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety, and thwarted belonging. Likewise, FIFO worker problems with transitioning between work and time off is also linked to higher family dysfunction. These issues appear to be exacerbated when the FIFO worker is obliged by circumstances ie financial / lifestyle commitments, to remain in the job.
Conversely, FIFO workers with a positive, engaged, and affective coping style, who enjoy the FIFO lifestyle, have a good ’emotional attachment’ to their work along with positive personal relationships with colleagues typically experience better wellbeing and mental health. This has positive flow on effects on their families and partners, and for their relationships generally. Notably, their partners tend to experience less depression, anxiety, and burnout, don’t suffer as much from thwarted belonging, and are considerably healthier when it comes to psychological and emotional wellbeing, and overall mental health.
The job – what a FIFO worker does, who employs them, the quality of their line management, and employer policies around mental health and wellbeing, affects their partner
Some interesting insights into the relationships between the type and amount of work a FIFO worker does and the mental health and wellbeing of their partner came to light in the 2018 WA Mental Health Commission study.
For example, the partners of FIFO workers employed in the construction phases of a project or who work for sub contractors reported feeling less satisfied and happy (emotional wellbeing) than the partners of FIFO workers who work in the production phases of the operation or are employed directly by the mining company. Further, the partners’ social wellbeing is also often worse when their partner works in the construction phases. These issues may be linked to:
FIFO worker multi-tasking is out for healthy FIFO partners
When it comes to a FIFO job, diversity and multi-tasking may not be such a good thing, or at least not for FIFO partners. It seems that the more task diversity / responsibilities a FIFO worker takes on at work, the greater the likelihood that his or her partner has, or will have, issues with personal growth and self-acceptance (psychological wellbeing). It may be that these partners notice and/or feel their FIFO working partner is overloaded with responsibilities or trying to do too many different things, with corresponding negative impacts on their own wellbeing.
Surprisingly though, there seems to be a correlation between FIFO workers who do a lot of work ie have a big workload, and how much their partners consider themselves a ‘burden’ on society (perceived burdensomeness). As it turns out, the more work the FIFO worker does, the less likely their partner is to feel ‘burdensome’. This could be because the partner believes the FIFO worker is ‘contributing enough to society’ for both of them.
Quality and independent time off is key for FIFO worker and partner mental health
FIFO partners typically report being less depressed and anxious, and experience a greater sense of overall emotional and social wellbeing when their FIFO worker has autonomous time off at home. Translated, this means partners are much happier when the FIFO worker is not contacted by their work whilst they’re at home on R and R! Incidentally, partners are also happier when the worker gets similarly autonomous time off at work.
Management and company policies around mental health matter to FIFO partners
The way a company, and thus its management, approaches and deals with the health and safety of their employees plays a major role in their employees’ overall mental wellbeing across all metrics. It also seems to affect the mental wellbeing of FIFO partners – emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Notably:
Alcohol, smoking, drugs, and the FIFO partner
Like FIFO workers themselves, alcohol, smoking, and drug use amongst FIFO partners differs in many respects from their non-FIFO peers (the ‘norm’ group). Whilst they don’t consume alcohol on a daily basis as much as the norm group does (2.4% compared to 4.5% respectively), they do drink more frequently on a weekly basis (53.6% compared to 32.7%).
Further, only 4.6% of FIFO partners had either not drunk alcohol in the 12 months preceding the 2018 NMHC survey or didn’t drink at all compared to 22.2% of the norm group.
When it comes to quantity of alcohol consumed, 3 times as many FIFO partners (37.8%) indulge in lifetime risky drinking (2+ standard drinks a day) than the norm (10.3%). Likewise, more FIFO partners indulge in single occasion risky drinking (32.9%) than do the norm group (17.5%). When it comes to low risk drinking (2 or less drinks a day) 67% of the norm group are in this category compared to 50.9% of FIFO partners.
FIFO partners appear to smoke marginally less than the norm group but their pharmaceutical drug use is significantly higher:
In summary – a number of associations in the data have been observed between individual and work-related aspects of FIFO work, and the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO partners. However, these associations are often just that – associations suggested by the data.
Significantly, not all FIFO partner mental health and wellbeing issues (scores) can be fully or directly explained by the connected FIFO worker scores. Whilst some of the connections are obvious, many are tenuous or inconclusive at best. One can draw assumptions from the data but ultimately, the researchers involved in the 2018 WA Mental Health Commission Study concluded that the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO partners should be considered a separate issue to that of FIFO workers. And that FIFO work factors that do ‘spill over’ into the lives of partners should be identified and investigated separately.
So what can we conclude from this study, and others like it?
Notably, that FIFO partners statistically appear to enjoy better mental health and wellbeing when their FIFO worker:
Standout negative associations with FIFO partner mental health and wellbeing include:
(This article first appeared in Mining International Inc.)