The mental health impacts of having a FIFO work partner

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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.

  • Burnout – how mentally exhausted someone is courtesy of work related strains and stresses
  • Psychological distress – extent to which someone feels anxious and/or depressed
  • Suicidal intent – how much they think about committing suicide*
  • Perceived burdensomeness – how much someone feels they are a burden on family, friends and even work colleagues*
  • Thwarted belonging – how much someone feels their ‘need to belong’ is being satisfied, or not*

* – 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:

  • The majority are female.
  • When it comes to mental health, they appear to have considerably more issues than their non-FIFO associated peers in society.  Indeed, on some of the above mental health metrics they score similarly to FIFO workers. For example:
    • Many FIFO partners have equally as high scores for perceived burdensomeness.
    • Around one third of the survey respondents (32.7%) experience psychological distress levels (high to very high) far above the norm for their societal female peer groups (13.6%). Conversely, nearly twice as many females in the ‘norm’ group (65%) report LOW levels of psychological distress compared to female FIFO partners (38.1%).
    • Similarly, around a third of those FIFO partners who took part in the surveys also have high burnout scores.
    • However, their suicidal intent and thwarted belonging scores are typically lower than those of FIFO workers.
  • Certain groups of FIFO partners seem to be more prone to experiencing some types of mental health issues than other groups.
    • A sizeable proportion of younger FIFO partners – 25 – 34 years (41.3%) and 35 – 44 years (32%) for example reported experiencing significant (high to very high) levels of psychological distress. The female population norms for these levels of psychological distress for these age groups are 11.7% and 13.7% respectively.
    • The majority of older partners (45 – 54 years) typically reported feeling low to moderate levels of psychological distress with less than a fifth (18.3%) experiencing high to very high levels. This is consistent with the female population norm of 15.4% for this age group.

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:

  • how personal relationships with their partner, family and friends pan out, and
  • the emotional, social, and psychological well being of their partner

“…. 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:

  • Job security and future work concerns for workers in the construction phases of a project, which affects their partners
  • The fact that FIFO workers employed by contractors are more likely to get the raw end of the deal when it comes to rosters, accommodation, access to camp facilities and recovery options, and general employment conditions. This affects their mental health and wellbeing with likely flow on effects on their partner.  We discussed this in a previous article.

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:

  • Proactive line management attitudes to O H and S has positive links with the psychological wellbeing of FIFO partners;
  • The more on-site help and recovery options (mess facilities, social activities etc) there are for employees, the better their partners emotional wellbeing is;
  • Conversely, having more recovery options available on-site adversely affects social wellbeing scores for partners, perhaps because more time spent ‘socialising’ on site means less time communicating with their partners and families;
  • It’s often assumed (rightly or wrongly) that mental health and wellbeing are given higher priority than other aspects of a FIFO worker’s life, such as their physical health and wellbeing. This seemingly can cause some psychological wellbeing issues for partners, possibly because they feel the other aspects are not receiving the attention they should, thus negatively impacting their own wellbeing.

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:

  • 32.6% had used analgesics and pain killers compared to 3.6% of the norm group, and
  • 13.8% had used sleeping pills and tranquillisers compared to 1.6% of the norm group.

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:

  • is not contacted by work whilst at home on R and R (ie enjoys more autonomy during their off time at home)
  • has a range of recovery options available to them on site
  • is positively and emotionally attached to their job and the FIFO lifestyle generally
  • enjoys positive personal relationships with co-workers
  • has a leadership team that is seen to be committed to mental health and safety

Standout negative associations with FIFO partner mental health and wellbeing include:

  • conflicts between work and family,
  • the FIFO worker being employed by a contractor or working in the construction phase of a project.

(This article first appeared in Mining International Inc.)