Digital Issue 4

New research project to explore individual mental health wellbeing in the FIFO sector

  • By Nanette Allen

Nanette Allen is currently a mature age student, undertaking the honours program at the University of Adelaide as part of her BSc in Psychology.

Previously, Nanette worked in the resources sector, coming up through the ranks from geologist to become managing director of a number of ASX listed exploration and mining companies.  In choosing a topic for her honours thesis she decided to combine two of her interests, the resources sector and the wellbeing of people. 

Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work is an appealing option for tens of thousands of Australian workers who appreciate the high pay packets and blocks of time off associated with working and commuting to remote locations. While these benefits can make FIFO work attractive, spending long periods away from home, working long hours and shift work can sometimes take its toll.

While research in this area has shown that there are some neutral and positive effects for workers in the FIFO community, the central takeaway from an extensive report for the WA mental health commission (Sept 2018), was that there are greater mental health risks for people working in the FIFO sector.

Dr Ali Burston, an organisational psychologist in the mining and construction industry, made the point that emphasis is often placed on negative mental health and wellbeing, but that to create an environment that is thriving not just surviving, there needs to be greater understanding of factors that can promote positive practices (Burston, 2019).

The 2018 WA report found many FIFO workers already use a wide range of strategies to manage their mental health, including maintaining regular communication with family and friends while on site, and seeking mental health support when needed. The majority of research has looked at the demographic and environmental factors that influence wellbeing (job role, gender, education, rosters and communication and camp facilities). While this research has informed strategies to improve work conditions and the culture of organisations, it has not addressed the type of mental health support that workers and their families may need at an individual level.

There is limited research on individual characteristics and interpersonal factors that may play a role in supporting the wellbeing of workers and their partners in the FIFO sector. Several studies have investigated workers’ capacity to manage negative experiences through resilience and coping strategies, but there have been no studies that look at their capacity to manage and promote their positive experiences (savouring).

An emerging field of research has identified that savouring can enhance and promote life satisfaction, positive affect and relational wellbeing for isolated groups such as older adults and people isolated through illness. Investigating whether these positive effects of savouring could moderate aspects of FIFO life, such as loneliness or poor relational or subjective wellbeing, would contribute to our understanding of individual mental health factors in FIFO workers and their partners. This may inform or potentially give a broader understanding of factors for mental health providers in this area and lead to a more holistic approach (addressing environmental, individual and interpersonal factors) to mental health care in the resources sector.

In light of the above, my honours research project is concerned with the experiences of people who are in a relationship, where one of the partners is a FIFO worker. The project aims to explore the relationship between the type of bonds we have with our partner, feelings of social and emotional loneliness and relationship satisfaction.

The study will also investigate whether a person’s capacity to appreciate the positive aspects of life (known as savouring), interacts with these concepts and the relational and wellbeing outcomes. It focuses on two aspects of wellbeing, namely satisfaction with life and the balance between positive and negative emotions.

The study will involve running an anonymous online survey and I aim to recruit between 100 to 200 participants who are either FIFO workers or the partners of FIFO workers. 

If you are a FIFO worker, or the partner of a FIFO worker, and would like to participate in this 20-30 min survey please click here.

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