A look at the health of Australia's FIFO workforce
How can you make 14 x 12-hour consecutive shifts in a hot, dirty and isolated work environment attractive? How about a six-figure salary, meals, accommodation and every third week off with a plane ticket home? It’s a start, but what effects will such a demanding schedule have on a worker’s health and personal relationships?
FIFO work schedules
Fly-in and fly-out (FIFO) work schedules became popular in the 1990s as a way of attracting skilled workers to the industry, with over 40 mining operations Australia wide (majority in Western Australia and Queensland) adopting the idea. Fast-forward to 2019 and the odds are you know at least one person living this lifestyle.
It's certainly a cost effective option for mining organisations in comparison to establishing and maintaining remote residential communities for their employees. FIFO employment is often promoted as a way of improving the quality of life of employees by allowing the freedom to live in urban communities rich in culture and resources for their families.
However, there is much controversy over who wins and loses with FIFO arrangements. Regional governments air concerns on the impact to regional communities. For example: workers utilise local infrastructure whilst on site, but contribute little to the local community life. Is the opportunity of maintaining work in the mines with an ability to live in urban areas is contributing to rural population decline?
There is also the popular notion of getting ‘sucked in’ to a FIFO lifestyle. Individuals entering these projects with a short-term plan of working hard, making good money and then moving on become accustomed to living within inflated salary ranges and can find it difficult to get out. They end up instead choosing to tolerate isolated working conditions in order to meet their financial obligations, an idea referred to as the ‘golden hand-cuffs’ in a report in The Australian newspaper.
Therefore, we should consider - what are the costs of being trapped in a work environment you do not wish to remain? How does that dissatisfaction translate to mental wellbeing? What are the impacts on relationships and physical health of demanding work, separation from family and social networks, increasing fatigue and emotional drain?
The health status of workers
The health and wellbeing of workers has challenged the Australian mining industry for almost 70 years, yet it has never found itself in such an exciting position; poised at the brink of becoming a true leader in promoting a healthy workplace.
Historically, health and lifestyle consequences range from physical to emotional and social. Strains on interpersonal relationships may be the most obvious downside of FIFO work. Although such work environments may bring employees closer, these relationships cannot replace the interactions with friends and family outside of the workplace.
Below is just a small a snapshot of some of the health issues facing a FIFO workforce:
Two-thirds of FIFO workers report moderate or high levels of dissatisfaction with the time available for social and domestic activities.
23% strongly agree that their work had a negative effect on their families.
Sleep quality for FIFO workers is significantly worse than their non-FIFO counterparts.
26% of FIFO workers could not recall any available mental health support services onsite.
A small WA study found that FIFO workers had higher rates of obesity than the national average and that more than 80% of them were at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
A study that looked at the health of workers and their partners found that both workers and partners reported poorer sleep and nutrition quality for on-shift periods compared with off-shift days. Both workers and partners exercised less, smoked more cigarettes and took more physical health medication.
Numerous studies show sleep disturbances, substance abuse (including alcohol) and chronic fatigue affect as many as two-thirds of our FIFO workers.
Employees working night shifts or shifts longer than 12-hours report higher rates of fatigue, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychological distress. This translates to HUGE impacts on the quality of their work performance, and how safely they can do their job.
To the mining industry’s credit, since 2005 there has been an encouraging shift to manage employee fatigue by shortening longer shift cycles. In 2006, the Council for Minerals and Energy in Western Australia reported a rise in the proportion of companies moving to 8 hour shifts, and no companies using shifts longer than 13 hours. These organisations can expect significant returns via improved employee productivity and work satisfaction.
Could these gains in productivity and work balance be further enhanced by promoting better physical health and lifestyle behaviours?
In short - absolutely!
Improving the health, focus and vitality of a mining workforce has a huge potential to impact the sustainability of one of Australia’s biggest economical export sectors. It has been demonstrated that men involved in FIFO work are clearly able to identify aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including consumption of a healthy diet, regular physical activity, relaxation and good-quality sleep. However, few maintain such practices in their own lives, citing perceived lack of time, fatigue and stress as barriers.
There is emerging evidence that elite workplace health promotion companies are capable of driving widespread improvements of lifestyle behaviours across many industries. Due to advances in communication technology and streamlining of contact modalities, it is now possible to actively engage a working population, empowering and nurturing them through the process of modifying their health and lifestyle.
Evidence shows us that single, stand-alone awareness programs, training or health assessments do not provide long-term or sustainable improvements to health or safety behaviours.
Comprehensive programs that foster an environment which facilitates sustained positive change and continually reinforces healthy choices have been shown to be most effective.
FIFO operations provide a unique opportunity to address a workforce historically challenged at maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing.
These settings inherently create a captive audience allowing unprecedented access while at work and at camp. As new projects break ground, organisations should consider taking this opportunity to help develop a healthier, more productive, more satisfied and ultimately more sustainable workforce in order to optimise their human assets.
Isn’t it time we broadened our scope and definition of health and safety?
Let health and safety not merely mean absence of accident and disease, but rather optimal vitality and wellbeing. Through education, encouragement and follow-up we can empower workers with the knowledge and the means to improve their lifestyle behaviours, making them healthier, happier, safer and more productive - at home and at work.
Health by Design are leaders in designing and implementing effective workplace health, injury prevention, and high performance programs. With a focus on working with clients to create engaging programs which successfully help employees change their behaviour, we are well placed to provide programs which will positively impact a business’ workforce costs and performance outcomes. Contact us to learn about how Health by Design’s award winning programs may be able to help you and your team.