The Distant Worker
Health and Wellness in the Resource Sector
Since the start of COVID-19, countless articles written for the suddenly huge cohort of ‘remote workers’ have told us how to boost productivity, avoid distractions like the fridge or fifth cup of coffee, find a better desk and chair to slouch in, and overcome Zoom fatigue.
But for many in resource sector industries like mining and oil and gas exploration and extraction, ‘remote work’ has taken on an entirely different meaning. Some men and women go to jobs and drive home every day; others spend weeks at a time away from home and family, flying in and flying out, better known as FIFO.
Similar to DIDO (Drive-In-Drive-Out), the practice is common in countries where mining is important, such as Canada and Australia. A rotational system, FIFO involves resource sector workers spending days or weeks on-site in remote locations, returning home for a rest period, and repeating the cycle over and over.
Resources like minerals, lumber, and oil and gas are usually located in rugged country hundreds of miles from urban areas, making FIFO a necessity. For resource sector companies, it’s often cheaper to pay for transportation and have employees stay on-site in work camps.
Being in the resource sector has advantages and disadvantages, and many are amplified by FIFO and DIDO. The cycles of working on a mine for days and then returning home are usually tiring and stressful, and FIFO often makes it all the more challenging.
For workers drilling the Arctic, or working the oil sands of Alberta, the far-off locations, long shifts, and feelings of isolation take a toll on physical and mental health. Far away from the familiar rewards of home, long stretches can be gruelling for workers and their spouses and children, causing families to come apart and collapse.
Dealing with distance
The effects of remote work have been well-documented in scholarly research and by various organizations. In Australia, former registered nurse and mother Alicia Ranford and journalist Lainie Anderson co-founded the nation’s first online mining community, Mining Family Matters, (https://miningfm.com/) a dozen years ago.
With the aim of providing free professional advice and support, Mining Family Matters has a team that includes registered psychologists, an exploration geologist and writer, and a veteran journalist and newspaper columnist.
Describing itself as helping “families to survive and thrive despite the pressures of working away,” the success of Mining Family Matters has skyrocketed since 2010 to include not only its website but a blog and guides, including Working Away: A Survival Guide for Families, The Survival Guide for Mining Families, and the Canadian Working Away Guide.
The informative 32-page Canadian Guide, based on the organization’s work in Australia, is available in English and French, and “aims to boost the emotional resilience of new and existing workers by offering simple strategies to keep relationships healthy and families happy,” as Mining Family Matters succinctly describes it.
Addressing topics such as what to expect when your partner is away, helping kids cope, tackling loneliness, and identifying stress and depression, Mining Family Matters’ award-winning guides have sold 180,000 copies. The website, blog, and helpful guides not only empower families in the resource sector but also let them know they are not alone in their struggle.
Risks of remote work
Depending on factors such as age, temperament, and marital status, working remotely has its benefits, especially with regard to earnings. And for a single person in their twenties, remote work experiences can be very different from those of someone with partner, children, and numerous responsibilities back home.
Some workers thrive, banking a proportion of their earnings that’s rarely achievable in urban situations, and setting up their future, while at the other extreme, some experience the loneliness and depression that can lead to drug and alcohol abuse and troublesome behaviour.
Fortunately, awareness of issues surrounding Fly-In-Fly-Out and the challenges that come from working in the resource sector is on the rise. Several years ago, the Journal of Child and Family Studies published a study from the University of Queensland investigating the impact of FIFO on families in Australia.
One of the key issues raised was that FIFO partners were likely to discipline their children more harshly.
“FIFO partners reported higher levels of personal emotional problems and greater usage of harsh discipline practices than community mothers, while FIFO workers reported greater work to family conflict and alcohol use than community fathers,” noted the When a Non-resident Worker is a Non-resident Parent: Investigating the Family Impact of Fly-In, Fly-Out Work Practices in Australia report. “Regression analyses on the FIFO partners sample indicated that child and family functioning were best predicted by family factors, including harsh parenting and parental emotional adjustment.”
Just over a decade ago, regional Australia’s FIFO and DIDO workforce was the subject of a Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia investigation. This resulted in a 2013 report highlighting the “limitations of existing research on FIFO/DIDO work practices,” anecdotal evidence, and the impact of FIFO/DIDO on families and communities.
Other studies, such as Fly-in fly-out workforce practices in Australia: The effects on children and family relationships, address the impact of FIFO.
Produced by the government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies, the report discusses both the positive and negative effects of FIFO on children. Where there are healthy familial relationships there may be little impact. In other cases, the kids may not be so fortunate, with the absence of a parent for long periods contributing to increased school bullying and academic problems, and subsequent pressure.
FIFO in Canada
Far from being an Australia-only issue, FIFO is growing in Canada, especially with resource exploration and extraction rising in the rugged north and western provinces. Late last year a new report examined the physical and emotional impact of FIFO on Alberta’s oilsands workers.
Entitled Mobile Work and Mental Health: A Preliminary Study of Fly-in Fly-out Workers in the Alberta Oil Sands, the 162-page report is one of the most comprehensive ever produced on FIFO. Addressing key areas such as health, mental health, stress, work-life imbalance, health at work and home, and availability and use of health services, the report signals that more can be done to help remote workers deal with stress.
In the interviews with 72 oilsands workers in late 2019 and early 2020, including follow-ups, the bulk of interviewees were men and women who flew in from other locations to work in Alberta, lived in camps, and worked shifts of 10 or 12 hours.
According to the report, a staggering 87 percent reported varying degrees of stress from being away from their families. “The difficulty of establishing and maintaining relationships with family, feelings of loneliness, and the inability to be at home for family events or emergencies are significant stressors among FIFO workers,” said the report.
On top of the stress of being away from home and family, 77 percent of respondents said living in camps was also stressful, citing poor morale, poor sleep, limited or unhealthy food, and difficulty sustaining a healthy exercise routine as factors. Some said that they were not only isolated but experienced “a feeling of entrapment.” When asked to confirm that they were free to do what they wanted in camp, 58 percent disagreed.
One of the most telling details in the report was that work-related stress in the oilsands was much worse than that found among the general public, with worries over finances being a key issue.
With the report clearly conveying workers’ feelings that FIFO contributes to loneliness, feeling trapped, substance abuse/addiction, job uncertainty, and other factors contributing to poor mental health and well-being, it’s not surprising that many workers were in favour of “family counselling and referral, activities promoting workplace mental health, massage, stress management information, and nutritional audits.”
While acknowledging further research is needed on the impacts of FIFO on the mental health of workers and their families, policy implications, best practices, organizational culture, and other areas, the effects of FIFO – both the good and the bad – are no longer being ignored or dismissed, but are now out in the open.