Jennifer Wright, Clinical Psychologist

The ups and downs of fly in, fly-out (FiFo)
(Also known as drive-in, drive-out (DiDo) and bus-in, bus-out (BiBo)

What are the stressors and health implications for travelling shift workers?

In Western Australia, we hear a lot about the Fly-in Fly-out (FIFO) lifestyle, where people are required to travel to their jobs and live for extended periods of time on site during rostered work time. FIFO contracts require employees to live and work away from their family and friends, and return to a location of choice when off duty.

A typical FIFO roster in mining is two weeks on, one week off, but more remote mining sites organise longer-term rosters such as month on, month off. The biggest benefit for the FIFO worker seems to be the pay - dollars are used as carrots to help workers feel more accepting and positive about their challenging lifestyles.

FIFO accommodation standards can vary from small portable homes with a private en suite through to quite luxurious accommodation. FIFO workers generally have fully-equipped rooms with comfortable beds, televisions, phones and Internet connections, and some FIFO workers have access to gymnasiums and swimming pools, amongst other recreational facilities.

But FIFO workers are expected to work long hours - 12 and 18-hour shifts are expected, and days off are relatively rare. The time carrots offered by way of compensation are the long breaks between shifts, which offer FiFo workers the opportunity to travel, pursue hobbies and spend time with friends and family.

What is the effect of these arduous shifts for workers, who are expected to live and work in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time, away from their familiar home lives? Recent research tells us that the impact is considerable, and FIFO lifestyles are not necessarily good for the mind or the body.

Some FiFoers can accept the flexible lifestyle, but many find that it wears them out and FIFO fatigue can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion. Workers become distressed by regular absences from home and the need to constantly rejoin and leave family and friendship groups, often not feeling appreciated or understood.

The body clock can have trouble adapting to changes from home to work roster time, leading to sleeping problems and other psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.

Relationships can become strained from being away from the usual lifestyle options for too long, and FiFo rosters make it hard to plan social events at home.

These difficulties can lead to higher levels of anxiety, depression, accident rates, suicidal thoughts, relationship difficulties and addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling and physical health issues for traveling workers.

A WA Health Department study which was co-authored by WA’s public health chief Tarun Weeramanthri and has been published recently in the Internal Medicine Journal, compared fly-in, fly-out workers with other shift workers and people with normal working hours. The study found that fly-in, fly-out workers have significantly higher levels of smoking, risky drinking and obesity compared with other workers. They are also less likely to report mental health problems but more likely to report injuries. Psychologists would say that FIFO workers tend to somatise their problems, which means that emotional stress emerges in a physical way.

The study found that sleeping problems were prevalent amongst fly-in, fly-out workers along with poor mental health and the increase of health issues such as peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

In addition, FIFO workers need to contend with the responses of their families at home. Reports indicate that family members feel they are left to fend for themselves, and that better support services for them would improve company employee retention and productivity, and reduce relationship breakdowns and workplace accidents.

However, do not despair. You can survive FIFO work and its impact, and if you are a family member, there are ways to cope with your loved one being away so much. If you feel you would like some support with the stress of living a FIFO lifestyle, please contacts us at Chelsea Psychology, on 0893866020. We would be happy to talk about how we can help you.