Last week, the WA Parliament’s Education and Health Standing Committee released its report following its inquiry into the mental health impacts of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work arrangements. It is a thorough and detailed report with 42 findings and 30 recommendations following over 130 formal submissions. The inquiry was initiated in response to the high level of public concern following media reports that nine FIFO workers had suicided in a 12-month period.
The key takeaway from the report is that current FIFO arrangements need to change and solutions need to be implemented to mitigate risks. A number of current FIFO practices are unsustainable due to the hazards they pose to worker mental health. Recommended action includes proposing a code of practice for lower compression rosters – i.e rosters of two weeks on, one week off rather than four weeks on, on week off; improved anti-bullying procedures; mental health training including suicide prevention for managers and supervisors in the resources industry; and implementing a peer-based support program at all FIFO sites.
The following are some of the critical findings of the report.
Data clarity was a key challenge for the inquiry. The jurisdiction of the various agencies and organisations is confusing which contributed to the difficulty in obtaining reliable information on FIFO working populations and incident numbers. Recent independent research helped the inquiry discover that FIFO populations have a higher mental health incident rate than that of the general population. The Committee provided multiple recommendations regarding the need for better systems of data collection. Because FIFO workforce data is so segmented, the Committee was unable to confirm the media reports of FIFO worker suicide that had prompted the inquiry.
Accurate data collection allows for more informed decision making. This means that organisations can act decisively and responsively according to the location, severity and likelihood of mental health and wellbeing risks. This is an important capability of organisations in managing and improving the mental health of their organisations.
The inquiry reviewed mental health initiatives being implemented across WA mines, examining their impact on the mental health of FIFO workers. Workplace culture that facilitates a lack of openness about mental health is often a significant barrier to their success. The report concludes that “Management should actively support mental health initiatives, as well as educating staff on mental health and discrimination, with a focus on how to support and communicate appropriately with their co‐workers” in order to change the culture. FIFO workers often have a reluctance to seek help due to the associated stigma. Mental health initiatives need to accommodate for this with multiple pathways to assistance, some of which may not be termed mental health services.
The inquiry identified active support as one of the more successful techniques in engaging FIFO populations in mental health programs. Due to FIFO workers being reluctant to seek help in times of need, a desired outcome of mental health initiatives is the normalisation of help seeking behaviour into FIFO culture. Active support can involve proactive approaches to individuals involved in incidents and regular “How are you going?” check-ins by managers and supervisors. By providing active support, whether it is by peers, supervisors or mental health professionals, people who would otherwise have not sought help can receive it.
Recommendation number 23 from the report states that “A peer-based support program such as Mates in Construction should be implemented at all FIFO sites”. Well-designed peer support programs (PSPs) offer significant opportunities to address and lift mental health in organisations and help develop supportive cultures. PSPs help build a cultural acceptance of support-seeking behaviours by maintaining a constant, visible presence within a population and active contact by peers with employees.
Once PSPs normalise support-seeking behaviour it becomes much more acceptable for employees to reach out when they are having a tough time. By providing a line of support workers can use before their issues become critical, peer support programs help mitigate ‘psychological risk’. The appeal of PSPs for many is the comfort in sharing with peers as opposed to health professionals because of peers’ familiarity with the work context.
The report also identified a need for legislative change given the current system is confusing and complicated, and has a risk of lacking clarity regarding which jurisdiction applies at which site. The changes recommended by the Committee include redefining ‘health’ to include ‘mental health’ and ‘hazard’ to include ‘psychological hazard’.
The Committee has also called for a Code of Practice on FIFO work arrangements given the challenging nature and hazards of FIFO work. The code addresses issues such as rosters, fatigue, mental health literacy, workplace culture and accommodation facilities.
What this inquiry is recommending involves transforming the entire FIFO system and culture to one that understands, values and improves workers’ mental health. It is no longer acceptable to structure systems around those who are identified as ‘tough enough’ to withstand the challenges of FIFO work. The industry’s emphasis should be on tailoring FIFO arrangements to support positive mental health outcomes for all workers.
It is important to remember that the most productive workers are those that are mentally healthy. To undermine one is to undermine the other. Ensuring employee mental health is not just an act of compliance. It is vital to the enhancement of organisational performance.