​Coping With A FIFO Lifestyle – How Do They Do It?

Research has identified a number of strategies FIFO workers and their families use to cope with the varied health and social issues associated with this lifestyle. However, to date the majority of existing research in this area has not been particularly consistent. It's patchy and descriptive rather than theory based, and doesn't provide much in the way of real conclusive evidence around whether or not the use of coping strategies is widespread, or whether they even work. Nevertheless, it does offer an insight into the current state of play on this topic (which seems to be that there is no broadly established industry level approach), and makes it possible to identify a couple of key trends.

Existing trends in FIFO coping strategies include:
  • Those used by FIFO workers at an individual level
  • Those provided by employers / companies
  • Those utilised by FIFO families

Individual FIFO Worker Coping Strategies

Most FIFO employees that have participated in the many studies and surveys to date indicate that by and large they've developed their own personal coping strategies. Henry et al's 2013 ​study found that such strategies encompass a range of behaviours such as avoidance, distraction, acceptance, adaptation, and compromise. The study also found that many of the survey participants stated they did have coping issues and that they often felt powerless about not being able to change their situation. This inevitably led to negative coping strategies that further compounded their problems.
Substance abuse is alive and well within the FIFI community!

There are well known and long established links between smoking / drugs / alcohol, and poor mental health and general well being. It's also well known and well established that FIFO employees are unfortunately amongst the worst offenders when it comes to using, and abusing, these substances as a coping strategy, and then suffering from the attendant health problems.

Furthermore, studies consistently show that far too many FIFO employees continue the habits at home on RDO's with corresponding effects on their partners, families and friends. Whilst there are support networks in place to help with substance addiction and with the problems that lead to this behaviour in the first place, many interviewed FIFO employees and their partners admit they either don't use them, aren't aware the services exist, or don't know where to find them.

It's not all doom and gloom for FIFO employees though because many of them do deal very well with the lifestyle, and it's generally due to what is referred to as their 'coping style'.

Choosing a coping style

What the research has consistently found is that when it comes to individual coping strategies, style definitely matters! In other words, it's clear that how a FIFO worker chooses to cope (their coping style) with the pressures of their job plays a big role in their overall mental health and that of their partner and family.

People who actively deal with the situation at hand, are more likely to experience that they are in charge of the situation and are able to change something about it, whereas those that avoid or ignore stressful events experience a lack of possibilities to confront the stressor ( Latack, 1986; Dijkstra et al., 2009).
[https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5030286]

Individual coping styles within FIFO related research are typically categorised as either:
  • Engaged – emotionally attached to the job, actively seeks to confront problems and deal with them as they happen, enjoys good personal relationships with co-workers, seeks help and support when and as needed, OR
  • Disengaged – unemotional, disassociated from the job, ignores problems and doesn't like to confront issues thus allowing negative situations to snowball or fester ie employs avoidance coping mechanisms, often has poor personal relationships with co-workers, doesn't get help and support when needed etc.

Research indicates that FIFO workers who adopt the first strategy are more likely to cope well with the stresses of the lifestyle, and overall tend to enjoy good mental health and general wellbeing. Conversely, those with a disengaged coping style often don't handle the lifestyle well, and tend to experience associated negative mental health and wellbeing issues.

Mindset also matters!

According to interviewed FIFO employees, having the right mindset ie a positive one, definitely helps. A positive mindset allows them to manage the stresses of working FIFO a lot better than those who have a negative mindset. Some of the coping strategies they use to help them achieve this mindset include:
  • Remaining focussed and engaged in the present using psychological tools and skills like mindfulness
  • Focussing on a familiar routine
  • Setting achievable goals and tasks. FIFO employees say it also helps to have achievable goals in place prior to starting a FIFO job. These provide incentive, which in turn gives satisfaction once attained.
  • Developing good time management skills and implementing effective time management strategies
  • Not thinking about what they're missing at home
  • Keeping in touch with family and friends on a regular basis.
  • Using  cognitive reframing techniques to help with negative thoughts
  • Reminding themselves regularly of their reasons for working FIFO. Knowing why they are doing it (to pay off the mortgage, have a better lifestyle, have more money for retirement etc) helps keep the motivation going during the tough times.
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Having an exit strategy – this is important to help them avoid feeling 'trapped', with all the mental health issues that come with that mindset.

Other handy attributes on the list include an ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks (resilience), and good problem solving skills. Employees further note that if their partners and work colleagues likewise have these attributes, it significantly contributes to their own improved mental health and wellbeing.

Try to evade the 'golden handcuffs' with good financial literacy

Being able to keep debts at manageable levels, and ensuring they have savings set aside for any unexpected contingencies, contributes significantly to improved mental health and well being amongst FIFO employees. It dispels that feeling of being trapped in a cycle of never-ending financial commitments and having to work seemingly forever to get them under control. Indeed, financial problems are widely accepted as being a major contributor to stress, anxiety and depression, all of which can lead to spiralling mental health issues.

Coping as a female FIFO employee

FIFO is undeniably a male dominated environment, so the relatively few women who do work in it have had to come up with some pretty unique coping strategies. A 2012 study by Bailey-Kruger for instance found that female FIFO workers typically employ several psychological coping strategies not commonly seen in their male counterparts. Notably they tend to take on an identity that lets them fit into their male dominated work place better. They also make a point of taking time out for themselves so they can recharge, and think / talk about things other than work. They recognise how important it is to maintain good, constructive workplace relationships and get along well with their co-workers and managers.

All work, no privacy, and supervised play doesn't help FIFO workers cope

The research further shows that FIFO employees who have the freedom to spend their on-site time off as they wish consistently report better general well-being and mental health outcomes across a range of metrics. Being able to get some privacy is also noted as being important for positive mental health. Likewise, autonomy at home combined with effective recovery techniques contribute significantly to how well employees cope with the FIFO lifestyle.

Coping as a FIFO family

One common technique employed by a lot of FIFO employees is ensuring ahead of time that their family and friends are on the same page regarding their time at home. Discussing this time with partners, family and friends, and preplanning how best to spend it, helps ensure they get the R and R they need whilst also meeting those inevitable family and social commitments. It also reduces the issues that can arise when partners, family and friends have different expectations of what is going to happen when FIFO employees come home on break.

When at home, getting involved in the daily family routine, attending scheduled family and various other social functions, taking over some of the household chores and so on can all help build a sense of normality for FIFO employees during their RDO time. This is also where staying involved in family life whilst on site through technologies like Face Time and various other platforms is important. It means they aren't just 'dropping' into their family's life for a few weeks at a time and potentially disrupting established routines.

Employer provided services

Significantly, most FIFO employees say their network of family and friends is their primary help line and major support structure. Therefore, it's important that these people, and families and partners in particular, have a realistic appreciation of what life is like for a FIFO employee. To help facilitate this, many companies now offer induction programs for families to promote better awareness of the impact and challenges having a FIFO employee in the family may bring. This equips them to not only better understand the types of issues that come with the lifestyle, but also provide the necessary support for their FIFO family member.

There are many other official services designed to help FIFO employees cope with the lifestyle. Most companies today take their responsibilities in this regard very seriously and offer a range of counselling and medical services, help lines, social workers, and on boarding. There are also government run services available for employees who may not feel comfortable using their employer ones. However, research consistently suggests that many FIFO employees either aren't fully aware of all these services (private and government), don't know how to get in touch with them, or are reluctant to use them.
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