FIFO families worried about the mental health of remote workers

Miner with carabiner
3 Sep 20
by Andy

FIFO families worried about the mental health of remote workers

Erin Chenevier has not seen her partner, who is working as a mechanical fitter in the Pilbara in Western Australia, since February.

In March, WA Premier Mark McGowan announced the state would close its border due to COVID-19.

On the back of the announcement, WA’s mining companies have moved to residential workforces, with many families given just 24 hours to decide whether they would move their whole lives from the eastern states to WA.

Ms Chenevier decided to stay in Victoria with her children — not knowing how long the restrictions would last.

“I understood things were going to get tougher, and I understood things were probably going to get pretty uncomfortable,” she said.

“But I did not foresee that it was going to get this uncomfortable and for this long and with no sort of end date given.

Ms Chenevier’s partner’s swing shift had changed from two weeks on, one week off, to four weeks on, one week off.

Now his weeks off are spent in Perth, 3,500 kilometres away from home.

Mental health strain of separation

Ms Chenevier said in the past six months she had seen fluctuations in her partner’s mood.

“He’s gone through periods of withdrawing, he’s gone through periods of anger and frustration, and a lot of the guys do,” she said.

“They find it easier to sort of shut their families out, so to speak, and just keep on with the job, than to think about something as painful as it is.”

Ms Chenevier said there was limited mental health support at mine sites, as well as time for workers to access help.

“We’re still working with a culture of you know, ‘she’ll be right, mate. Don’t worry about it’,” she said.

Ms Chenevier said she had worked in the FIFO sector herself and she understood the nature of the job.

“A lot of these people are running into really bad habits at the moment, a lot of them are drinking to the excess,” she said.

Ms Chenevier said the workers needed time frames to work towards, like other industries.

‘Trying to save people’s lives’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for COVID-19 restrictions around the country to be eased in time for Christmas.

WA Premier Mark McGowan said the state’s borders would not come down until he received health advice which pointed towards that.

“I know it’s tough, I know it’s difficult,” Mr McGowan said.

It was Mr McGowan who encouraged fly-in, fly-out families to move to Western Australia.

“Western Australia’s a great place, it provides great opportunities, more opportunities from the east,” he said.

“That’s a way to solve this problem.”

Mines aware of struggles

Joe Hooper has noticed an increase in workers seeking help.

The chief executive at Rural and Remote Mental Health, a mental health and suicide prevention provider, said he was worried about FIFO workers who were isolated and away from their loved ones.

“It’s been a fine balance and, yes, there is a potential for increase in stress, but at the same time the industry is trying to address that where it can,” he said.

Mr Hooper said it was vitally important for workers to make social connections with family and friends via social face-to-face messaging apps.

“There’s a significant amount of stressors on people living their so-called normal lives in metropolitan towns,” he said.

He said people should reach out for help and be on the look out for signs such as sleep disturbance, loss of appetite, and a lack of concentration.

‘Challenging circumstances’

Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA policy and advocacy director Rob Carruthers said the resource sector was doing everything it could to look after workers’ physical and psychological health.

He said COVID-19 had brought some challenging circumstances.

“That’s why the supports are there from employers to make sure that employees are feeling supported and connected with their workplace and with their family at home,” Mr Carruthers said.

“There will absolutely be a need to put some pathways in place so that people who have been away for many months … have that opportunity and are able to return home and have some downtime with their families.”

Ms Chenevier said the mining sector was holding up the economy, but there was a lack of understanding what it was costing the workers.

“If it keeps going the way that it’s going, it’s going to cost people in ways that they shouldn’t have to pay.”

Laura Birch

 

This article was originally published on abc.net.au.