Stigma adds to mental health challenges

stigmaFLY in, fly out workers have trouble seeking help for mental health issues because of ‘macho culture’, pre-conceived stigma, and time spent away from home, according to a WA parliamentary report. The WA Education and Health Standing Committee launched an inquiry into the mental health impacts of the FIFO lifestyle in late 2014, after nine workers took their own lives within 12 months.

The inquiry’s interim report revealed evidence from 70 submissions and 12 hearings. Males aged between 25 and 44 were identified as the most at risk of mental health issues, which was also the most predominant demographic within the FIFO workforce.

“An equally essential component of the work culture was the fear expressed by many to the inquiry that those who admitted to mental health problems risked losing their job if they came forward,” the report stated. A number of submissions highlighted the role of stigma in preventing open discussion about mental health concerns, the inquiry found.

“This stigma is a significant workplace cultural issue and is a major barrier to encouraging help-seeking behaviour amongst the FIFO workforce,” the report stated. A respondent to an Australian Manufacturing Workers Union survey for inquiry submission said that “a lot of people are too afraid to take antidepressants short term due to drug testing”.

“The fear and stigma attached to disclosure of mental health to supervisors and colleagues could result in workers ignoring their mental health problems and failing to seek adequate treatment, or failing to continue with their treatment,” the report said. Motelling – when workers are assigned a different room each swing – was also identified as a contributor to feelings of isolation experienced by FIFO workers.

However, the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) stated that the report was yet to find any correlation between FIFO workers and a higher rate of mental illness.

“To date, the parliamentary inquiry has yet to find evidence or substantiate claims that the FIFO workforce had a higher prevalence of mental health issues,” CME chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said.

According to the CME, there have been “dramatic” improvements in FIFO rosters, accommodation quality and available facilities.

“Additionally, companies recognise employee wellbeing is important, with most companies providing support groups and employee assistance programs to help employees adjust to FIFO lifestyle.” The WA resources sector employs 102,300 people, with 67,000 of those FIFO workers. Compared to 2008, the number of FIFO workers has risen by 20 per cent.