We did a deep dive with the Agency Men in Black Ball 2018 Most Inspiring Man of the Year Chief Advisor to WKUSA Michael Lloyd-White and Psychologist and Engineer Dr. Anand Pillay on the challenges faced by Fly in Fly Out FIFO miners and its impact on men’s mental health and relationships. Both gentlemen offer some really interesting insights into pack male behaviour – and the awful power of exclusion and loneliness.
For those who don’t know, The Agency Men in Black Ball (MIB), founded 11 years ago by CEO of Momentum Forum Events and Perth-based Talk Show Host of ‘Hello Darlink!’ Barbara McNaught, was specifically created to start a dialogue on men’s mental health and suicide prevention.
Since inception, it has grown to become a premier event on the annual social calendar in WA.
The major industry that dominates the state’s economy is resources (iron ore, copper, gold, petroleum and natural gas) agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors, all of which traditionally have been very male-centric industries.
According to the WA Government Department of Jobs Tourism, Science and Innovation, after ten years of growth, with major mining projects developed over the past decade, ongoing operational and maintenance costs will continue to buoy the mining, manufacturing and transport industries despite a downturn due to the shift in iron-ore demand from China in 2017. Nonetheless, mining employment almost doubled over the decade to 2016‑17.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 40% of the workforce in mining industries were employed as Fly in Fly out (FIFO) workers ten years ago. By 2015, this percentage increased to 65% of the workforce, nearly 65,000 employees who experienced the FIFO lifestyle.
One of the guest speakers of the MIB Ball, former Married at First Sight reality TV personality and FIFO mining worker Sean Thomsen, 34, shared his experiences battling with depression after working as a FIFO worker in remote mining camps for the past seven years.
One of the key themes that emerged from key note speakers like Thomsen, and former Australian Rules Footballer for the West Coast Eagles Daniel Kerr were feelings of isolation, loneliness and not feeling safe to show vulnerability in front of peers by talking openly about living with depression.
Given the higher than normal rate of depression and suicide attempts among FIFO workers since the mining boom of the 1980s, we were privileged to speak with Dr. Anand Pillay of Perth-based Safetec Risk Management about his experience dealing with FIFO workers and the negative impacts it has on men’s mental health and their relationships outside and within these remote working environments. Dr Pillay specialises in Safety and Risk Assessment in the oil and gas industries and his work has taken him around the globe from underground mines to offshore facilities over the past three decades.
“FIFO environments are challenging. I was recently on a small gas drilling site in remote central Queensland. These guys lived in a camp, about 500 metres from the actual workplace (the drilling rig), which were basic containers with double bunk beds. Think of hot boxes with aircon. I was there for three nights. There was no internet, little phone signal and I couldn’t call my family. These workers live in two-week shifts. I was there because I was conducting an incident investigation. Apart from all the technical issues that caused the accident, I am required to investigate human factors. No one died, but it was a major incident. One of the things that came out of the investigation was 8 out of 12 workers were unhappy about the new rotation; which was two-week on, and one-week off. It emerged that one of the causes of the incident, was unhappiness due to this change,” says Dr Pillay.
The rotation, which Dr Pillay refers to, is what can make or break the spirit of a work camp. According to Dr Pillay, FIFO workers must have a ‘downtime’ sufficient to be able to switch personas, which he unpacks for us here:
“Too short a downtime means they do not have adequate time to adjust to home life so they cannot easily switch from work to home persona. For example, with onshore mining, the FIFO community is built around the accommodation camp. The camp may have advanced recreational facilities or be simplistic with a bed and place for meals with nothing to do. Workers work 12-hour shifts. After this intense environment, to going home to do nothing, and doing this rotation over a period of a few years, creates a routine where they have become accustomed to not having a family around and, the sadness at the realization that lives at home no longer revolves around you. If we compare this to a person who comes home from work everyday, they are a part of the family and can talk about their day. A FIFO worker finds it difficult to transition into “family life”. To be able to do this, they psychologically create a barrier between work and life. A FIFO worker cannot unload two weeks of work on their wife when they come home, so they create a separation; what happens at work stays at work and at home at home, so their persona is split into two to cope with different lives,” says Dr Pillay.
To cope with the constant shift between the two personas, Dr Pillay says that FIFO workers must have enough time to adjust to life at home and life at work. One of the interesting manifestations this kind of arrangement has on newcomers to FIFO work, is that men will tend to revert to a familiar persona to cope.
“People who are new to FIFO have not formed their character at the worksite yet, so they tend to revert to a familiar persona, perhaps, something from their childhood – they adopt a personality on site, but do not show it when they are off work. The tendency, because it is very male dominant, is to revert to alpha male archetypes, so they don’t get bullied or pushed around. Most of the problems arise from people who are either new to FIFO or have been in it so long – happiness becomes a bathtub curve – where you have problems at the beginning and the end. They start to transition to this character they create to cope with being on-site, but problems can arise at home because it’s problematic to create a separation of self. After a year, they usually settle down into a routine – that gives time for the spouse and family to adjust to it. They are earning good money and the wife gets used to the ‘at home’ character. However, as the years go by, the spouse and the miner both yearn for companionship etc, so that’s why this barrier is important. If you speak to people who have done this for 15+ years, some may have been divorced once or twice, they have girlfriends in foreign countries, where the two weeks off is not with their family, they’ll spend it abroad, and there is a large community who do it. This behaviour is especially noticeable for men in their late 40s and 50s and men in their early 20s. Interestingly the men in between are used to it, until a point where it breaks down again later, which may contribute to the high divorce rates for FIFO workers,” says Dr Pillay.
The barrier that Dr Pillay refers to is an emotional and mental one. If people live a ‘double life’, like FIFO workers do, this separation of personality is a contributing factor to suicide.
“Suicidal tendencies are always underpinned by inner conflict. And having a double life is the definition of internal conflict. Some can separate themselves to a certain extent, but for a lot of people the driver to do this work is out of desperation or ‘easy money’ but what they don’t realise is that they are creating a conflict with who they are. That is not easy money after all, it is very difficult,” says Pillay.
According to Pillay having family nearby is crucial for men’s mental health and wellbeing over the long term and he cites an experience he had as a young engineer many years ago which punctuated the difference in men’s behaviour with and without their spouse.
“I had an interesting experience on a ship many years ago, where the Chief Engineer, who was brilliant, worked for six months without his wife, then his wife and daughter joined us for the following six months. Once his family was with him he was a completely different man. He was more kind, sensitive, less ruthless. Interestingly, technically he deteriorated a bit, go figure! But, he showed more kindness. Prior to the wife joining, he used to drive us into the ground without mercy. I really admired him… So, people do change with the environment around them, and I think having a spouse and family close by is very important. He could not act as the tough military kind of guy with his wife around. Having someone he could be vulnerable with, and belong to, tempered that alpha male persona,” says Pillay.
For the award recipient of the Juwest Agency MIB Ball 2018, Michael Lloyd-White, creating a kinder world starts with reaching out to a person that might just need to hear a simple ‘hello’. For the past decade, Lloyd-White has advocated a movement of kindness through his work as immediate past Secretary General World Kindness Movement, and now his role as Chief Advisor to World Kindness USA, Lloyd-White is currently on a state-wide tour of the USA to bridge the kindness divide.
It was this work that led McNaught to crown Lloyd-White, as a man who can help “the world at a time when it struggles to be the best it can be”, the Most Inspiring Man of the Year for 2018.
According to Lloyd-White, this struggle is a common one and it is rooted in place that we all value –
“It is hard to put at risk something we all cherish; some might call it popularity, but really it is a sense of belonging. We defer to this because it is a feeling that propels us to sometimes seek the safety of silence. We have conversations about bullying and victims, but no one talks about the silent majority. In a world that has become gripped by fear, we need to find our courage. I get that men don’t necessarily get the mission of kindness, that it is perceived as a weakness or not very masculine. Most of us are guarded so to be vulnerable requires courage. I don’t think that there is any act of courage that is not tempered with kindness. The biggest struggle is to show kindness not to a friend, but for someone that we may not know or someone we may not even like, because it’s the right thing to do. The most powerful word in our language that breaks loneliness is ‘hello’ but how many times are we afraid to put our ‘personal brand at risk’ because the person in need doesn’t quite fit into our social scene?” says Lloyd-White.
This sense of belonging and our desire for it, according to Lloyd-White is what underpins our everyday action – or inaction – when faced with a challenge.
“We have inclusivity in every document but it’s like furniture. You’ll never get inclusivity unless you do a deep dive on the power of exclusion because we have been doing it for eons. If the chief doesn’t like you, you’re banished. If the emperor doesn’t like you, you’re exiled. If the church doesn’t lie you, you’re excommunicated. If the family doesn’t like you, you’re disowned. If you’re a hardened criminal, we’ll break you by putting you in solitary because that will get you eventually, being alone. But that’s not where it starts. It starts with the words, ‘you can’t play with us’ when you’re a kid. A little boy or girl, goes home and ‘says what’s wrong with me? Why won’t anyone play with me?’ Our mission is to change that conversation on the playground, where there is a voice, that will relinquish the safety of silence, to find the courage to be kind and speak up and say ‘yes you can play with us’. You’re not alone.”
According to Dr Pillay, behavioural management for FIFO workers in recent years is centred on the premise that creating larger communities rather than isolated camps give workers a greater sense of belonging and normalcy. While Dr Pillay admits it is difficult to measure the impact from these changes in quantitative terms, anecdotally, qualitatively, he says there are more people willing to work in a FIFO situation and accept the challenges that come with remote locations than before.
“There’s a lot we can do to create better accommodations to closely resemble home lifestyles so the design of the camps and how one checks in and out has changed. Years ago, no one had their own rooms, now they are creating their own space, so someone has a familiar space to return to. Companies now try to keep the rotation with the same people to create familiarity, so you don’t have to change personas too much to cope with constant change, so it gives people space to be themselves more. The general rule, when you go out on site, compared from 15 years ago is that there is a push to form a community. Instead of having smaller camp sites, they are trying to create a central site, to bring more people together. Nurses and doctors and engineers and having a greater diversity of more people from different sites – while travel times might be higher, FIFO workers are living in a more normalized community with a diversity of people and culture. Reducing isolation and loneliness absolutely helps with men’s mental health,” says Dr Pillay.
If you are experiencing depression or suicidal tendencies, call Lifeline Australia on 13 1114 or visit https://www.lifeline.org.au/