Hey, FIFO, are you OK?
Tattooed, bearded, muscular and wearing a fluoro work shirt — one glance at Blake Wood would tell you he is a stereotypical hardened mining FIFO worker.
Yet it’s this stereotype Mr Wood’s working to crack alongside personal development expert George Helou through their company FIFO Zero, which is aimed at eradicating suicide from the industry.
Off the back of a whirlwind sixweek mental health roadshow in the State’s North, the duo say the WA industry — which has a record of almost 141,000 workers — needs to shake its “macho” workplace culture.
Once shunned and ignored, mental health is a serious part of business for the State’s biggest resource players and reserves a big part of employee expenditure.
Unions are pushing that all mining companies need to adopt the same mental health framework — calling for the Code of Practice which is “only used as a guideline” to become legislation. FIFO Zero is helping shine a light on the “at risk” industry where mental health issues can lead to family breakdown and suicide.
CLOSE TO HOME
Mr Wood faced his own mental demons after the loss of a colleague to suicide during his decade-long mining career.
With a steady income and the possibly of home ownership in sight, Mr Wood felt he had “stepped into a dream” when he started his first FIFO role with Queensland Rail in 2008.
But by 2016 he was bitter about his then work with BHP in WA’s remote North and his fragile personal life off-site — spent in the hotel room of his choosing and living out of a backpack.
In between, Mr Wood had faced isolation from family and friends, a relationship breakdown, tough conditions and excessive drinking while caught up in an off-site partying culture.
A realisation “something was wrong”, led him to Mr Helou’s seven-step personal development course.
Mr Helou taught him to step away from extreme ways of combatting problems and rewire his coping mechanisms, which Mr Wood said were “100 per cent” influenced by masculinity in upbringing.
The shake-up prompted Mr Wood to join RU OK as an ambassador on a FIFO campaign the mental health organisation launched nationwide and to be a part of a BHP wellness road show in 2016.
But it was two weeks prior to the road show that Mr Wood lost a colleague to suicide.
“That sent a ripple effect through our whole department. I’ve never returned to the site and basically I had been on this mission ever since,” he said.
A CrossFit enthusiast, Mr Wood also created an initiative that 28 affiliated clubs signed up to and had him travel around Australia for three years promoting it.
BACK ON SHIFT
Back on the tools and now driving road trains for logistics company
QUBE on BHP’s Mt Keith mine on a two-week-on and one-week-off roster, Mr Wood said it was a surreal experience coming back and he was still adjusting to the unique challenges of FIFO life.
“I haven’t done night shift in years so my body is like ‘what are you doing?’ Coming back after all these years, it was quite surreal,” he said.
Working long days in hot and dusty conditions and coming home to small impersonal hotdesk style rooms is tough, but that’s just the start of the obstacles WA’s FIFO community faces.
With supplied food and a “wet mess” the main drawcards in the evenings after a hard shift, Mr Wood said it was easy for many to fall into heavy drinking and excessive eating, which in turn lead to fatigue, weight gain and overall poor wellbeing.
Worksite relationships also play a significant role according to Mr Wood who said he often found it hard with a “transient environment” with no stability to know who you’ll interact with each day.
He did highlight, however, the positives like well maintained gyms and allowing visitors.
FIFO union representatives at several sites across WA said poor conditions still plagued work camps. There were struggles to keep up hygiene and pressure on interstate workers over rostering when virus outbreaks affect their home State.
Dirty fridges with off leftovers and clogged air-con filters have become all to common for workers spending weeks away from the comfort of home.
LIGHT AT THE END OF TUNNEL
Mr Wood and Mr Helou are now fighting to help the FIFO community battle through the ongoing challenges and say they can feel a shift coming after a troublesome year for the industry through longer roster periods adding additional stress over the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Never has it been a more important time for us to be connecting on our mental health,” Mr Wood said.
The pair’s roadshow includes Mr Wood sharing his journey through mental illness and Mr Helou giving practical counselling advice through games.
Their course has already prompted two WA FIFO workers to seek help for alcohol issues.
“For every two that are willing to say they’ve done that (sought help) there are 90 per cent that don’t let anyone know because remember we’ve got a macho culture,” he said.
The campaign to change ingrained masculine processes of dealing with psychological distress learnt from childhood, comes after former Rio Tinto employee Elle Cooper, 33, blew the whistle on the sexual harassment and bullying women face on WA
mine sites. Mining giant Rio Tinto admitted it has had to discipline an employee on the back of her revelations about the company’s “toxic and sexist” culture.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s health, safety, environment and communities vice-president Cecile Thaxter said the company released its own “Mental Wellbeing Framework” last year, across all sites.
“The FIFO Zero team presented to a number of our sites in the Pilbara. These sessions were well received by the team. Workshops help people cope with the challenges of remote work,” she said.
“We recognised early that change and uncertainty can impact wellbeing and mental health, and we needed to equip our people with the resources and support they needed to minimise the impact.”
This extends from the “she’ll be right, mate” mindset to the doom and gloom mentality of “nothing I do will matter”.
“We get caught in that identity. We get caught in the culture,” Mr Wood said. “It wasn’t until I went through George's process that I realised how much been brought up that way — it affected how I was. You just caught in going, ‘Oh, that’s just the way I am’.”
Mr Wood said the profession could be a “trap for a lot of young guys who for the first time in their life start to make good money”.
Mr Helou warned that a culture shunning vulnerability was leaving men with unresolved and compounding issues.
“We’re really in a situation now, where we have to rip the stigma out of our society for good,” Mr Helou said.
“I think we need a bit of a shock to our culture to say, ‘Hello, being too hard, too macho was bad’.”
The duo hope to roll their course out to all Australian mine sites.
Nationally 75 per cent of suicides are males and 11 per cent of all males experience high or very high levels of psychological distress and 18 per cent have had a mental health or behavioural condition, according to the Health Department.
Suicide deaths were recorded as three times higher in men than women and more likely in men aged 30-34 and those aged 40-44.
A September 2018 report produced by Centre for Transformative Work Design for the WA Mental Health Commission found 71 per cent of FIFO workers consumed more than two standard drinks on an average day, 62 per cent reached five standard drinks and 44 per cent pushed themselves beyond more than 11 standard drinks.
“Perceived masculinity norms, stigma, loneliness, home-work life conflict and difficulty with the psychological transitioning to and from work were associated with riskier drinking patterns,” the report found.
One of the lead authors of the research which helped inform the industry’s Code of Practice, the University of Western Australia School of Psychological Science lecturer Laura Fruhen said the collaborative report showed mental health concerns generally focused around rostering, conditions and workplace relations.
“What we found already in 2018 was fly-in, fly-out workers had worse mental health than the general population,” she said.
“Mental health worsened over the pandemic period . . . and FIFO workers were starting off already from being at risk.”
KNOWING THE BOSS CARES
Dr Fruhen said a sense of “we’re all in this together” was one of the main positives out of the most difficult period of restrictions.
“Many workers appreciated that the employer was looking out for them and really cared. Whether that was through sanitiser stations or packaged food,” Dr Fruhen said.
In 2019, the Code of Practice Mentally Healthy Workplaces for Fly-in, Fly-out Workers in Resources and Construction Sectors was published using the research through UWA and Curtin University, including feedback from industry stakeholders.
Electrical Trade Union WA secretary Peter Carter said his members were pushing to get the Code of Practice taken more seriously and made mandatory.
“There’s a disconnect between what the Code of Practice is meant to do and what it actually does. The Code of Practice doesn’t compel an employee to do what it sets out,” he said. “We believe the Code of Practice should be put into legislation.”