"Improving mental health [for FIFO] is often less about changing the individual and more about changing the work, including how it is designed and how it is led.”
From the 2014 UWA submission to the Education and Health Standing Committee inquiry into mental health impacts of FIFO work arrangements.
The need for high quality research on FIFO work demands
The demographic and occupational profile of FIFO workers identifies them as a group likely to be exposed to mental health risks. Many FIFO workers face work demands that existing research has shown can affect mental health, such as less than ideal shift systems, home-work conflicts, and low levels of job control.
In addition, FIFO workers face unique demands, such as the challenge of living away from family for long periods of time and of needing to live on site when at work. Currently there is a lack of quality research about the effects of these demands on mental health. Research is needed that:
- Measures and unpacks the effects of job/family demands associated with FIFO work.
- Tracks employee mental health at work, as well as outcomes linked to mental health (e.g., absence), using validated instruments.
- Strategically links FIFO job demands to mental health outcomes, and seeks to identify what personal and organisational factors buffers or mitigates those demands.
- Rigorously assesses change and interventions.
Interventions to improve FIFO wellbeing and mental health
It should be recognised that good mental health is not just the absence of ill health, but also the presence of active, positive mental health. Examples of the latter include feelings of competence, self-confidence, enthusiasm, and the desire to learn. Promoting mental health should be a twofold approach – mitigating risk and harm so as to prevent ill health, while at the same time enhancing and maximising well-being and promoting positive mental health. Professor Sharon Parker, UWA Business School, is leading the way with this twofold approach to tackling mental health issues in the workplace.
© Professor Sharon K Parker & Karina Jorritsma
A popular intervention approach for improving mental health is to focus on promoting and managing symptoms of ill health, or a tertiary intervention. Such an approach should be combined with preventative approaches that stop the development of ill health and that promote well-being in the first place. Secondary interventions aim to prevent ill health by training individuals (and in the case of FIFO workers, also equipping families) to cope with the demands of work.
But often primary interventions - in which the focus is on changing the organisation and the work itself - are also crucial for preventing ill health and promoting positive mental health. Yet these interventions are much less common. Professor Parker is a leading researcher in the field of work design; a primary intervention. Her research focuses on understanding how to design work that is ‘good for people’ (their mental and physical health) and ‘good for business’ (performance, productivity and innovation).
Professor Sharon Parker presented this research topic at Deloitte Perth on 26 March 2015. Read the news article about her talk here.
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