The hidden tragedy of fly-in, fly-out work

The money's good, but as Warilla man Sean Hussey knows, the lifestyle's a killer. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

The money's good, but as Warilla man Sean Hussey knows, the lifestyle's a killer. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Sean Hussey has witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of working in isolation for weeks at a time.

"I've seen plenty of people out there get a text from their girlfriend or wife, saying 'sorry it's over, I'm gone'. Then they're stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, alone."

He has witnessed how being away from family and friends for weeks on end can bring down the toughest men.

"I've been in two camps where there's been guys suicide. It's a real downer that's for sure ... I saw it ... police, ambulance, roped off area and I think geez, is this really worth it?"

''If you go in without a plan and a family that doesn't support you, you are doomed, you really are.''

Mr Hussey, pictured, a 49-year-old welding inspector from Warilla, has spent much of his career doing three-week to month-long stints at sites far from home.

It started out as an adventure and a way to make a load of cash. Now he does it because work has dried up at home.

He has some straight-up advice for anyone contemplating working a fly-in, fly-out roster.

"You've got to have a plan. If you go in without a plan and a family that doesn't support you, you are doomed, you really are," Mr Hussey said.

"I look at it this way, if someone is going to commit suicide, they will ... but if you've got some sort of mental issues forget it, this type of lifestyle will make it worse."

Lifeline WA has released a report on the mental health of workers in the FIFO and drive-in, drive-out industries.

A key finding was that most FIFO workers had minimal knowledge of the realities they would face once they started living the transit lifestyle.

Fatigue, isolation from family and friends and recreation were the obvious cons, but many had no idea how to psychologically prepare for a lifestyle they had never experienced.

Mr Hussey can relate to the findings.

"The bottom line is if you're not mentally prepared to be there, don't go. And your family has got to be on board," he said.

"I've landed at an airport and some bloke's been there one week, he says I can't do this and they go. One week. But other people love it, they'll be there 18 months, two years saying 'this is unreal, I've got my new house, got my fishing boat' ... they love it. It's an individual thing."

Mr Hussey got his first taste of working away from home in 1996.

"I took the chance for the extra money and stayed in the pub, 10 days on, four days off.

"It just went from there."

His gigs have included stints in zinc copper mines in north-western Queensland and four weeks on, one week off in Arnhem Land.

"To me it's like an adventure, it really is, but to have your adventure you've got to have good support at home," he said.

"People looking in think you're having the time of your life, I suppose you do in a way, but it's back to reality when you come home.

"Your kids are at school, your wife, mates, are at work ... The only time you really see them is maybe for that two days on a weekend, so you're kind of still living that single life, that's a tough part about it."

Finding out about his father's death on Facebook three years ago magnified Mr Hussey's feeling of isolation and disconnect.

"I was out at Mudgee on a mine site with no phone reception. I had computer access so one lunchtime checked Facebook and there's a message 'sorry Sean to hear about your father, I hope you're all right'.

"I thought what the hell does that mean. My father had died. See that's what I mean about communication. It nearly killed me.

"I thought what the hell am I doing here.

"They're the types of things that you miss. If you were struggling with depression that would put you over the edge."

Mr Hussey doesn't want to turn anyone off FIFO life, in fact he plans on going back after taking some time out with his family and some further studies.

"I just want people to go into it with their eyes open," he said.

He also wants people to understand a lot of FIFO workers do it because they have no other choice.

"I know I'll go back to it, but I'd love to stay at home, I really would, but there's no work around here, it's just terrible.

"That's why there's so many people flying in flying out, it's not as if people really want to do it, it's that they have to do it.

"It's a last resort for me. I've been doing it for a long time, at first it was about money, now I'd just rather stay at home, be around my kids, family and mates."

Mental health no worse: chamber

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia says the health and well-being of fly-in, fly-out employees remains a key priority for the resources sector.

 ‘‘Every suicide is a tragic loss with far-reaching impacts.  As a community we must all work together to reduce the number of suicides,’’ CME chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said this week.

 ‘‘Despite some recent assertions that there may be a higher occurrence of mental health issues associated with FIFO employment, research is yet to find any substantial evidence in support of such claims,’’ he said.

The extensive Commonwealth Parliamentary Inquiry into FIFO practices received no evidence that supported a claim that mental health issues were any higher in the FIFO worker population than in the wider workforce, he said.

‘‘In recent years, we’ve seen a greater variety in FIFO rosters available, dramatic improvements in accommodation quality and facilities available. 

‘‘Additionally, companies recognise employee well-being is important, with most companies providing support groups and employee-assistance programs to help new employees adjust to FIFO lifestyle.’’

These include family visits to site, buddy systems, free counselling, group activities and in-room internet to communicate with partners and family.

Mr Howard-Smith said ‘‘some in the community’’ sought to stigmatise FIFO employees and perpetuate myths associated with FIFO, despite a growing bank of research highlighting that FIFO employees shared the same health and lifestyle outlook as other Western Australians.

 ‘‘Put simply, it’s a matter of choice for employees, a choice about where they live and choose to work,’’ he said.

If you are experiencing depression or are suicidal, or know someone who is, help is available. Lifeline: 131144, Beyond Blue: 1300224636.

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