Fighting mental illness in remote Australia

A unique mateship between fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mining workers is helping to combat mental illness.

Wesley McTernan, a PhD student with the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy is investigating the social supports that are becoming increasingly vital between co-workers.

Earlier this year at the International Congress of Occupational Health in Seoul, South Korea, Wes presented the “buffering effect” of co-workers among Australian mining workers.

“What our research supported is that there is a mutual relationship of causality between work-family conflict, i.e. difficulty meeting family responsibilities because of demands at work, and experiences of depression,” Wes says.

“That is to say that sometimes work gets in the way of our family lives, which elicits stress, and decreases our mood.

“What we see is that experiences of depression hinder our ability to handle conflict between the work and family domain.

“When we are depressed we withdraw socially and experience lethargy, which exacerbates this conflict.

“What we observed however was that this relationship was buffered by social support between co-workers.

“This buffering effect was unique to mining workers,” he says.

A key part of Wes’ research is investigating the impact that FIFO work has on family and friends.

With input from some Australian mining companies and a support group, Mining Families Matter, Wes ran a survey for mining partners.

“It’s important not to overlook the families,” he says.

“People think of the mining industry as quite a tough industry to work in but it has knock-on effects as well.

“The survey tool had questions relating to physical health and mental health, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety and questions that measure the conflict between work and personal life.

“For mining partners we actually asked how their partners work conflicts with their home lives.

“This included questions like maintaining family duties as well as maintaining social lives outside of work.

“One thing to think about is a lot of couples have social lives together, and that can be quite difficult to maintain when one partner’s always away,” he says.

Wes’ research findings has indicated high rates of depression, twice as high as the average person, anxiety, sleep problems and other health problems like headaches and gastrological issues.

Wes says the buffering effect is presenting a phenomenon to capitalise on.

“Miners I interviewed described each other as family,” he says.

“Remote mining workers live, eat, and work together – in fact they tend to see more of each other than their friends and family.

“This leads to increased social interaction and cohesion among the workers, and ultimately, a typically greater social support.

“It was a really interesting thing to see, and we could expect to see it among other types of remote workers as well, e.g. off-shore oil and gas workers.”

Wes moved from the rural town of Naracoorte, South Australia to Adelaide as a teenager to complete his tertiary education before studying psychology at the University of South Australia.

Although he lives in the city, Wes says his rural background keeps finding a way back into his research.

“I think growing up in a rural area contributed to my interest in studying what is a very rural industry,” Wes says.

“Mining work is typically in very remote and isolated regions, staffed by FIFO workers from major cities.

“As someone from a rural area working in the city, I could relate to people from urban areas working in the country.”

The ICOH conference in South Korea has shown Wes how the research fits the broader field of occupational health “by seeing what is happening on the other side of the world” he says.

“Psychological health is becoming an increasing area of interest at work, on a global scale.”

“I spoke with researchers from developing regions, many of which come from areas with much poorer safety standards – but we are seeing a positive change.

“It wasn’t all work though. We found time to visit the markets, temples, and climb Mt Bukhansen.”

Mr Wes McTernan is a doctoral student at the Asia Pacific Centre for Work Health and Safety at the University of South Australia.

Read more at Research Edge

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