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By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters psychologist

In Australia, an increasingly common term among fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) miners is ‘black day’. It relates to mood swings, sadness or anxiety around FIFO shifts. We thought it might be useful to raise the issue with Canadian families – because the simple strategies to overcome black days are the same wherever you work and live.

Black day means different things to different people. It’s usually used by the person flying out for work, as opposed to those left behind. Not surprisingly, it's used to describe a FIFO worker's toughest day. For some people, the hardest day is the final day of their time off (the day before they leave for work) and for others it's the actual day of travel back to the mine site.

People also use the term to describe different experiences: for some, it's a day of feeling sad; for others it's a day of worry or stress.

If you suffer from black days, it's important to determine exactly what your individual experience is. You can then work on simple strategies to make your black day easier to bear.

People whose black day is one of sadness usually dwell on what they have already missed because of working away, or what they will miss this time. They might think about important family events, loneliness on the mine site, or anticipate missing their loved ones while they are away. All of these thoughts lead to feeling sad or low, which in turn might make them clingy and needy. (Alternatively, they can go completely the other way and become distant and withdrawn.) If your black day is one of sadness, it might help to increase your connections with those you love. For example, make sure you stay in touch with what's happening the whole time you're away. This will ensure you still feel connected and an important part of the family.

For others, black day is more of an anxious day – felt as unease, restlessness or irritability. Causes of this anxiety tend to be worries or fears. Anxiety generally relates to nameless fears so it's hard to generalise, but black day anxieties might include something bad happening to the family while they're away, something going wrong with their relationship, or even not getting enough sleep while on site. If your black day is an anxious one, take some time to reflect on your exact thoughts and fears. Depending on what your thoughts are, you could simply choose to ignore them, or 'challenge them' (i.e. is this really a realistic/rational thought?)

For others still, black day is about stress. Like anxiety, stress can make people feel wound up and edgy. But unlike anxiety, the thoughts that go with stress are more 'realistic' and usually relate to being busy or having too much to do. If your black day is one of stress, it's likely that your mind has switched back into work mode, maybe a day or so early. Your family might notice that you are grumpy and short-tempered, and that you seem to have a lot on your mind. Stress management techniques will help you manage your black day better – you’ll find lots of books and internet sites on the topic.

Next time you’re having a black day, take the time to stop for a moment and think about:

  • How you feel (sad, anxious or stressed)
  • What your thoughts are about
  • How you are acting (i.e. withdrawn, snappy with others)

It might seem odd, but even just noticing your black day thoughts can often help you to feel more in control and able to cope.

Strategies for dealing with sadness:

  • If you often feel sad before heading back to work, get into the habit of doing something fun on the final day of your time home. A special family dinner the night before you fly out might help you to feel more connected and less sad.
  • Train yourself to shift sad feelings. (Like all feelings, sadness doesn't tend to hang around for too long unless it is 'hung onto' with thinking.) Here's an example: Let’s imagine you’re feeling sad. You then think something like "I’m so sad" and start to dwell on the causes of your sadness, such as "my family is far away" or "I'm here all alone". This then increases the feeling and makes it much more difficult to bear. One technique for managing uncomfortable feelings like sadness is simply to notice that the feeling is there in the body ("I feel sad") and then watch your thoughts to make sure they don't 'grow' the feeling.
  • Next, take positive action. Shift your thoughts to something uplifting, or an exciting event coming up in the future. Listen to music, read a book, call a friend or keep busy to take your mind off your sad feelings.

Strategies for dealing with anxiety and stress:

  • Ignore or challenge any 'irrational' thoughts that make you anxious (i.e. if you're prone to worrying that you're going to stuff up at work, remind yourself that you're a capable, experienced employee who's been doing the same job for ages.)
  • If you're anxious, keep busy with something fun the day before you go back to work.
  • If you're stressed, make a 'to do' list of jobs that need your attention back at work, or at home. Place them in order of priority and also make sure you identify which jobs can be delegated and which aren't really that urgent.

And finally, don't forget to share your thoughts and feelings with your partner, family or friends, especially if you can suggest ways that they can help you. It's the old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved. Knowing that you're not alone in feeling this way can be a huge help.

Psychologist Angie Willcocks is an expert at helping families deal with the pressures of life in mining, oil and gas. To ask Angie a question, click here. It’s free!

Mining Family Matters aims to break down the barriers of isolation and the stresses of living away from family and friends. Although this website provides general advice from a psychologist, the content should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. Always speak to your doctor or specialist provider for advice on a specific medical condition. If you are depressed and require urgent assistance, call 9-1-1 or visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website at