By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters psychologist
The first few months of fly-in, fly-out are tough for those who've never worked away (or had a partner who works away). During the first few rosters, it’s normal to experience some uncertainty about the decision.
Most people find that this uncertainty settles down after a couple of months, as the routine and work environment become more familiar. Finding out what works for you and your partner (if you have one) is a big part of the settling-in phase. It’s a work in progress though, and adjustments need to be made along the way.
It’s vital to regularly revisit why you’ve decided to work away, reassess how you’re all coping, and make any necessary changes as needed. I think that having a look at how things are going every three months or so is a good idea.
Questions to consider are:
- How am I (or we) going with the goals I have set about working away? These goals might be financial, or they might be lifestyle based. Whatever they are, they should be SMART (that's Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timed – click here for more details) and they should be evaluated regularly.
- How have I been coping? How have my partner, friends and family been coping? Don’t assume you know the answer to this when it comes to others – ask your loved ones directly how they’ve been going.
- What has been working well? What problems have I faced, or have my partner or family faced with me working away? Identifying what the problem is, specifically, is the first step in solving a problem. Next, try to solve the problem as a united team. You'll find lots of information online about problem solving.
Part of assessing how you’ve been coping is to think about how you’ve been feeling most of the time. Of course it’s normal to have some ups and downs in any work situation. Feeling slightly low or a bit worried some days is normal, but there should be more good days (or at least ‘OK days’) than bad.
Many people who work away find that they feel particularly bad the day before they return to work, or the actual day they return. This is quite normal, but it’s worth paying attention to what you feel and when, as it can give you a good indication of what you can do to make things a bit easier.
Some workers feel very sad, some feel anxious, and others feel all keyed up and stressed out about returning to work after their time at home. Noticing your thoughts can help you find some ways to minimise these feelings around the return to work. For more information on this, have a read of my previous column on Black Days.
Learn positive coping skills
Coping well while you’re away, or while your partner is away, involves using positive coping skills.
Coping skills can be learnt and practised over time. Those who cope well with FIFO, and who get most benefit from choosing the lifestyle, are those who regularly practise positive coping skills. Over time, practising good coping skills will make you a more resilient person both in the workplace and at home.
Here are some skills and behaviours that will help you to cope well:
- Choose your thoughts. I certainly don’t just mean “think happy thoughts” when I say this. There’s no point in trying to trick yourself into thinking you’re happy and things are great when they’re not. But you can choose to think positive, problem-solving thoughts like “I can cope with this”, and “I’ve faced tough times before and been OK” and “We’ll find a way to figure this out”. Examples of thoughts that won’t help at all are: “I can’t cope with this”, “This is too much to bear” and “Everything is terrible”. It takes practise, but everyone can learn to notice what is going on in their head, and choose their thoughts.
- Keep your emotions in check. Recognise your feelings, and why you’re feeling them if possible, and then practise ways to calm yourself down and get a handle on the emotion. Thoughts play a part in this, but so does breathing slowly and relaxing your body.
- Choose your actions. Think about how you want others to see you (both at work and home) and then choose your actions accordingly. Ideally, these actions will be in line with your personal values and goals. For example, if you want to be seen as friendly, then choose friendly actions like smiling, making eye contact and asking about the other person’s life. If being professional is important to you, then choose actions that demonstrate this, like being on time, well presented and positive at work.
- Look after yourself physically. Make sure you eat healthy foods most of the time and exercise regularly. Work on getting good quality sleep as often as possible. Visit your doctor for regular checks of your cholesterol, blood pressure and vitamin and mineral status (about once a year if you’re generally healthy). Keep alcohol to a minimum and give up cigarettes (they don’t really help you manage stress you know!)
- Make and look after social connections. Having someone to share a story with, ask advice of, or just have a laugh with, is a very important part of positive coping. Friends, family and workmates can all play this role so take the time to make connections, and then look after them by keeping in contact whether you’re home or at work.
- Make time for laughter and fun! Don’t take yourself, or life, too seriously. Research shows that having a good sense of humour is part of resilience. So, make time for funny movies or YouTube clips, or whatever has you ‘LOL’-ing.
Many people I’ve spoken with find that these tips, when practised regularly and with commitment, really help them and their families get the best out of the FIFO lifestyle.
It’s obviously best to start using positive strategies from day one of working away, but they can be picked up and put into practise any time along the way.
On a final note, it's important to remember that FIFO isn’t for everyone. Sometimes the first few months pass by and things just don’t get any easier. Some people find working away, or living with a partner who works away, particularly challenging. Those with a history of difficult relationships or significant personal losses, with untreated mental or physical health issues or unresolved current relationship problems (like infidelity) might find FIFO so personally difficult that they choose not to do it, or to stop doing it after a period of time.
Seeking some professional advice and support can help work through these issues if working away is something that you feel that you want, or need, to keep doing.
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 www.cmha.ca.
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, write via our 'contact us' page. It’s free! And to read other Angie articles, please click here.