Recently Ash Nelson and I embarked on a trip up North to WA’s Pilbarra region to spend some time with workers from the Rio Tinto mine sites in the Greater Brockman area. It was our second visit to these particular sites and came about following some wonderful feedback and discussion after last years successful RUOK? themed trip.
Ash and I have been ambassadors for RUOK? Day for many years now and love any opportunity we get to share their powerful mental health message alongside our stories of life as a Hockeyroos and also health professionals (Ash is an Occupational Therapist and I am a nurse). Throughout our time as ambassadors we have delivered various talks on the topic to local and international companies, schools, sporting organisations and more. The mining sector was an area we were always very keen on as the fly in fly out lifestyle brings its own unique pressures and challenges that are very similar to that of elite level sport.
In 2015 we took our first trip up north to speak to the Bristow Group staff at Barrow Island mine site. Since then we have been regularly donning the high vis outfits and heading North to various BHP and Rio Tinto sites including Hope Downs 1, Hope Downs 4, Brockman 2, Namuldi, Brockman 4 and Jimblebar. The purpose of these visits is very simple, GET PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH!
During our time on site, Ash and I sat beside operators in trucks, diggers and graters, drove around with supervisors and managers, ate lunch with electricians, mechanics and fitters, drank coffee with lab technicians and geologists, watched computer screens with engineers and surveyors, walked the hallways with administrators and set off explosives with drill and blast specialists. This was all so we could have one on one conversation with people to understand, firstly about their work area, but second and more importantly who they are and what their story is. What we found in these moments was something quite fascinating. In simply taking an interest and asking people about their lives, every single conversation touched on mental health and personal struggles at some point. Every single one!! Neither Ash nor I had to steer it in that direction. We always left it open for people to go there if they felt comfortable enough. And keep in mind, many of these were rough, tough burly blokes, yet within minutes of meeting they were sharing with us personal struggles, relationship issues, mental illness and even in some cases experience with suicide. With these topics now on the table we of course enquired about who they go to for support and what strategies they use to look after themselves.
Even with these sometimes challenging topics, this is where the similarities came in for us as Hockeyroos and the FIFO workers. So we could relate.
As a Hockeyroo you are required to move over to Perth and in most cases (unless you are West Australian) live away from your family and friends. We also spend up to three to four months of the year travelling with Hockey. FIFO workers live on site for 1-4 weeks at a time away from their family and friends. The roster at these sites was mostly 8 days on 6 days off but many do 2 weeks on and 1 week off or even 4 weeks on and 1 week off. All of this takes you away from direct contact with your key support network and therefore often being alone in times of stress or crisis.
Like the Hockeyroos, jobs are never guaranteed one day to the next. Instability of the mining industry means constant restructuring, redundancies and also contract work so many people don’t even know if their job will still be there for them the week after their break. Future uncertainty is a big cause for anxiety in people and the constant stress can certainly affect performance.
The most commonly reported struggle people had on the mine site was definitely relationships. And it makes sense. As humans it is our innate desire to find a mate. To have that person that challenges you, guides you, supports you and comforts you. So spending over 50% of the year away from them can certainly make life tough. Then throw in kids and a home to look after. This puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. I know first hand how hard it is as my partner is also FIFO. He works two weeks on and two weeks off so with my travel as well it means we spend well over 50% of the year apart.
For any family doing fifo you have one person at home who may or may not work themselves but who has to run a household and look after kids alone for eight days straight. Then when their partner gets home all they desperately want to do is have a break. Of course from the other side you have the partner who has just worked 12.5 hour days for eight days straight in hot dusty conditions on a mine site who comes home and all they want to do is sit and relax for a week. Can you see how this may cause problems?
We know that all of these issues are not just associated with the FIFO lifestyle. They are real life. So for Ash and I to help support the mining world in just a small way means everything to us.
What was most satisfying for me on this trip was that I really felt like we could brighten people’s day and make a difference. The RUOK? message is such a simple one. Ask the people around you if they are ok. Check in regularly and support each other because you never know what that person may be going through. Each conversation on each day was an opportunity for us to check in on these guys and girls, to make sure that they are ok! And if they are not, then we took the time to listen openly and provide some tools and strategies to use to get through it. It is such a privilege to have an opportunity like this and I feel so grateful I can help in a small way. Please help me by spreading the RUOK? message and making sure you regularly ask the question. RUOK? ☺