Yesterday I read two things that bothered me. The first was an article on FIFO and the mental health impacts on workers. The second was the tweet below from someone in agriculture.
learned of the suicide of someone I considered a quiet leader in the region. Your headspace poor? Speak up, you are needed here!
— wayne parker (@wayneparker13) October 16, 2017
Unfortunately neither are anything new and personally both are too close to home. I’ve been in the two industries and seen (and felt) the effects of them. It’s strange, because they are worlds apart, yet they do have one thing in common. Both need to work harder on looking after the people involved. I have close friends still working in both and that tweet above could just as easily be about them. Because nobody sees it coming.
Now I will be the first to put my hand up and say a couple of years ago I would’ve read that FIFO article with some skepticism. They’re on big money, they are waited on hand and foot in camp (and this was before I was one of those doing the waiting) and they know what they’re signing up for when they take the job. Meanwhile farming folk are at the mercy of weather, markets and pretty much everything else. And then I did a mile in their steel capped boots.
I actually enjoyed it for the most part. It was a whole new world and came with a handy pay cheque. The work wasn’t that hard, I met some great people and learned more than I expected. It broadened my horizons to different places, cultures and gave me a greater respect for those working in service industries. It also came at a cost, and while I’m not so naive as to blame that job for my marriage breakup, it certainly didn’t help.
Farming and FIFO do have more in common than I first thought. Firstly, it’s hard to escape the bad stuff. FIFO workers for example are more or less interned in their camps. You are at work, whether you’re working or not. It’s the same on a farm. If it hasn’t rained, you are reminded of that fact every time you walk out the door and see the paddocks blowing.
Secondly, it’s hard to get out. How many people can voluntarily walk away from a six figure sum job? It’s a difficult thing to do. Just one more year, then I’ll be setup. One more contract, then I’ll find something else. I met so many miserable people who were there because they felt they had to be. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, it’s not easy to tell sometimes. You see that on farms too. We can’t get out of this. We can’t sell, Dad spent his life building the place up. Just one more season and we’ll come good. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Of course, there are plenty of people perfectly happy in both industries, and that’s great. But better support needs to be there for those that aren’t. It’s no good just saying to get out if you don’t like it, and sometimes it’s not even the job that’s the problem. Everyone has shit going on the rest of us has no idea about.
The two do have measures for people struggling. The mining industry does do a lot of what I believe is called ‘Administrative Controls’ when it comes to mental health. It came up regularly at our pre-starts. Every single donga I stayed in had a list of contacts if workers felt the need to talk, and I know of a few workers who took stress leave. The catch is some of them never came back. Whether that was their choice or the decision was made for them under another pretense was the subject of much debate in wet messes and prior to pre-starts. But the fact remains that there is a fear of repercussions should people speak up. It’s the same as injuries. Everyone’s told to report anything down to a paper-cut or mosquito bite, but few do in case they are found to have done something wrong.
Compare this to agriculture. It’s mostly comprised of owner operators who are slugging it out on their own with family by their side, usually living miles from anyone else and sometimes with limited communications. It’s funny, a mate of mine once pointed out how we live in a box at camp, then work in a box, whether that be a kitchen, truck cab or office. Well it can be the same on a farm, except it’s just a bloody big box. So controls are much less formal, whether it be through community groups, sporting clubs or just mates talking down the pub (with no worry about having to blow zero’s before work the next day either), on top of the work done by mental health agencies.
No matter which industry it is, or what is done to assist, none of it is any good if the person in question doesn’t feel comfortable in speaking up. How many times do we ask how are you and really mean it? How many times have you been asked that and answered with the much easier ‘Fine,’ instead of ‘Well, actually….’
So I think the two can learn from each other. Instead of mining companies putting up more signs, creating more procedures and reports, perhaps they could look at why more people don’t seek out help from the multitude of services that these companies do provide, and what is making them need them? And maybe agriculture can mimic some of those services, but while I saw greater mention of mental health on mines and a much more formal handling of it, I think rural communities do it much better, at a more grassroots level.
There’s no easy fix. And it is more than reasonable for people to point out these same things apply to military personnel or anyone else who working away for extended periods, even shift workers who rarely see the kids. But it’s not about who’s got it worse than who. Fact is people aren’t coping and somehow we need to fix it. But if you are one of those struggling, I hope you are able to ask for help, where ever that may come from.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Lifeline website: https://www.lifeline.org.au/