A new report looking at the mental health and well-being of “fly-in, fly-out” (FIFO) workers employed in Alberta’s oilsands suggests more needs to be done to help employees deal with significant stress that comes from living in work camps.
“The report I think in many ways solidifies things that people anecdotally know already about the impacts of fly-in, fly-out work on workers’ mental health and well-being,” said Sara Dorow, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who co-authored the report. “I would say that if anything surprised us it was some of the degree to which some of these issues were affecting workers.
“We know already that being away from home and family is difficult… What we didn’t anticipate perhaps is the degree to which people report that being a problem.”
The report saw 72 oilsands workers be interviewed in late 2019 and early 2020 before follow-up interviews were conducted a few months later. Most of those interviewed were workers who arrive from other places in Alberta and
across Canada “for rotations of six to 21 days, living in work camps while working 10- or 12-hour shifts at nearby worksites,” according to the report.
The study found 87 per of participants reported either some or a lot of stress from being far away from loved ones.
“The difficulty of establishing and maintaining relationships with family, feelings of loneliness and the inability to be at home for family events or emergencies are significant stressors among FIFO workers,” the report reads.
Seventy-seven per cent of the study’s participants reported either some or a lot of stress from living in work camps, either because they felt trapped, had limited or unhealthy food options, poor sleep or other reasons.
Over two-thirds of participants reported stress from their commute to work.
“Participants’ ratings of general mental health and daily stress are worse than is found in the population,” the report reads. “About half rated their mental health as very good or excellent (46%) or rated most days as somewhat or very stressful (51%).
“Nearly half (46%) of survey participants had diagnosed long-term health conditions, with half of these (51%) describing their conditions as mental or both mental and physical. These proportions are higher than is reported in the general population.
“More than one-third of participants (35%) had sought help for their mental health (counselling, medication, and/or information) in the past year — twice as high as reported in the general population. The most frequent reasons cited for seeking help were family and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, trauma, and general mental health.”
While over three-quarters of the study’s participants said they had access to health-care services while at work or in camp, over half of those people “indicated they would not use these services; this was especially true for
health care offered on site, where 57 per cent of participants with access to these services indicated they were ‘not likely’ to use them.”
“People were really concerned about losing a job or keeping a job if they were to report a serious health issue,” Dorow said. “This is exacerbated by the fact we had a lot of contract workers in the study.
“This is of grave concern… We do know that in the construction trades for example, there is a higher rate of suicide. And so actually making sure that there is a space for people to… report mental health issues is really crucial.”
Dorow said some participants feared there would be repercussions for seeking mental support like damage to their reputation or being more likely to be laid off or not rehired.
“There can be kind of a tough guy thing: ‘You just have to tough it out,'” she said. “This is deepened by fly-in, fly-out.”
Dorow said the work is simply a way to make money for many employees and that there is a culture that pushes workers to accept the stress as simply part of the job.
“To say that this is not for the weak-minded is clearly a problem in the sense that there may be conditions that are being ignored,” she said.
Sexual harassment and discrimination
The report says over two-thirds of female participants reported experiencing discrimination at work.
“Some of the gendered findings are really important,” Dorow said. “I was surprised by how many women reported discrimination and harassment… But also the impacts of fly-in, fly-out on women… There was a much higher proportion of women who reported difficulty sleeping in camp.”
Dorow, who said she has been conducting research in the oilsands on and off for about 15 years, said she believes some of the issues highlighted in the report could be addressed relatively simply, like ensuring walls are thick enough that someone at a work camp can’t hear snoring in the room next to them, or ensuring healthy food choices are made available.
“We also found in our report some evidence of cumulative effects of the longer you do this, the more there might be cumulative effects of work/life imbalance and stress and strain,” she said. “It really needs to be looked at systematically.”
Dorow said ensuring workers feel comfortable accessing mental health supports is a key issue.
“How do we create a supportive environment…where psychosocial safety is front and centre… So people feel like they can come forward if they have issues and can get safe third-party help when they need it.”
Dorow said the study was “not as systematic as we would have hoped,” and she hopes more research is done on the subject to spur governments, companies and workers to work together to address the issues at hand.