“So, how are things?” you ask your cousin, neighbour, or fellow parent in the school waiting area.
“Oh, okay. Steven will be home for a week soon, so that’ll be good.”
What the partner of a FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out) worker, shift worker, or armed forces member may not tell you is just how difficult it can be to manage the extra stress they’re dealing with. Many present a brave face to the outside world because, for instance:
- Shift workers and their families may appear to 'have it all' – secure jobs that allow them to still pick up the kids from school, for example – yet can be under enormous hidden stress and have a higher risk of chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
- FIFO families may face the perception that their partners are earning 'big money in the mines', even though this may be largely eaten up by extra transport costs, changes to contracts, and lack of career progression, not to mention the heavy emotional and physical costs.
- Military families face a perceived stigma about needing help or counselling.
Important new research has been published on the family impact of FIFO work, authored by my colleague Dr Cassandra Dittman, a fellow researcher at the Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland (Australia).
Dr Dittman’s research adds to our existing knowledge about the types of stress placed on parents and families when one parent is away for extended periods. While there’s still more research to be done, it appears that the partners of FIFO workers often have higher levels of depression and anxiety, including being worried about their partners.
Also, not surprisingly, many of these families also found it hard to maintain routines and consistency of parenting between times when dad or mum is away and when they’re back at home.
And there seems to be more of a tendency, where there are problems, for parents to use harsh discipline (such as shouting or hitting), echoing similar findings in research on military families.
The good news is that:
- There’s a growing awareness of the fact that FIFO life, military service and shift work can present unique challenges to physical and mental health for workers and their partners.
- More is being done to offer counselling and support, and to break down the old-fashioned stigma around asking for help.
- Governments, employers and communities are working together with families to talk about problems and solutions.
Most importantly, as awareness of these problems increases, we’re developing ways to support both parents and the family unit, not just one partner.
So while your friend, acquaintance or neighbour may be just fine, don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re REALLY going, and to let them know help is available if they need it.