Fly-in fly-out workforce practices in Australia: The effects on children and family relationships

Fly-in fly-out workforce practices in Australia: The effects on children and family relationships

CFCA Paper No. 19 – February 2014


The mining boom in Australia has led to a rapid increase in a fly-in fly-out/drive-in drive-out (FIFO/DIDO) workforce in recent years. The increase in such work arrangements has resulted in corresponding concerns for the impact that the associated lifestyle has on these workers and their families.

In 2011, FIFO/DIDO workforce practices in regional Australia became the subject of an inquiry by the Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia (the Inquiry; Commonwealth of Australia, 2013). The Inquiry report, published in February 2013, highlighted the limitations of existing research on FIFO/DIDO work practices, as well as reflecting the considerable anecdotal evidence presented regarding the FIFO/DIDO lifestyle and its effects on families and communities.

The report alluded to the “two faces” of FIFO/DIDO work. FIFO/DIDO work practices impact on workers and their families as well as the “host” and “source” communities1 from which they work and reside. Stories in the Inquiry report ranged from a decrease in service delivery (e.g., availability of doctors) for residents in established communities close to FIFO/DIDO workplaces, through to the benefits of access to the wealth of the mining industry for FIFO/DIDO families from source communities, without having to uproot from established education paths and social networks. The report outlines these and many different issues that need attention as a result of a rapidly growing FIFO/DIDO workforce.

This paper summarises the emerging literature on the effect on children and family relationships of having a FIFO/DIDOparent. Research to date suggests that there can potentially be positive, negative or few impacts for children and family relationships, which reflects the enormous diversity of the FIFO/DIDO lifestyle and its characteristics. Impacts vary according to a range of contextual factors, such as workplace culture, types of rosters and recruitment practices as well as community, home and personal factors. Implications for policy, research and practice are outlined in response to the findings of the literature review.

The main section of this paper is split into three parts. Definitions, workforce profile and other background factors are discussed first. The second part of the paper discusses a number of contextual factors that are likely to impact on the FIFO/DIDO experience for workers and their families. The third part summarises the findings from the literature in relation to impacts of a FIFO/DIDO lifestyle on children and families. The combined sections highlight the considerable diversity of FIFO/DIDO work experiences for families, and the various ways in which they navigate through and deal with these experiences.

As there has been little research that focuses specifically on DIDO work practices, FIFO experiences are the main focus of this paper. The terms FIFO/DIDO or DIDO will be used where the research or literature was also relevant to DIDO.

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This review found that there is a lack of empirical evidence to indicate that specific engagement in FIFO employment has a universal direct effect on children or family relationships. The unique conditions of FIFO employment, however, could impact on families depending on the circumstances of the FIFO workplace and the characteristics of individual families, as outlined in the above sections.

These unique conditions explain why the literature often refers to FIFO as a lifestyle rather than just a job. The ability of family members to enjoy the benefits and manage the challenges, as outlined earlier in Box 1, can significantly influence the effect of FIFO on children and family relationships. Resilience in the transition to FIFO employment depends on a number of factors, including: the ability of family members to adapt to the changed conditions of a FIFO lifestyle; the at-home partner’s local support network; and the support and flexibility offered by the FIFO worker’s employer (see Fresle, 2010; Gallegos, 2006; Gent, 2004; Sibbel, 2010). What is unclear from the literature to date, however, is whether families enter the FIFO lifestyle with existing risk and/or protective factors that mediate the impact of the FIFO experience.

A distinction needs to be drawn between the potential of the unique FIFO lifestyle to have negative effects for children and family relationships and the actual, direct effects, whether positive or negative. The situation for each FIFO family is different according to the organisational and family and individual contexts described above, and the challenges associated with a FIFO lifestyle can often be offset or managed successfully. The fact that most studies found that FIFO employees and partners were generally no more likely to have high stress levels, poor relationship quality or poor health behaviours than daily commute or community samples indicates that many or most families are able to cope with the unique challenges of FIFO employment (Bradbury, 2011; Clifford, 2009; Kaczmarek & Sibbel, 2008; Sibbel, 2010; Taylor & Simmonds, 2009).

Gent (2004) found that when FIFO workers like their jobs and their relationship is going well, they are more likely to adapt to a FIFO lifestyle. This could be interpreted as when FIFO workers and their families are feeling strong and have resources to draw on, then the challenges of FIFO can be met without detriment to families. In a submission to the Inquiry by beyondblue (2012), the organisation suggested that while there are unique issues, parental engagement in FIFO employment does not present any significant psychological impacts on children. However, as the Inquiry noted, there was not enough evidence to definitively support this claim. While this is also the conclusion drawn by this review, the analysis here more clearly identifies the existing evidence and evidence gaps.

Article by: Veronica Meredith, Penelope Rush and Elly Robinson