Life as a FIFO: Looking After Our Mental Health

By Gustavo Picorelli.

As the world of mining grows and lifestyles change, more and more people working in the industry are doing FIFO work and leaving their homes and families on a regular basis.

As someone who has been doing this throughout my career – and almost every week for the last four years – I came to realise the importance of looking after my mental health as much, or even more so, than my physical health.

Why? Because this disruption to our lives and constant disconnect from partners, families, friends and our support networks can take its toll on our minds, and on how we feel.

Looking after our physical health can be (relatively) easy. While, yes, the prospect of a 5am wakeup call to harness waning motivations to huff and puff in the gym might not be for everyone, at least we know what to do. Hit the gym, go for a walk, run around the block, pump out 50 push ups… wherever we may be, we know this contributes to looking after our physical health. Outcomes are more about routine and self-discipline. But how do we look after our mental health.


Our Hierarchy of Needs

In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow first proposed the idea of a hierarchy of human needs. The idea behind it is that humans require basic needs (surviving) to be more or less met before other needs such as mental health further up the hierarchy can be met. The hierarchy is split from most to least important and is often represented as a pyramid.


As we are lucky to live in a developed society, we benefit from having our lowest-tier needs met the vast majority of the time, including when travelling for our jobs. The work we do, most often, will have no negative impacts on our physiological and safety needs and, as a matter of a fact, can positively impact it by providing us the resources for survival and setting us up to actualise needs higher up in the hierarchy. However, it can also negatively impact those needs we’re trying to set ourselves up to achieve.


The Impacts of FIFO

Most often, the consequences of working away from home, in remote locations, or long office hours begin to be felt about halfway up hierarchy – impacting our sense of belonging.

The distances (geographical or in time) can sever our sense of connection with our family and friends and impact on our ability to give and receive affection and love. Personally, over time, I saw this affect my own estimation of self-worth and self-actualisation. This is the upwards impact on our mental health needs and ultimately, can stop us from realising our true potential.

As time progresses and we have more and more moving parts to manage in our lives, health and wellbeing can habitually take the backseat. FIFO or living on site is often a conduit for poor lifestyle choices, and making the decision of living better takes energy that has already been allocated to other parts of our lives.

We also face the challenge of our needs further up the hierarchy, with their lack of physical tangibility, often being overlooked; because until we are aware of their importance, they are seemingly imperceptible to ourselves and others.


Keeping Healthy: What Worked For Me

The first approach – let’s call it the ‘foundation approach’ – I use every time I go away is to not allow the complete change in routine to wreck already established healthy routines. This is done by creating healthy habits, rather than using motivation alone.

For example, at home I am regularly physically active. While I’m away, I seek out an exercise space, and prioritise going with the same regularity as I do at home, rather than the pattern being entirely disrupted. It becomes a habit to seek out physical activity every day; even though how and when might be a bit different to home, it’s still getting the job done.

Using motivation to specifically build healthy habits means that once the motivation fades, the habits have been formed and it is easier to adhere to them.

As our bodies and minds are intrinsically interconnected, building this habit has been key for the body and mind supporting and influencing each other.


Challenge Yourself

 It might sound counterintuitive, but by stepping outside my comfort zone, has, over time, made me more comfortable while away on FIFO.

Giving a go at saying hi to co-workers and paying attention to things locals find interesting to see if there are any overlaps, chatting and bringing up hobbies, battling through the desire to say ‘no’ when invited to something, creating networks beyond the workplace, can all help with connection, belonging and meeting our higher tier needs.

Whilst away, I have experimented with a few more unusual out-of-work activities. Here’s how they went.

  • I gave a go at dancing. I was invited to go along to a beginner’s salsa dancing class with some colleagues. It is completely outside of my comfort zone and something that I never really had a “calling” for, but having challenged myself to say yes to new opportunities, I dusted off the blue suedes and went along. It was certainly daunting at times but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it. It helped me expand my social network away from home, added something new and challenging to the weeks away and provided new talking points and shared experiences to grow friendships with colleagues. Even though I would miss every 3rd or so lesson, the investment was worth it. Still can’t dance though.
  • More in my comfort zone (and less tiring), was joining a movie club. I actually seek them out regularly when I’m working on projects for extended periods of time. While they might not be available everywhere, when they are, it is a great way to add something different to the weeks away. And the movies might not always be exactly what we are used to, but provides a new entry point to meet people, shared discussion and new experiences – and it absolutely helps build a sense that you are part of a community. If one doesn’t exist where you are, there are online communities that you could seek out as an alternative or even join a book or comic club if reading is something you enjoy more.
  • I also strive to maintain hobbies which I have at home. One of my hobbies is rock climbing and is something that I always make an attempt to keep doing, even while away or under pressure. Most major cities have climbing/boulder gyms which are easy to go to and a lot of sites will have local crags that can be used by the public (and the geos will probably know where they are – another way to start conversations).
  • Creating short-term routines are another way to keep healthy and busy. Following meditation programs, gym routines or running challenges are all possible to be done whilst away on site and there are a multitude of resources for them. Gamified apps and online communities to share wins can also help to create a sense of shared achievement when trying something new. Perhaps you play a musical instrument or enjoy gardening – if there’s a way you can take an element of these with you when away, it can be worth it.
  • And of course, regular/daily communication with friends and family at home helps to minimise the disconnection that occurs with being away from home. Often it can feel like Groundhog Day on site, and that sometimes there’s not much news to share with people at home, but even if just chatting about what’s going on in the world – it’s important to keep that communication up, and probably most important when you least feel like it.


While FIFO and remote work takes adjustment, I found taking a few of these steps helped me to better look after myself, mentally and physically. I think it’s important to do not only for our wellbeing while we’re away, but also so we are at our best when back at home with family and friends.

Let’s reach out to our co-workers who might be struggling, working away from home, or not finding themselves with enough time to take care of themselves. Perhaps we could suggest they come along to the next movie club. Or give climbing a go. After all, life is to be enjoyed, wherever we are.

If you, or anyone you know, needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 44 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

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