Non-resident workers: a comparison of family support services for resource, health, and defence communities.

Author:Langdon, Rebecca
Position::Contributed Article - Report


Non-resident workforces experience high labour turnover, which has an impact on organisational operations and affects worker satisfaction and, in turn, partners' ability to cope with work-related absences. Research suggests that partner satisfaction may be increased by providing a range of support services, which include professional, practical, and social support. A search was conducted to identify support available for resources and health-industry non-resident workers. These were compared to the supports available to families of deployed defence personnel. They were used to compare and contrast the spread available for each industry. The resources industry primarily provided social support, and lacked professional and practical supports. Health-professional support services were largely directed towards extended locum support, rather than to Fly-In Fly-Out workers. Improving sources of support which parallel support provided to the Australian Defence Force is suggested as a way to increase partner satisfaction. The implications are to understand the level of uptake, perceived importance, and utilisation of such support services.

  1. Introduction

There is a growing focus on the impacts of the utilisation of non-resident workforces (NRWs) particularly in the resources industry (mining, oil, and gas sectors) and the use of Fly-In Fly-Out (FIFO), Drive-In Drive-Out (DIDO), and Bus-In Bus-Out (BIBO) workers. However, NRW also captures a range of additional workforces outside the resources sector, which include medical, nursing, and other health staff (Wakerman, Curry and McEldowney 2012) in addition to defence or military personnel on deployment (Burrell et al. 2006). Recent inquiries into the mining and resources sector have focused on the mental health and well-being of NRWs--along with their safety while working away--and a range of flow-on effects for industry (Western Australia Legislative Assembly 2014). Researchers explain that these flow-on effects can influence employment satisfaction and, subsequently, productivity, retention, and turnover within the resources industry (Beach, Brereton and Cliff 2003; Watt et al. 2013).

This article aims to discover the support services available to NRWs in the resources industry and the medical profession. It is an attempt to deal with the underlying psychosocial demands of working as a NRW in order to minimise issues related to employee turnover, retention, and work--life satisfaction. The support services will be compared to those available to Australian Defence Force families, who have been provided with such support successfully. An understanding of the services available to support these workers may be achieved by comparing and reviewing the differences in support services between the resources sector, the health sector, and the Australian Defence Force. An evaluation of the differences in types of services available may help organisations employing NRWs to minimise turnover and retain staff, through providing support services which parallel those provided by the Australian Defence Force.

Resource-industry Turnover in Australia

A recent review of resource-industry turnover found an average industry turnover of 24.4 per cent, with NRW turnover as high as 61.5 per cent (Kinetic Group 2012, p. 5). An alarming trend emerged when the average national employment turnover rate was reported as 13 per cent (Australian Human Resources Institute 2013, p. 9). An investigation of the high rates of turnover amongst FIFO workers across seven mining sites in Western Australia and Queensland found that their employee turnover averaged 21 per cent (Beach, Brereton and Cliff 2003, pp. 15-17). Roster design, particularly longer cycles--working, say, four weeks on and one week off--was associated with higher turnover. Sites with a positive working environment and culture were associated with lower employee turnover, indicating that good management practices essentially aided turnover reduction (Beach, Brereton and Cliff 2003). These data were collected over more than 10 years, and one FIFO mine site had a very low turnover rate of 8 per cent (Beach, Brereton and Cliff 2003, pp. 15-17).

Further, generational differences on intentions to leave FIFO were found for those born between 1955 and 1965: the 'Baby Boomers', and for those born from 1977 onwards: the 'Generation Y', with Generation Y being more likely to leave FIFO (Susomrith et al. 2013). An understanding of the different factors affecting retention for each generation, and adopting differing strategies, may assist with retaining FIFO workers from various generations (Susomrith et al. 2013). Further research found consistent results naming internal factors--such as roster design and workplace culture--as important organisational influences on retention, and personal and (or) external factors--such as the individual seeing themself as having a career in mining. Family also has an impact on intentions to leave a job (Brown et al. 2014). Importantly, it was acknowledged that pay was not identified as a primary motivator on whether or not to remain with an organisation (Brown et al. 2014). When investigating the positive and negative effects of FIFO on workers, Blackman et al. (2014, p. 195) found that pay was the greatest influence on the decision to undertake FIFO work (41 per cent); being away from home and (or) family separation is the main disadvantage of undertaking FIFO work. It was found that 22.9 per cent of the FIFO workers surveyed intended to leave their jobs in the next 12 months; this is a little less than the 23.7 per cent of other Australian workers surveyed (Blackman et al. 2014, pp. 191-192). It is unclear, however, whether the FIFO workers intended to switch employers and remain in FIFO work, or to leave FIFO altogether.

A review of various organisational factors and management practices may assist in understanding the internal factors that help to retain workers. However, external factors such as the coping abilities of the partner and the family members who remain at home continue to remain critical issues for workers (Taylor and Simmonds 2009). Hubinger, Parker and Clavarino (2002, pp. 85-88) noted that spouses stated that negative effects such as stress, depression, and anxiety were heightened by a perceived lack of support and understanding while working away. Despite this, Taylor and Simmonds (2009)found that FIFO mining families were generally satisfied with their relationships and lifestyle. However, it was acknowledged that the study had an extremely low response rate, with small sample sizes and no comparison group. This led to an unclear picture of overall satisfaction with the impacts of FIFO. It did, however, substantiate the need to ensure that remote mining employers provided suitable communication channels to enable families to connect during work absences. Additional identified challenges included concerns for the partner or spouse at home, with some reporting sexual-relationship issues upon reuniting after working away. It was also found that although many employees had access to support programs--such as the Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)--they were unaware of the support services available, and had a general...

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