Adapting to a different FIFO roster

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The process of coping with a new FIFO roster is challenging for most workers and their families.

Change can be exciting and welcome, or frustrating and draining. It’s a journey that has been very personal for me over the past few months, as my husband has returned to FIFO, and it’s something that many people around me are working through as well.  

To ensure we effectively navigate through changes to FIFO rosters (which after all have a big impact on both our working lives and lifestyle) it's worth looking at how change progresses. I’ll take the example of transitioning to a roster with a longer swing away.

Preparation

This involves mentally and physically preparing for the change. The FIFO worker might begin to think about the logistics of the new roster and get excited about the extended time at home, or might begin to think about their new crew/project team. The FIFO partner might start thinking about the things they could do to fill the time they would normally spend with their partner, or worry about how they’ll cope with the longer period of absence.

What to do: Try to reduce any additional sources of stress leading up to the change. This could include discussing the change to family and friends or postponing non-urgent tasks and projects around the house. Begin to plan for the change together with your partner and understand how it will fit into your broader goals as a couple and a household. If expectations/concerns are not discussed and cleared up now, they’re likely to resurface later.

Reality

Just before, or as the change occurs, people tend to change their thinking. Distancing or withdrawal behaviour just before a change is common, as people start to 'cushion the blow' of a change by starting the process early. Both the FIFO worker and their partner might feel anger and resentment as the new roster starts. Both might doubt the decision and the real impact it will have on them and their family.

What to do: Talk. Frustration that is actually directed toward an employer for an imposed roster change can easily be misinterpreted as anger at a partner or children. Recognising what’s going on and talking about it will often diffuse tensions and get to what is really going on. Try to connect as much as possible via phone, skype or email during the first few days of the change. This connection will ease the transition for the FIFO worker and family.

Limbo

This is where it can get messy. Any novelty that the new roster might have had has well and truly worn off. Phone calls are missed because the FIFO partner is trying to get a new family routine to work. The FIFO worker is struggling with fatigue because the work/flight schedules are so different. Both the FIFO worker and the FIFO family know that things aren’t the way they used to be, but they’re not yet settled into their new routine.

What to do: Rally the troops. For the FIFO worker, this might be getting to know your new crew/project team, settling into a new routine with meals, recreation time etc. Simple things like getting comfortable in your living environment again can bring a sense of normality and control back to the situation. For the FIFO family, this could be calling on family and friends to assist, or just to listen. This is where it might become apparent that some friends or family members just don’t 'get' the FIFO lifestyle and how much flexibility and patience it requires. This is also where it’s important to look at coping strategies. If you’re able to take a step back, evaluate what’s happening and learn from the experience, you’re more likely to adjust better to a stressful event (last month’s column on managing stress will offer some more guidance, especially if the FIFO worker or FIFO family is really not coping with the change).

Adjustment

There is a small light appearing at the end of the tunnel. The FIFO worker is starting to feel in more control of the situation. Sleep and eating patterns are returning to normal, phone calls home are less about how ordinary the new roster is and more focussed on everything else that is happening on site. The FIFO family is likely to feel more in control. They will miss the FIFO worker, but there is likely to be sense of independence emerging.

What to do: Provide encouragement. You've come through the worst of the change. Simple phrases like "thank you for taking care of…", "So good to hear that you’re settling into…" can make all the difference.

Established

Here the change becomes bedded down and becomes the new 'normal'. The FIFO worker is settled and focussed in their job and the FIFO family is functioning as it was before the change occurred.

What to do: Focus on the future. What is likely to come next? Begin to understand your medium to long-term career and life plans. Is the new roster something that works well for your family and is likely to be a good match for the future? Is this a short-term option with an 'expiry date'? Discussing and deciding on career/life plans and goals can assist in coping with change as it occurs in the future.

The funny thing about change is that it happens in micro and macro cycles. From a personal perspective, it has taken about two months on a new roster for our household to reach the 'adjustment' phase of change. But, within that, every time my other half leaves for his next swing we go through a micro version of the change process. You can shift from stage to stage very quickly and it's easy to slip backwards in the change process.

What I hear from friends and family who also have FIFO partners is that they miss their partner, BUT "I get into a good routine" or "I have mum to help out with the kids" or "I become very independent when they're gone". The trick is to look at what stage of the change process you're in, and take steps to ensure that you move through it effectively. Find what works for you and what allows you to live the FIFO lifestyle and still be a great wife, husband, partner or friend. 


More expert advice from Therese:

Therese Lardner is an industrial and organisational psychologist with extensive experience in all areas of the employment cycle from recruitment and selection to development, employee engagement and career transition. She currently works for Lee Hecht Harrison in Brisbane. Click here to ask for Therese's expert advice on landing your perfect mining and resources job or moving up the career ladder in your workplace.