Looking after your mental health as a FIFO or shift worker

Being a shift worker or a fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) worker impacts your sleep and your lifestyle – and we all know by now there are health ramifications if you don’t properly manage the two.

Below we explore more about the mental health impacts for shift and FIFO workers and list some tips about how to look after your mental health.


The impacts of the job

According to Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, a Senior Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, disturbance to their sleep is often the first thing people with depression notice.

“While most people with poor sleep do not go on to develop a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, poor sleep and insomnia pose an elevated risk of mental ill-health,” Dr Werner-Seidler says.

The Sleep Foundation reports that “shift work disorder” can increase the risk of health problems like depression. The disorder is a condition which is characterised by insomnia symptoms when a person attempts to sleep, and then they have excessive tiredness while they are at work. It may be because of the disruption of the circadian system (this regulates the release of different chemicals in the body).

Further, shift work can also cause certain social issues that decrease your wellbeing and happiness. If you work irregular hours you might eventually feel “out of step” with the people in your family or social network.

The same can be said for FIFO workers, where one in three workers experiences high levels of psychological distress, according to a government-funded study from Curtin University. Unfortunately, in many cases, the coping mechanism of distressed FIFO works is for drugs/and or alcohol.

Here are some tips, adapted from Beyond Blue and other resources for improving mental health.


Simple ways to improve your wellbeing

  • Keep fit. Get regular, daily exercise. Go for a walk, bike ride, bush walk, swimming, yoga, tai chi, or go to the gym (as ideas) and get good quality sleep.
  • Eat well. If you eat nutritious snacks and meals, you’re giving your body and your brain the nutrition it needs for optimal functioning.
  • Entertain yourself. Read, write a letter or email, play a solo card game, do crosswords or sudoku, go the movies, visit the museum, etc.
  • Pamper yourself. It’s not something truck drivers or FIFO workers do a lot of, but consider a massage, go lie on the beach or in a park or take a relaxing bath. It does wonders for time out and relaxation. These things all keep your mental health in check.
  • Around the house. Cook something new, listen to music, play in the backyard with your children or pets, so some gardening/look after the lawn.
  • Stay connected. Call a friend for a chat or spend time with family and less time in front of the TV or computer screen. Consider volunteering, which lets you help others, and is a great way to meet new people.


Practical strategies to improve sleep

  • Reduce or eliminate coffee, nicotine, and alcohol.
  • Stick to a regular sleep pattern (when you can, even on the weekend).
  • Ensure your bedroom temperature isn’t too warm – cooler conditions help you get to sleep and stay asleep.
  • Exercise, particularly early in the day.
  • Try to relax and slow down at least 30 minutes before sleep.
  • Avoid screens (TV/phone/laptop) before bed, and keep them out of the bedroom.
  • Look for ways to lessen the impact of shift work on your quality and quantity of sleep.


Manage your thoughts

Consider phycological therapies to help manage the way you think and behave. Such therapies – by looking at a situation, your mood, and the unhelpful thoughts you might have had – can lead to more positive problem-solving approaches.

Beyond Blue offers some tips to challenging unhelpful thoughts. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. If a close friend or someone I loved was thinking this way, what would I tell them?
  2. Five years from now when I look back, will I see things differently?
  3. Are the things I’m jumping to conclusions about justified by evidence?
  4. What am I ignoring about my strengths, and how am I coping?


  • For more information about coping strategies, and tips for good mental health in the workplace, here is a downloadable guide by Beyond Blue.


Seeking help

If you or a loved one is finding it hard to cope with the FIFO or shift-work lifestyle, please consult your GP. Wherever you are in Australia you can also speak with a trained health professional via the Beyond Blue Support Service:

  • Call 1300 224 636 (available 24/7)
  • Chat online (between 3pm-12am AEST)
  • Email (receive a response within 24 hours)

The Government of Western Australia has also released a Code of Practice for mentally healthy workplaces for FIFO workers. If you would like to read this, it can be accessed here.


Why count microsleeps when you can prevent them?