Inside the research on fly-in, fly-out work
While many people get to head home after a long day of work, some of those employed at NWT mines have to spend long stretches of time at remote work sites.
Researchers and workers say that unique lifestyle – known as fly-in, fly-out, or sometimes drive-in, drive-out work, and common in the territory – comes with both benefits and challenges.
This rotational type of employment has been prevalent since the NWT’s first diamond mine began production in 1998. Thousands of residents have been employed directly or as contractors at mines.
Several people currently working at the NWT’s diamond mines – who spoke to Cabin Radio on the condition of anonymity to protect their employment – said some of the advantages include high income, good benefits and long periods of time off between rotations. But they said it can be hard being away from home for weeks at a time.
“The biggest perk is the fact that you’re home and off for over half the year,” one worker told Cabin Radio. “But for five and a half months of the year, you are not at home. And that’s the worst.”
They said it can be anxiety-inducing knowing that if there’s a problem at home, like their house has flooded, they can’t leave work to deal with it. Being at work for long stretches of time can be especially hard for people with children, they added.
They said one of the biggest challenges for them is finding someone to take care of their pets and house while they are at work.
“Sometimes I feel guilty asking all the time,” they said.
Other challenges of working at a diamond mine, they said, can include having difficulty sleeping on-site and not being able to spend much time outdoors, especially in winter when it’s dark and cold.
“Rotational work or mine work isn’t for everybody,” they said. “It’s not an easy job in the sense that you are away for that long, and you have to be more mentally tough to handle things when you’re there and still be able to work.”
Research highlights benefits, drawbacks
Research on fly-in, fly-out work suggests it can have positive lifestyle, career and family benefits, but workers can face high levels of anxiety, depression, burnout and psychological stress.
A recent paper by researchers at the University of Alberta found those employed in the province’s oilsands reported worse mental health, more work-related stress, and higher incidences of long-term health conditions and use of mental health services than the general population.
Many workers said being away from home for extended periods of time meant they sometimes missed significant events and it caused strain on their relationships, loneliness and stress. Others said they struggled to maintain healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits while at work.
Survey participants further identified job uncertainty, a demanding and unpredictable work environment, discrimination and harassment, and a masculine work culture as factors contributing to poor mental health and well-being.
Research in Australia, home to hundreds of operating mines, has indicated similar findings.
Sociologist Sara Dorow, who led the Canadian research project, said she generally wasn’t surprised by the results as they aligned with her experience carrying out previous research on work camps. However, she was “unpleasantly surprised” by how adamant study participants were about not using health services.
While 79 percent of the workers surveyed said they had access to healthcare services while on rotation, more than half said they would not use them due to concerns about layoffs, lost time and loss of respect.
‘Bouncing back and forth between two lives’
One NWT mine worker told Cabin Radio there are “two sides of the coin” when it comes to mental health and being on rotation.
They explained the structured nature of camp life helps them to function and developing a routine has been beneficial for their mental health. But they said they don’t have the same social supports while at the mine and, when they are on-site, they are completely focused on work, meaning their relationships at home can suffer.
“I end up blocking out everything else,” they said. “I get sort-of overwhelmed trying to balance talking to my family or relationships … When I get back, that’s when I have to face not talking to somebody that I was supposed to talk to every day.”
Two other workers said one of the biggest challenges of rotational work is the strain on relationships with spouses.
“It’s difficult to feel like you’re kind-of not living up to your responsibilities in some way, because you just aren’t there to do the things you need to do,” the second worker said.
The third worker said the transition between work and home is especially hard.
“When you’re apart from someone, you just sort-of get used to living your own life,” they said. “Without fail, every time I come home we have a couple days where we’re sort-of on edge around each other or just really, really sensitive.”
They described the transition between two different environments, with different people, as being “disorienting.” They said they now keep a list of goals, hobbies, things they want to do and friends they want to connect with when they are at home.
“It can be so jarring to be in that other life for so long that I don’t trust that I will remember,” they said. “It’s hard to feel like you live in linear time, like a normal person, because you’re just bouncing back and forth between two lives and you only ever have a few weeks in each.”
Workers said measures put in place at mine sites to prevent the spread of Covid-19 were particularly challenging for their mental and physical health. They said that meant lots of testing for Covid-19, less access to amenities, and lengthier rotation periods.
“There was a period of time where nothing was open. You couldn’t eat in the cafeteria, you couldn’t go to the rec room, you couldn’t go to the gym, couldn’t do anything except go to work and be in your room,” one worker described.
Another worker said they found it particularly difficult not being able to go to the gym, as exercising is an important part of their routine at the mine and helps to keep their mind focused.
“For me, that’s a huge, huge blow because that’s something that I depend on to get myself through a run,” they said.
They added the restrictions reduced camaraderie among staff as people weren’t able to socialize as usual after work.
A third worker said they found the extension of shifts led to a “state of extended fatigue.”
“I start getting really tired around the 10th day of continuous work, no matter how long the shift is,” they explained. “On a 21 or a 28-day shift, that’s a long time to stand in the red zone of fatigue. You can go to some pretty dark places.”
Periods of isolation could mean “you’re literally confined to your room, which is the size of a cell, and you don’t see another human except for people coming in in full hazmat to swab you.”
“Honestly,” the worker said, “I was surprised that nobody had a psychotic break in there. It’s a prison cell.”
“People would get that call, sometimes you just break down and cry,” another worker said.
Gendered and community impacts
Research suggests fly-in, fly-out work can have distinct impacts on women and far-reaching effects on families and communities.
Of the women surveyed in Dorow’s study of oilsands workers – accounting for 31 percent of all participants – 68 percent reported experiencing discrimination at work, most frequently in the form of sexism. Among all survey respondents, 46 percent reported experiencing some form of discrimination ranging from favouritism and height discrimination to racism.
A recent report on workplace culture at mining group Rio Tinto – which owns the NWT’s Diavik diamond mine and employs more than 45,000 people in 35 countries – found bullying, sexual harassment and racism were systemic across the company.
Among more than 10,000 survey respondents, almost half said they experienced bullying over the past five years, with 28.2 percent of women and 6.7 percent of men reporting they had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm called the report’s findings “deeply disturbing” and committed to implement its recommendations.
In the NWT, there have been reports of sexism and sexual harassment connected to the mining industry, which has long had a male-dominated workforce. Reports indicate 19 percent of all employees at the Gahcho Kué diamond mine are women, 17 percent at the Ekati diamond mine, and 14 percent at Diavik.
In 2017, RCMP in Yellowknife announced they were investigating after a camera was found in a women’s washroom at Ekati. While a man was arrested and charged with voyeurism in relation to the incident, those charges were dropped in early 2018.
Rebecca Hall, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who has studied the gendered impacts of mining in the NWT, said women who worked at the territory’s diamond mines shared stories of intense visibility, greater scrutiny and overt sexual harassment. Women who worked in housekeeping and positions with lower salaries described the most explicit and pervasive experiences of gendered discrimination and violence.
For other women, Hall said, the separation between work and home means a career at a diamond mine is not accessible because it would prevent them from caring for family and community. That “caring divide,” she said, can exacerbate hyper-masculine mining cultures.
Hall found that fly-in, fly-out work can increase burdens on the spouses of mine workers – most often women – leading to financial inequality within households and making it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships .
She said many women described feeling like a single parent for half of the year and being largely responsible for day-to-day responsibilities. Even when their partner returned home, Hall said, many women found it difficult to “renegotiate the household labour.”
Hall said many women she spoke to wove their experiences with the diamond mines into the ongoing process of settler colonialism.
She said fly-in fly-out work has also had broader impacts on community relations and responsibilities as some community members are away for long stretches of time.
“A lot of people talked about this real feeling of the community being emptied out,” she said.
Even so, Hall said, some people shared positive impacts from the diamond mines, like employment opportunities and funds coming into communities.
Resources offered by mining companies
Owners of the NWT’s mines say they offer mental and physical health benefits to employees and their families, like access to gyms on-site and free counselling.
According to a 2019 survey of 2,068 mining employees in the NWT, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they had used available fitness facilities at work, while 17 percent said they used learning centres.
Ten percent said they used either the employee assistance program or other counselling or treatment programs for substance abuse, with NWT residents more likely to do so than workers who lived out-of-territory. A further 6.5 percent of respondents said they needed help for substance use but had not used any programs.
Angela Bigg, president and chief executive of the Diavik diamond mine, said recognition of mental health has grown at the mine.
She said staff have safety shares at the beginning of every meeting where they can discuss physical and mental health. The mine offers an employee assistance program, she said, and there are staff on-site who are trained in mental health first aid and provide peer support.
“If you compare today to even 10 years ago, mental health is something that people talk much more freely about in the community and that’s reflected at the mine site,” she said.
Bigg acknowledged pandemic restrictions were challenging but said the mine tried to offer physically distanced social activities when possible, like an outdoor “summer Olympics” event and an ice hockey rink.
Bigg said there are formal and informal support networks for women working at the mine, and policies against discrimination.
Justin Fabella, Gahcho Kué’s superintendent of safety, health and risk, said some staff on-site are trained in mental health first aid and recent initiatives have focused on psychological safety. He said staff are awarded for challenging group thought and encouraged to share their feelings.
“It’s so important to make a safe worksite not only physically … but making sure you have your head in the game,” De Beers spokesperson Terry Kruger said. “That psychological safety where you’re focused on your personal safety, you’re able to identify risks and hazards, and you’re free to speak up and address them with your supervisors and your colleagues.”
Kruger said De Beers has introduced a zero-tolerance policy for gender-based violence, whether in the workplace or at home. Gahcho Kué partnered with the Status of Women Council of the NWT in August 2021 to offer new safety planning resources for women experiencing intimate partner violence.
Arctic Canadian Diamond Company, which took over Ekati in early 2021, told Cabin Radio in a statement that the well-being of its workers is “of the utmost importance.”
“We strive to foster a healthy work environment that enables our workforce to contribute their best every day,” the statement reads. “Mental health is a core component, and we recognize that supporting our employees’ overall well-being results in a resilient workforce and thriving workplace.”
Through its employee assistance program, Arctic Canadian said it offers mine workers and their families counselling, stress management resources, addictions support, and work-life balance support.