Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away from Home Base

This article is part of a special series focusing on common challenges faced by Australian families.

Other articles in this series include:

  1. Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation
  2. Challenges of Same-Sex Couple Families
  3. Challenges of Blended and Step “Remarried” Families
  4. Challenges of Families Who Experience Domestic Violence
  5. Family Issues When There is Disability, Illness, or Serious Injury

The working-away trend strengthens

For modern Australian families there is another dimension of challenge that sits just outside the framework of what used to be considered “normal”. Much has been said about the mining boom and the advantages that it has brought to this country’s economy in what are generally troubled economic times globally. Similarly, few Australians would argue about the necessity for Defence Force personnel to continue their commitments around the globe to preserve order, help stabilise and re-build war-torn countries, and complete other humanitarian missions. Yet families whose parents are in either the mining or defence industries – or other industries to a lesser degree – experience strong impacts from the effects of one parent being away for major periods of time.

Defence personnel are referred to as being “on assignment” or “on a tour of duty” somewhere. Mining families have a parent (usually the father, but sometimes the mother) who is a “FIFO” (fly in, fly out) employee of a mine, or occasionally, a DIDO (drive in, drive out) staff member. For the sake of convenience, we will refer to not only mining employees, but also Defence force personnel and any others taking up such employment, as FIFO employees. These sorts of working/living arrangements are likely to gain strength as the mining boom takes hold and hotspots of conflict remain in our region and around the world.

Function Two fulfilled as FIFO lifestyle brings financial rewards

Note: Refer to the first article in the series for further information about the family functions.

Merely because long-term parental absence for work is becoming more commonplace, however, it is not necessarily easier on the families who must make major adaptations in order to survive it. At first glance, the FIFO lifestyle would seem to create family dynamics that are similar to those of lone-parent households, but in fact they are quite different. For start, the second function of family, that of economic support, is sometimes weak in lone-parent households, especially if the custodial parent is female. In most cases, the income is lower than when both parents were present. In contrast, the FIFO lifestyle is usually undertaken for economic advantage.

While Defence personnel and those in other industries may not reap the superlative financial rewards that mining families now enjoy, they also provide adequate material support to their families through their employment; thus, Function Two of economic support is well-fulfilled. So let us turn to the other functions of family in order to see how this phenomenon affects the families that experience it.

Functions One and Three challenged as FIFOs struggle to maintain relationships

The most major challenges to the family unit with long-term parental absence occur with respect to the first function (family formation and membership) and the third function (nurturance, education, and socialisation). Anne Sibbel, a community psychologist and miner’s wife, wrote in a submission to the inquiry on FIFO workforce practices (2011) that a chief issue for miners is often maintaining ongoing personal and family relationships. For mining and other employees working away from home base, the often very long rosters and associated fatigue, loneliness, and isolation while on site take a toll. Too, there are sometimes issues of air and work safety at the site, which has a heavily male-dominated workforce (Clifford, 2009; Sibbel, 2011).

A working-away employee usually can’t wait to get home for the leave part of the cycle, but when he arrives there, he needs to work out afresh what role to take up as he re-joins the family circle. In his absence, his partner has been making many if not all domestic decisions, and the children have been doing their normal lives and learning to cope without him (Sibbel, 2011). The family must now re-learn how to cope with him home, and there is the very real question of where he will fit in (a drama which will repeat each fortnight, or whenever he comes back home). Single-parent families, conversely, adjust once to the permanent loss of the parent that is no longer there.
Similarly, Clifford’s studies (2009) showed that the top four stressors for working-away employees (aspects that 75 per cent of her study subjects were dissatisfied with) were:

  1. Difficulty participating in the community
  2. Being tired during the early leave period
  3. Missing important events with loved ones, such as birthdays, Christmas, and school events
  4. Wanting to be more involved in the daily lives of loved ones.

Long-term absent parents want to come fully back into the family circle, but in reality they cannot easily do so. There are parenting issues and issues of managing children’s behaviour, as the at-home parent’s management and discipline style will be what is normally in effect. The work-away spouse probably missed some special events since the last time home (for which the children may consciously or unconsciously harbour grudges), and the person must deal with the inconsistency in household routines and roles between their home and away time.

The partner of the work-away employee has been doing it tough, too. Being the sole parent for sometimes weeks on end gives depression-engendering parenting fatigue (in this aspect, the FIFO lifestyle may be similar to that of the lone-parent family). She may be lonely, too, especially if there is not good communication access to the remote site where he is located when he is at work. And there are perennial parenting issues and decisions about managing children’s behaviour to deal with (Sibbel, 2011). Clifford’s (2009) research showed that partners of work-away employees had stress levels over the six months prior to the study significantly higher than those of the actual spouse-employee. The partners were most dissatisfied with:

  1. The spouse-employee missing important events
  2. The spouse-employee missing ongoing community or sports events
  3. Loneliness
  4. Worrying about the partner being able to get home in the event of a personal emergency.

Function Four at risk as FIFO families judged by the community

Writing specifically about mining employees (not referring to Defence force personnel or other work-away employees), Sibbel (2010) and Sibbel and Kaczmarek (2005) found that community attitudes towards the FIFO phenomenon are sometimes judgmental and derogatory, impacting negatively on FIFO families’ capacity and willingness to form relationships and links within their local community. Those relying more on community support while the FIFO partner is away can be especially vulnerable, a finding which touches on Function Four of families: the need to protect the vulnerable from harm, including from adverse social environments.

Loss of support for children of FIFO employees

The children and adolescents of FIFO families also feel keenly the loss of their parent’s attendance at school and community functions, as well as birthdays, Christmas, and other celebrations. Parents writing in for advice on the Mining Family Matters website regularly express how anxious their children are with their father away (Willcocks, 2012). Like their parents, FIFO-family children are impacted negatively by having the at-home parent direct discipline in one way and the work-away parent coming home and doing it differently (Sibbel, 2001).

While adolescents generally seem to adapt well to having their father involved in FIFO employment, they are also aware of the loss of physical and emotional support when their father is away, and beyond that they often experience behavioural restrictions. Boys report more behavioural difficulties than girls, but they also have tended to take more responsibility in the household. The extended time many adolescents get with the work-away parent when he is home on leave has been utilised as quality time between the parent and each child as bonding time, helping to mitigate the negative impacts of having a parent away. Some experts have advised, however, that with teens it takes persistent efforts to “break through” and convince them that the parent is indeed interested (Bradbury, 2008, in Sibbel, 2010).

Reviewing these dynamics in light of the family functions, it seems clear that families of work-away employees cannot help but be challenged. While the economic support function (Function Two) is mostly implemented well in such families, the functions that may be at risk pertain to gaining a sense of identity through family membership (Function One), and then expanding that sense to govern processes of education and socialisation into the culture of the community (Function Three). Children of FIFO families may be learning that, although their concerns can have primacy with the work-away parent when he is home, “work” is a slice of life that is important enough to dictate that the parent be away for long periods of time – periods not of the family’s choosing – and that family life must be organised around it. Children and partners of FIFO employees get to learn about coping with loneliness, a sense of abandonment, and no dad/husband to give needed hugs and nurturance.

From both parents, the children may learn that just doing regular life can make a person tired, but they need to keep going anyway. Sadly, they may become socialised by their community to see the work-away phenomenon, especially FIFO, in a negative light, and this may cause low self-esteem in some. If the family can be supported to overcome those dynamics, however, there appears to be no significant difference between FIFO primary-school-aged children and non-FIFO primary school students on measures of psychological wellbeing (Sibbel, 2001).


This article was adapted from AIPC’s MHSS Specialty Course “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information, visit


  • Clifford, S.A. (2009). The Effects of Fly-in/Fly-out Commute Arrangements and Extended Working Hours on the Stress, Lifestyle, Relationship and Health Characteristics of Western Australian Mining Employees and their Partners: Report of research findings. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Sibbel, A. M. (2001) The Psychosocial Wellbeing of Children from Fly in/Fly out Mining Families. Unpublished honours thesis, Edith Cowan University, Perth. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Sibbel, A. (2011). Inquiry into the use ‘fly‐in, fly‐out’ (FIFO) workforce practices in regional Australia: Submission 122. Canberra, ACT: House Standing Committee on Regional Australia, House of Representatives, Parliament House. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Sibbel, A. M., & Kaczmarek, E. A. (2005) When the dust settles, how do families decide? Residential or FIFO? Paper presented at the 14th Biennial Australasian Human Development Conference, Perth.
  • Willcocks, A. (2012). How to survive with young kids and a FIFO husband. Mining Family Matters. Retrieved on 5 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.