FIFO Focus joins Big Al as part of the REDFM series FIFO Life.
In part 16, FIFO Focus’ Senior Consultant Sharon Rudderham talks about working an a ‘blokey’ culture and how to manage it.
What’s a blokey culture?
There’s a lot of talk these days about mining and construction industries having a blokey, macho, male dominated culture. But what is it? Generally a blokey culture is underpinned by the common use of swear language, sexism and inappropriate comments such as:
• Stop whining
• Suck it up
• She’ll be right mate
• Don’t be soft
• Toughen up princess
• Don’t be such a girl
Where a blokey culture is strong and ingrained, it’s also not uncommon to hear:
• Just get on with it
• Build a bridge
• This is just the way things are
• Fit in or f**k off
• If you don’t like it or can’t handle it just quit
• Pull your head in or you’ll get a window seat home
• There are hundreds who want your job, mate
Why are FIFO industries seen as blokey?
It’s important to recognise that the FIFO lifestyle isn’t normal. There aren’t many places where you work and socialise with the same people for weeks on end. It isn’t ‘real life’ but it is reality when you’re there!
FIFO can be a great and really positive experience where people form close bonds and rely on each other, but it can be a tense environment. People are generally tired, may have a short fuse, and a drinking culture can be ingrained. Some people behave in a way that isn’t appropriate in normal social circles or isn’t their usual style at home. For example, taking the piss out of each other, sharing alpha male antidotes, in-jokes, belittling others, making sexist or racist comments, playing practical jokes on each other, or using expletives and offensive insults which can make others uncomfortable. In extreme cases threats, aggressive behaviour or physical assault may occur.
Often the media focuses on the lack of gender diversity in mining as the key cause and solution to the problem. Whilst most mining FIFO workers are males in their late 20s to early 40s, it isn’t useful to stereotype them all. A wide variety of people choose to do FIFO and they are definitely not all the same! In general females are better at talking and sharing feelings. Males generally don’t want to or find it difficult to talk about feelings, or sometimes don’t understand them enough to explain them, and end up stewing on things for years. They want to be seen as strong, independent and in control, and not as weak, or letting their workmates or family down. It’s often easier to avoid feelings by keeping discussions focused on “easier” topics like football, work, or something that happened.
There are factors other than diversity with respect to the culture which include company values and leadership style, what behaviour is considered acceptable, communication styles, how safe people feel in speaking up or seeking help, and what social activities are on offer, to name a few.
It’s important to note that not all mine and construction sites are the same. Many companies understand the need for change and are encouraging inclusion and cracking down on anti-social behaviours. They have made investments in developing values and cultures and, whilst there is always room for improvement, significant steps have been made. Whilst I was skeptical and concerned, I personally found the transition to working FIFO was easy. Sure, there were some individuals who were difficult and blokey, but overall, I found most people accepting, friendly and willing to support or lend a hand.
Why is a blokey culture damaging?
A blokey culture can have significant negative effects, impacting both mental and physical health, regardless of your gender. Feeling like you need to be seen as tough and are coping to fit in or not lose your job, means you may not seek the proper medical advice you need to stay physically and mentally strong.
From a mental health perspective, in order to fit in, not make waves or be seen as weak, people can hide their feelings and emotions leading to anxiety, depression, isolation, self-doubt, being uncomfortable or lack of confidence. Some people may spend hours awake at night second guessing or actively thinking about things that have happened during the shift, or in extreme cases even have thoughts of self-harm. Usually people don’t speak up or seek help, rather they suffer in silence, put on a brave face and pretend everything is ok. This can impact their work and personal relationships, and can lead them to unhelpful coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol.
It can also impact physical health, for example, a lack of sleep makes you run down and more likely to get a cold. It can encourage you to take safety risks you normally wouldn’t which may end up in an injury. In extreme cases, I’ve worked with guys who felt unwell and had chest pains for days but refused to seek help, instead electing to fight it out, be strong and stay on shift. Luckily co-workers stepped up and convinced them to seek help which resulted in a RFDS flight to hospital for emergency surgery. When I asked them why they didn’t seek help, they all indicated they didn’t think it was that bad, they didn’t want to let the team down, they felt they had to be tough, and they didn’t want to lose their jobs as their families depended on them. If it wasn’t for these co-workers stepping up, these stories could have ended differently for the individuals and their family.
Tips for navigating a Blokey Culture
If you are experiencing difficulty with the blokey culture at work, the information below may assist you to assimilate more easily.
Manage inappropriate behaviours
If you’re uncomfortable with someone’s behaviour, let them know if you feel safe enough to do so. Alternatively, consider reporting it if their behaviour is unacceptable. A simple solution can be removing yourself from the situation. For example, if your crew drinks every night and you want to join in to be part of the team, go along for a couple of drinks but don’t stay back late. People may try encourage you to drink, but are generally accepting and respectful if you stay firm, or if you let them know you are going to talk to your family.
Don’t lose your individuality
Understand your own values and don’t compromise these to fit in or survive. Remember why you are there and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
Associate with people with similar likes and dislikes and get involved in things you enjoy
Find a coworker to go for a walk or to the gym with, or if you play a musical instrument you will find others on who want to jam. Join in social events, sports teams or watch sports events on TV with others. Don’t sit back and wait, take the initiative and ask around as you will find there are others out there who want to get involved
Take time to talk and listen to others.
Many co-workers have been doing FIFO for years and will have useful tips which may resonate with you. Sometimes understanding their experiences and insights can help you better understand your own feelings.
Make sure you don’t get caught up in the site culture and neglect others at home. It’s important to maintain communication with them whilst you are away.
Talk to others and seek help
If you’re experiencing issues, talk to others and seek help. It’s a sign of strength to realise you need help and to ask for it. Many workers indicate whilst they know the company provides assistance (usually via an employee assistance program), they don’t know what it is and how it could help them, or how to access it. Even though it can be difficult to take the first step and ask for help, it can be rewarding. If you’re comfortable, ask your site nurse, human resources, your supervisor, a safety representative or a colleague for information.