Making healthy choices on the job

Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers are faced with the challenge of being time poor due to an ever-changing routine, which can impact their diet and exercise patterns. Salomae Haselgrove speaks with two dieticians to see how FIFO workers can live a healthy life.

FIFO workers quickly move back and forth between relaxing at home with their families to hopping on a flight to a remote mine site away from the convenience of a local supermarket.

Adding to the difficulty, FIFO workers must also navigate a range of choices on site like all-you-can eat buffet style meals and the temptation of high fat, high sugar snacks and drinks to keep their energy levels elevated during a long shift.

This, paired with long and sometimes unpredictable shift-work hours, can lead to increased stress levels and poor eating habits.

According to Gael Myers, an accredited practicing dietitian for Cancer Council Western Australia’s LiveLighter program, eight in 10 FIFO workers in Western Australia carry excess body fat, compared with seven in 10 adults across other industries.

“This is concerning given what we know about the link between being above a healthy weight and developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and 13 types of cancer,” Myers tells Safe to Work.

Myers says FIFO workers may be inclined to use food as a source of comfort while working far away from their families, friends and home communities.

“Working long hours away from the support of family and friends can lead FIFO workers to reach for high fat and sugar comfort foods, avoid exercise or drink too much alcohol in an effort to cope,” she says.

“While it might seem like a good idea at the time, these habits can actually leave people feeling more stressed and run down.”

A balanced diet not only helps keep working bodies healthy, but it also improves moods, boosts energy levels and makes workers feel more alert.

Myers recommends changing up diet plans dependent on the workers’ role, for example, someone in a physical role will need more food throughout the day than someone in a desk job.

However, she still emphasises the importance of fuelling up on healthy food.

“If you don’t plan on returning to the mess during the day, don’t forget to pack a healthy lunch and snacks,” Myers says.

“A sandwich, some fruit and a zip lock bag or container of nuts are easy to carry and keep well over the day. To boost your fibre intake and keep your insides running smoothly, choose grainy or wholemeal bread, rolls and wraps.”

For the one-in-three FIFO workers that spends most of their day sitting and needs less energy from food than their more active counterparts, seated roles are still tiring and can make workers feel snacky.

Credits: The Good Nutrition Company


“Chips and chocolate are not your friends if your aim is to keep up your energy and concentration,” Myers warns.

“They don’t fill us up and only give a short-term mood boost. Choose snacks with lots of fibre and some protein or healthy fats. These will give longer-lasting energy and add a heap more nutrients to keep your mind and body sharp.”

Myers suggests healthy snacks like grainy crackers, nuts and dried fruit, fresh or tinned fruit, tinned tuna or chickpeas and popcorn for nourishing snacks that keep well in a cab or desk drawer.

For workers on night shift, Myers urges them to eat lightly, as the digestive system is sleeping and less primed and prepped for heavy meals at night.

Night shift can also disrupt sleep patterns, metabolism and digestion, and eat into exercise times.

While it is tempting to use caffeine to get through night shift, Myers says workers must be mindful of how it may affect sleeping patterns once the shift is over.

“Plan your shift meals and snacks so that you’re eating regularly to keep your energy up,” she says. “You can even split your lunch in two so you’re eating the same amount but spread over two occasions.

“Make your pre-shift meal the biggest. It’ll fuel you for the shift ahead and can hopefully be at a time when your body is ready to eat, such as late evening or early in the night.”

While it’s easier to set a routine while on the home stint of a FIFO lifestyle, it can also be easier to fall off the bandwagon.

Myers says it’s important to keep routine and recommends activities such as catching up with friends over breakfast rather than at the bar, joining a sports team and freezing home-cooked meal portions for an easy fly-in night dinner.

“It’s easy to get sucked into treating your home shift like a holiday, eating, drinking alcohol and lounging around like its Christmas break,” she says. “Relaxing and socialising is really important, but so is your health and having some routine.”

As chief executive of The Good Nutrition Company, Nicole Dynan has worked with workplaces, including mining companies, to build health strategies workers can stick to.

Dynan, an accredited practicing dietician and sports dietician, says creating a healthy routine requires navigating the work environment effectively.

She urges workers to start with a balanced first meal to set the tone right from the beginning of the day.

“Starting the day or shift with a good, balanced breakfast or first meal can make all the difference to energy levels and fatigue management throughout a shift,” Dynan tells Safe to Work.

“Including a source of protein, for example, milk, yoghurt, beans or tofu in this meal has been proven to help appetite control, cravings and alertness.”

To continue positive habits into lunch and dinner, Dynan suggests that workers look at the menus ahead of time and plan their meals more effectively to avoid last minute, less healthy decisions.

“Building meals around half a plate of vegetables with a smaller quarter of a plate portion of meat and a quarter of a plate of good quality carbs is a foolproof way to increase nutrients in the diet and manage weight when on site,” she says.

“Plant-based, high in fibre diets have also been shown to be supportive of mood.”

To stay motivated on a work-based health plan, Dynan encourages finding an on-site buddy to help keep on track when workers are feeling tired or their motivation is low.

She also recommends “habit stacking”, a method which links a new behaviour to an already established habit.

“The idea is that the first habit will trigger another and with time it will become effortless to do,” Dynan explains.

“For example, choose a habit that you already do weekly, daily or multiple times a day, such as making a coffee for morning tea at work.

“Pair this with a healthy habit you want to add to your routine, such as drinking more water. For example, ‘Before drinking my coffee, I will drink one glass of water.’”

Mining companies can offer enormous benefits to their staff by providing access to on-site or virtual dietitian support teams.

Professional dietitians provide tailored nutrition webinars, which can be watched during downtime and shift health culture into a more positive direction.

“Research shows that companies who prioritise wellbeing services, including nutrition education and the provision of one-on-one support for their workers are viewed as employers of choice, helping them to attract and retain the best talent,” Dynan says.

“With most (mining) staff typically being men, being able to access a telehealth dietitian can be a safe way to discuss personal challenges in their own time, without fear of judgement or ridicule.”

This article also appears in the Mar-Apr issue of Safe to Work.

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