Children and the fly-in/fly-out lifestyle: employment related paternal absence and the implications for children

Child mental health Well-being Families Fathers Parenting and guardianship Resilience (Personality) Fly-in fly-out workers Labour mobility Western Australia

There has been growing interest in the implications of paternal fly-in/fly-out employment (FIFO) for families and children. The current research had a dual aim, first to investigate children’s well-being in relation to family functioning and paternal FIFO employment characteristics and, second, to access children’s own experience, perceptions and attitudes about the FIFO lifestyle and employment-related paternal absence. The research was multi-method in design, with a quantitative study measuring child, parent and family functioning and a two-stepped qualitative component consisting of a content analysis of written responses and a thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with children.

Forty-eight children, aged between 8 and 16 years, and their parents (i.e., 48 mothers, 47 fathers) from 49 families completed the quantitative questionnaires. Overall, the children’s emotional-behavioural functioning was healthy and not significantly related to paternal FIFO employment characteristics. The boys reported more emotionalbehavioural difficulties than girls, in particular hyperactivity. The children’s well-being was associated with several maternal-reported variables but none of the paternalreported variables. However, the children’s level of emotional-behavioural functioning was predicted by their self-report of paternal care and nurturance. Addressing parental well-being, the participating women reported more emotional difficulties than the men, with over one third of the women reporting stress symptoms in the moderate to severe clinical range. While the majority of children and their parents reported healthy family functioning and the parents reported healthy relationship quality, over 50% of the mothers and fathers in the study reported parenting conflict in the clinical range.

Participating children endorsed the extended, quality time with their fathers and the financial remuneration of paternal FIFO employment as the key benefits of the FIFO lifestyle. The adolescents in the study viewed employment-related paternal absences as a respite from fathering as well as a loss of paternal support. The main costs of the FIFO lifestyle for the children were the negative emotions related to paternal absence, the loss iv of physical and emotional paternal support, and the restriction to their lifestyle and activities. A subset of 15 children from the original study and 12 of their siblings (n = 27) were interviewed. The majority of the children demonstrated successful adaptation to paternal FIFO employment. The key themes to emerge from these interviews were the children’s emotional and personal changes (e.g., increased responsibility, greater independence) and family changes (e.g., alternating household systems, family selfreliance). The children demonstrated knowledge of their father’s work and were also aware of the potential impact of FIFO employment on family and personal relationships.

The overall findings suggest that paternal FIFO employment does not act as a discreet homogeneous risk factor for children. However, there was some evidence that boys negotiate employment-related paternal absences differently from girls, with boys expressing more ambivalence toward paternal absences. The significant finding of high maternal stress in the study indicates that mothers may “buffer” the strains of regular family disruption from the other family members. The participating children’s ability to balance the benefits of the FIFO lifestyle with the costs of paternal absences, to understand parental employment decisions, and to demonstrate resilience to family changes was positive news for FIFO families and those families considering the FIFO option.

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