Assured Psychology | Calgary, Alberta

There’s No Place Like Home: Examining the Mental Health of Fly-in/Fly-out Alberta Oil Sands Workers

There’s No Place Like Home: Examining the Mental Health of Fly-in/Fly-out Alberta Oil Sands Workers

I recently had the privilege of visiting a fly-in, fly-out worksite located in the Alberta oil sands. While I grew up in Calgary, a city built from oil revenue, this was my first foray into the field. As a registered provisional psychologist, my role was to provide on-site counselling to employees and contractors. To do so effectively, I sought to understand the unique characteristics of the worksite and its impact on the mental health of the workforce.

After landing, I met my contact Stephanie and inquired about some of the mental health challenges she had observed. After careful thought, she expressed concern that her peers often reported struggling with relationship and family issues. As I would discover, walking the tightrope between home and camp life required flexibility and frequent readjustment to avoid falling into pitfalls on either side.

As I delved into the research literature, I quickly found Stephanie’s sentiment congruent with a study conducted by Dorow et al. (2021). Relying on survey and interview data collected from 72 Alberta oil workers, they found the number one difficulty faced by FIFO workers was the time spent away from their homes and families. The workers they interviewed expressed distress related to feelings of loneliness, difficulty maintaining family relationships, and missing out on family milestones and crises (Dorow et al., 2021).

As an attachment-based mental health professional, the above was unsurprising. While it is beyond the scope of this post to get into the nuances of attachment theory, suffice it to say that the stability of our closest relationships (usually between parental figures and their children or between romantic partners) is one the most significant determinants of our mental wellness. When distance and time separate workers from their families, stress is sure to follow. 

Fortunately, the camp I visited was very cognizant of the importance of mental health.

When I attended their medical centre, I was impressed by their attention to, and screening practices for, psychological health. Even more impressive was the open and direct way suicidal ideation was addressed. Recalling my Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), I knew such frank discussions had the potential to save lives.

I was also pleased with the receptive audiences the extractions and OPP teams provided when I joined their toolbox meetings. As I delivered a message focused on using counselling proactively to maintain good mental health and promote resilience, each person listened respectfully. The comradery of the teams was also evident as various people spoke about their own mental health experiences, validated the importance of mental health, and recognized the value of checking-in with one another and providing peer support.

Even a tour of the worksite included a brief psychological sojourn. As an experienced oil worker named Jeff drove us around the site explaining the kilometres of piping, pump houses, and conveyor belts, the conversation turned to the importance of finding a Zen place where one could be fully present. From a psychological perspective, this was a conversation about mindfulness and the restorative properties of paying attention on purpose. Cognitive behavioural practices also arose when Jeff reframed the cold downpour outside by recognizing its importance in thwarting dust and bugs.

Based on the interactions outlined above, it appeared great strides have already been made towards reducing mental health stigma on the site I visited. However, to address the issues workers experienced in their romantic and familial relationships, I decided to explore research-based solutions.

There’s No Place Like Home: Examining the Mental Health of Fly-in/Fly-out Alberta Oil Sands Workers

helpful strategies

Some of the helpful strategies I came across included: having employees schedule and prioritize communication with loved ones to ensure social contact is maintained while away, seeking complete and accurate information about the costs and benefits of FIFO work before engaging in it, establishing and building the onsite work community through social activities, and accumulating and presenting success stories and advice from those who demonstrate proficiency in managing their relationships while working away (Parker et al., 2018).

Given the invaluable importance of relationships to overall wellbeing, it is also worth considering professional assistance to maintain and improve connections. One of the unique elements of Assured Psychology, is that we have all received training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). Developed by Sue Johnson, EFT has been shown to help couples reconnect and strengthen their relationships by aligning individuals against unhelpful relationship patterns as opposed to one another, identifying, deepening, and making meaning from their current emotional experiences, and sharing, processing, and integrating those experiences and into a shared narrative. With such a helpful, evidence-based, approach at our disposal, our counsellors will continue to work hard to meet the mental health needs of the individuals who drive Alberta’s economy.


Parker, S., Fruhen, L., Burton, C., McQuade, S., Loveny, J., Griffin, M., Page, A., Chikritzhs, T., Crock, S., Karina, J., & Esmond, J. (2018). Impact of FIFO work arrangements on the mental health and wellbeing of FIFO works. Report produced for the WA Mental Health Commission.

Sibbel, A.M., Kaczmarek, E., Drake, D. (2016). Fly-In/Fly-Out Accommodation: Workers’ Perspectives. In: Haslam McKenzie, F. (eds) Labour Force Mobility in the Australian Resources Industry. Springer, Singapore.

Dorow S., O’Leary V., Hilario C., Cherry, N., Daigle, A., Kelly, G. Lindquist, K., Garcia M. M., & Shmatko, I. (2021) Mobile work and Mental Health: A Preliminary Study of Fly-in Fly-out Workers in the Alberta Oil Sands. Report. University of Alberta and CISM

Article by: Kevin Jones