Guest written by: Kathryn Malcom
Living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, whenever I would meet new people, or get updates on former classmates/friends, it was almost inevitable that I’d hear about “so and so [insert name here] working out west”. “Working out west” started to feel about as common as other uniquely Maritime sayings. Whenever I would hear about people working “out west”, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what that looked like and found myself, perhaps somewhat naively and a bit ignorantly, picturing farming work. Instead, I would learn, working “out west”, for many of my acquaintances, meant being employed and living at a work camp. Often this employment was in the oil field industry, where their roster schedule would involve intense periods of work, work followed by a reprieve and time away from their employment setting. For some of these workers, their permanent address would be in one province (e.g., Nova Scotia), but they would work in another province (e.g., Alberta).
I would come to find out that there is a term used for people who work this compressed employment schedule, where they spend a specific (and frequently intense) amount of time at their place of employment, followed by a period off from work: fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, or drive-in-drive-out (DIDO) workers. I would also start to learn that there is a bit of research on this population – in 2011, approximately 3% of the paid Canadian workforce was employed in this type of schedule, and many of these workers came from the Atlantic provinces (Morissette & Qiu, 2015). FIFO workers report both pros and cons of their job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many FIFO workers report the biggest advantage of this type of work is the financial benefit, followed by the freedom of being able to have a long period of time off (Blackman et al., 2014). Disadvantages of this lifestyle include the time spent away from home, and the long hours and fatigue associated with working such a compressed schedule (Blackman et al., 2014).
What remains less studied in this field is the impact that FIFO work has on romantic relationships, and how couples manage this type of schedule. I always wondered – so Johnny is working “out west” (I use ‘Johnny’ purposefully here, because it’s mainly men that engage in FIFO work), but Mary lives back home in Cape Breton, and Johnny returns every rotation – how does that work? How does the couple maintain their relationship? Do they talk on the phone all the time? And, what do they do when they are back together? Is it the normal “routine”? Or do they do different things because Johnny is home? What happens if there are kids in the picture? And, how do they maintain intimacy? Although there are a couple of studies that have assessed relationship satisfaction in FIFO couples, most do not go into detail on all the relationship questions that I want to know about!
So – here comes the plug for my research – all of this is what lead me to my current Ph.D. dissertation proposal. I will be examining the romantic relationship maintenance factors of couples that are involved in FIFO work. In order to tap into the unique “on-off-on-off” roster schedule, I will be following FIFO workers and their romantic partners over a period of two work cycles and asking them to fill out questionnaires about their relationship, at various points in time (both when they are at home and away at work). I am really excited about this research, and I think it has some great implications, ones that we (my supervisor, Scott, and I) would like to share with couples/families who are in this type of work schedule. If “working out west” is part of the Maritime vocabulary (which I would argue, it is), then I think it is our duty as researchers to provide helpful tips and strategies to FIFO couples and families.