Health study asesses stress factors

Fishers identify stress as the greatest workplace issue facing their industry

Photo of Fishing boat  Photo: 123RF.com

By Tanya King, Sue Kilpatrick and Karen Willis


Researcher: “What are the biggest issues facing the fishing industry at the moment?”
Fishers: “Stress."


There are some stress factors that fishers can address and some they cannot. Recognising the difference allows them and their supporting organisations to focus on preventing and treating the associated physical and mental-health issues.

A recent project funded by the FRDC found that one of the key health and wellbeing challenges facing fishers relates to poor mental health. This includes feelings of stress, anxiety and hopelessness, sleeplessness, domestic unrest, substance overuse and abuse, anger, shaking, hair loss and discolouration and, in the worst cases reported, suicide or attempted suicide.

In addition to mental health concerns, the project, Staying Healthy: Industry organisations’ influence on behaviours and services used by fishers, also identified a range of health issues of particular concern to the commercial fishing sector including skin disease, wear and tear on joints, and diet.

The project investigated the role of industry organisations in combating these problems. Given the gravity of mental health issues reported by fishers and their families, researchers involved in this project are now developing partnerships and exploring strategies to address the symptoms, causes and treatment of poor mental health in the fishing industry.

Researchers from Deakin University, the University of Tasmania and the University of Sydney collaborated on the project. Three case-study sites were selected on the basis of local interest and the capacity of on-the-ground liaison assistants to organise fishers for interviews and group discussions.

Thirty-four fishers participated from across the three locations. These included commercial fishing owners, skippers, deckhands and family members.

Other participants included two fishing industry association representatives, two healthcare providers, one industry office bearer and one local government representative.

An invisible workforce

Fishing industry organisations have limited influence on the health and wellbeing behaviours and health service use of fishers. While some organisations are proactive, the majority of efforts identified in this study were ‘ad hoc’ and initiated by individual, influential women in the local fishing community.

Some skippers reported being proactive in addressing the causes and treatment of physical injury to themselves and their crew. This health behaviour was the result of health messages such as the ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ skin-cancer-prevention campaign, or the general awareness of correct lifting to prevent back injuries.

Fishers as a collective tend to be ‘invisible’ to local healthcare providers and tend to present to health services only when their work schedules allow. Where service providers are aware of access issues and the need for targeted programs they are, in the main, not resourced to provide these.

It is for this reason that the provision of ‘soft entry points’ for fisher health services is vital to improving the health and wellbeing of fishers. Soft entry points occur when services enter existing gathering places or everyday environments where people live and work to provide health information or services, for example, providing health information in fishing publications and at industry events.

This study found that there is a lack of soft entry points available for fishers to access health services.The most significant challenge to achieving good health in the fishing industry is related to mental-health issues, including work-related stress.

Traditional fishing risks

The first kind of stressors fishers face as part of their job are the ‘traditional risks’. These include the dangers associated with fishing, fluctuating market prices, peaks and troughs in catches, and machinery break-downs.

Fishers are able to exert a degree of control over this first set of stressors. Industry organisations can also suggest, model or facilitate best-practice strategies based on evidence and industrial experience.

Modern uncertainties

A very different set of stressors is labelled ‘modern uncertainties’. These emerge from the tenuous nature of the licences fishers hold to harvest a common-property resource and the ongoing occupational and livelihood uncertainty resulting from insecure licensing and management arrangements.

Research into other industries tells us that uncertainty in relation to future capacity to work and make a living contributes to poor health outcomes, both physical and, particularly, mental. It is important to distinguish between the stress of actual job loss and the constant perceived threat of redundancy, such as that experienced by the fishers in this study.

There are no support strategies to help those who are still employed; the potential for individuals to take positive self-help steps is limited because there is no concrete problem to remedy, just the perpetual stress of impending livelihood collapse.

According to the 2003 World Health Organization report Social dimension of health: the solid facts:

  • The health effects start when people first feel their jobs are threatened, even before they actually become unemployed.This shows that anxiety about insecurity is also detrimental to health.
  • Job insecurity has been shown to increase effects on mental health (particularly anxiety and depression), self-reported ill health, heart disease and risk factors for heart disease.
  • Because very unsatisfactory or insecure jobs can be as harmful as unemployment, merely having a job will not always protect physical and mental health: job quality is also important.

An earlier report, Chronic job insecurity among automobile workers, showed that chronic job insecurity had a more detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of workers than isolated cases of high stress, both in terms of the intensity and persistence of physical and mental problems.

“Job insecurity acts as a potent chronic stressor and should be included in studies of occupational stress, particularly in industries where employment opportunities are declining.”

The extensive literature on the poor mental-health outcomes for those experiencing chronic job insecurity is relevant to the study of health and wellbeing in the Australian fishing industry as fishers are subject to chronic insecurity in their access rights due to the public nature of the resource they harvest.

Drivers versus symptoms

Research also identified the importance of distinguishing between the drivers and the symptoms of poor mental health. Fishers and their organisations can potentially treat the symptoms of poor mental health derived from both traditional and modern uncertainties, although there is greater capacity to address the actual causes of traditional stresses.

Fishers have only a limited capacity to address the actual causes of ‘modern’ stresses.

The distinction between drivers of stress and symptoms is important. Acknowledging that some things are controllable (response to symptoms) while others are not (perpetual access insecurity), gives fishers a realistic focus for their efforts to combat poor mental health.

Discussion of the associated health issues focuses almost exclusively on the cause – the insecure management and licensing arrangements themselves – rather than on efforts to address the acute symptoms and signs of poor mental health.

What can fishers do?

Fishers and their families can take steps to look after themselves and each other by collectively acknowledging the impact of stress and anxiety on their lives.

Continuing to focus on ‘modern uncertainties’ – stressors that lie beyond their control – may add to feelings of hopelessness and lack of self-determination.

Likewise, there is a role for fisher organisations to expand their responses beyond the causes of occupational uncertainty (such as combating insecure licence and harvest arrangements) and develop strategies and programs that recognise and address the ongoing stress faced by industry members. 

If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing signs of stress, or if you just need to talk, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

FRDC Research Code: 2012-402

More information

Tanya King, 03 5227 2149
tanya.king@deakin.edu.au