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Adam's flex work story

Adam is a fly-in-fly-out tug boat master who has years of experience working non-traditional hours. We spoke to Adam about how coronavirus has changed his routine and advice for how to make the most of working a compressed working year.

Adam with his son, Charlie.
When I’m off, I have a whole month with my family and am mentally present. Missing some events is the price I pay, but to me and my family, it is worth it.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

38 years old, happily married, a father of one with another on the way, living in Adelaide and working in WA.

My career has seen 18 years in the maritime industry, with the last 5 years spent working a FIFO roster on tug boats in Port Hedland. I am currently working a longer stint away for 10 weeks, after very much enjoying some unplanned extended time off with my beautiful family during this unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic.

What flexible work arrangements (working non-traditional hours, working remotely, compressed hours, job share, part-time hours, purchased or unplanned leave) have you experienced? How have these worked for you, and your family?

My work arrangements are currently very different to what I’ve previously experienced as a typical employee. Now, I’m in a partnership with 12 other Mariners who manage a tug boat 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The company we contract to doesn’t get involved with rosters or holidays, so long as the tug is safely operational at all times and we comply to all regulations, including recent COVID-19 border restrictions. Since most of us fly in from all over the country, we choose a compressed roster of 80 hours per week for 4 weeks straight, followed by 4 weeks off. Over the year, it still averages out at 40 hours work per week, but I only work 6 months of the year.

Along with working non-traditional and compressed hours, I’ve also experienced working remotely, where I take occasional work phone calls, emails or assignments to deal with at home. When COVID-19 hit, I took some unplanned leave due to state borders closing and a change in roster and work circumstances. Having 4.5 months off with my family was an incredible experience.

What are the benefits you’ve experienced in working flexible work arrangements?

Quality time at home is the biggest benefit. A whole month off and I can’t fall into the trap of bringing work home, taking calls or checking emails because my partners are on site handling it all. I do take the occasional call or email but my fellow Tug Masters and I effectively job share the Captain’s role so there’s always someone on the job and means we, generally, aren’t bothered on time off.

If you’ve ever had a month off, it’s a different feeling to a normal weekend or even long-weekend. There’s just no rush. “I’ll do it tomorrow”, often to my detriment or frustration to others, but perfect for hanging out with a young family and managing household responsibilities.

Our roster is not ridged either. Our tug’s team have the flexibility and decision making authority for some give and take in our work arrangements, i.e. if any of us needs some extra time off or would like more work. At the beginning of this COVID-19 pandemic, some of my partners wanted or needed continued income so decided to move to Port Hedland before borders shut. For some of us our personal and/or family circumstances made moving to WA almost impossible so being able to manage our tug’s roster meant a few of us could take some unplanned leave instead.

Adam's tug assisting a loaded iron ore bulk carrier through Port Hedland shipping channel.

What’s been your biggest challenge, and how have you overcome it?

Generally, I miss half of everything. To be fair to all partners, I work every second Christmas and Easter and miss half of the birthdays during the year. It’s all mindset and acceptance to overcome this. When I’m off, I have a whole month with my family and am mentally present. Missing some events is the price I pay, but to me and my family, it is worth it.

Research shows flexible work practices can have a positive impact on a person’s health. How has working these flex work arrangements impacted your health?

Mentally it has some ups and downs. That slight sinking feeling people might get on a Sunday night thinking of the work week ahead is certainly exaggerated when packing for a month away from home. On the other hand, fly home day can have you feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve and that is certainly the dominate emotion for me. I’ve also found there is good mental health awareness and support available in my industry because of problems experienced in the past with people not coping.

Physically I’m normally in better shape after a month of work because it's easier for me to stick to routines of exercise and make it a bit of a focus while I’m away.

In the last 5 years, what new belief, behaviour or habit has most improved your wellbeing?

“Don’t wish your life away.” It’s what my previous Engineer use to say if I started complaining towards the end of our swing. He was 70 at the time, had been working over 30 years longer than me and had a loving family waiting for him at home as well. He never complained about being at work. He said that life goes by quicker the older you get and it’s pretty rare that a day at work is so rough that you can’t find something to learn, be grateful for or laugh about.

Adam at work in Port Hedland.

What advice would you give to a person considering asking for or applying for flexible work arrangement/s in their current or a new role? What advice should they ignore?

Speaking specifically about my work arrangement, I’d say it is not for everyone and in many ways can be harder for family members at home. It has to work for the whole family, which is why communication is so important to identify if anyone is struggling and always be mindful that what feels like a good arrangement now, could quickly change during different stages of life. I’ve watched some colleagues go through this both successfully and unsuccessfully. The successful ones addressed problems, the unsuccessful ones put their head in the sand until it was too late.

Don’t believe that working compressed hours is solely unhealthy. It absolutely can be and often is, if done incorrectly. My advice is save playtime for when you’re off and prioritise sleep and being as healthy as possible on work days. 80 hours a week for a month is surprisingly easy if you go to bed early, eat healthy, substitute screen time for exercise and don’t drink. Really, pretty much the opposite to what I enjoy on my time off.

How has your flex work experience over the past 12 months changed the way you work and live moving forward?

My work structure is good, but we can see it getting harder as our family moves into the next phase of expansion. Thankfully I work with some like-minded people who also put a high value on home life and think long-term. We are currently discussing options to expand the partnership in the future for an even greater job share and more time at home.

COVID-19 has impacted my usual roster of 1 month working, 1 month off to fluid, longer blocks of working / not working. This has changed things for my family in that we’ve had to adapt to a more flexible way of living, communicating, and working. My wife, Ness who is founder of Job Pair, has adopted even more flexible work practices this year, and together we’ve taken a more flexible approach to how we manage our work, family and household.

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