For quite a long time now, it seems like there has been no talk in the world except about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This remains true to date. Without a vaccine, life cannot fully return to its former way; the oil and gas industry is no exception. There is no doubt that almost all companies have prioritized health and safety as a result of the pandemic. However, one aspect of health and safety that is often ignored is mental health and the role it can play in challenging productivity.

Lone Wolves of the Industry

In the whirlwind of COVID-19, the workforce dramatically shifted and moved to work from home. However, field engineers (i.e. the driving force behind the oil and gas industry) remained a vital constant in the workplace. One Human Resources (HR) Expert told Egypt Oil & Gas (EOG) that “field engineers were subject to longer shifts and work cycles in order to mitigate their risk of exposure to infections.” Mohamed Elshawaf, Field Engineer at Khalda Petroleum Company, noted that working amid the pandemic differs from a pre-pandemic workplace as contact and teamwork became very limited. Elshawaf described the situation stating that “[We were like] birds and COVID-19 like a gun that shoots one of us each day… so the workforce decreased to its lowest level.”

The Center for Disease and Control Center (CDC) denoted that the pandemic has not only hindered people’s lifestyle and routines, but it came carrying the emotional baggage of anxiety, stress, and depression. Such mental illnesses leave anyone vulnerable to mood swings, change in behavior, and without a doubt, create a pattern change in productivity. Elshawaf shared his experience when it comes to the mental toll of the pandemic. “During any job in the field, we [have] two responsibilities, one of them [is] to perform a successful job,” the other was to avoid any sort of infection. However, such responsibilities amid an abnormal work environment have resulted in pandemic-induced stress.

The question remains: has the pandemic, with all that it comes with, changed productivity? Elshawaf disagreed by stating that crude production levels remained stable and the workforce decreased, “our productivity increased as we [started] working twice the period of work, [and doubled] the load of work.”

When asked about managing the toll of the stress, Elshawaf responded that it became more comfortable after utilizing technology and having online meetings. It did not rely on that solely, adding that through “different precautions taken in Khalda and after a special motivational speech from Abed Ezz El Regal, CEO of the Egyptian General Petroleum Company (EGPC), and our Chairman Said Abdelmoenm,” managing stress became a little easier. This brings us to another point, which is admitting that the pandemic creates an abnormal, challenging work environment, and management’s role is to be a guiding light, not another obstacle.

Ahead of the Curve

While the coronavirus may have been like a hiccup for the oil and gas industry, its effect liaised in every crook and nook of the industry. For instance, management styles have shifted as more people began working from home, and the old methods of monitoring are not reliable at this time. An HR Expert told EOG that working from home “was a great challenge to force the change to digital transformation.” Management at any level and position has shifted as well, making safety practices at the heart of their mechanism. Our source, who asked for anonymity, added that one of the new challenges COVID-19 exposed management to is maintaining the safety of personnel in every step alongside “maintaining the planned levels of production to cope with the falling prices of oil which led to major cost-cutting strategies.”

Management needed to expand its scope of work during this unprecedented time. Tom Welchman, Partner and Leader of McKinsey’s Digital and Analytics Assets in EMEA, weighed on the management’s role towards their employees when it comes to mental health. As fostering productivity and morale is essential at the moment, Welchman commented that during this stressful time, empathy is pivotal to maintain a sustainable workflow; “sustaining and creating a caring culture is perhaps more important than ever. And [employees] need leaders to lead rather than micromanage from afar.” Mckinsey has also planned a five-series management method to handle the COVID-19 crisis at work; these include organizing via a network of teams; displaying deliberate calm and bounded optimism; making decisions amid uncertainty; demonstrating empathy, and communicating effectively.

Honesty and straightforwardness go a long way, according to our HR source. He believes that “[mangement] have to inspire their teams by how they lead, how they adapt to change, and by building a trusting environment.” Echoing Welchman sentiments, the HR source noted that managers should foster empathy, care for their teams and their families, and to shape a culture of growth mindset, care, and safety.”

Elshawaf expressed his pride in the efforts his company has taken in terms of occupational and mental health by stating that “[The company’s] management is always in contact with their men in [the] fields and organizes virtual meetings and also motivational speeches for employees…Khalda Petroleum Company is a role model for any company in Egypt’s oil sector.”

Road to Recovery

The World Economic Forum has called the pandemic “the largest psychological experiment ever” and expects to see an increase in absenteeism and burnout when it comes to working. The pandemic has undoubtedly shifted the way things work; it has changed the way we operate. Perhaps one of the benefits of the pandemic is that it put a spotlight on mental health and slightly broke the stigma surrounding it. Acknowledging a crisis is one thing, acting upon it is the way to recovery.

There is no playbook for managing a pandemic crisis, but it should be made evident that the human aspect of any job is the most crucial aspect to tend. A leader’s role is not to fix the damages that were done by the pandemic, but to make a positive difference in employees’ lives.