Mental health of workers in the oil and gas sector is one of the less publicized risks facing workers despite being a very crucial issue. The World Health Organization defines workers’ mental health as a state in which the workers realize their own potential, can cope with normal life stresses, can work more productively with less stresses, and can be able to contribute positively to their society. In simple terms, worker’s mental health consists of their social, emotional, and physical state.
Currently, the oil and gas industry’s main concern is on physical health; however, although working in oil and gas fields is demanding and stressful – as workers often live in remote areas far away from their families, face sleep problems, skin irritations, and other difficulties – the sector still does not pay as much attention to mental support.
After the downturn in oil prices, the working environment in petroleum companies have become more tense. “Over the last three and a half years, the oil industry has experienced its deepest downturn since at least the 1990s. This means less investment into new projects and a squeeze on available jobs in the sector,” Hatem Kilany, QHSSE Manager & DPA at Maridive & Oil Services, told Egypt Oil & Gas.
As Kilany explained, the tense atmosphere created by the oil crash has been reflected on increasing the workers’ anxiety, stress, feelings of being overwhelmed by circumstances larger than them, lack of control, and potential isolation and loneliness. This scenario can negatively impact employees’ efficiency and have a broader impact on each company’s performance.
Why Does Mental Health Matter?
“Mental health is something we [the oil and gas industry] totally ignored in the near past as management used to consider workers like machines,” Emad Elewa, HSE Manager at Apex International Energy, told Egypt Oil & Gas.
Elewa explained that the managers’ strategy of considering only the physical conditions of their employees achieved good results for a short time, but after that, production decreased sharply. The history of operational incidents indicates that workers must not only be physically fit for work, but also mentally, he said.
Kilany highlighted that the industry currently suffers from poor mental health from mild anxiety, depression or a mix of the two, to severe phobias. The mental disorders can make simple tasks seem impossible and seriously hinder day-to-day life.
Neglecting the wellbeing of employees lead them to poorly handle the rapid changes that take place in the work environment, which compromises their ability to work under pressure. Additionally, employees who do not find mental support from their companies tend to either abandon their position or question their loyalty to the company. While leaving the company can negatively affect the employees and their families, it also affects the company’s costs; and losing the loyalty and motivation of employees can significantly decrease the quality of the company’s operations.
The Difference Between Onshore and Offshore
Although all workers in the oil and gas sector can have their mental health affected by the harsh working conditions, Katharine Parkes has developed a comparative study that analyzes how differently onshore and offshore operations impact workers. The study suggests that the comparison between onshore and offshore workers is mainly attributable to their anxiety levels in their work environment; in this case, offshore workers present higher levels of anxiety than onshore workers.
“It is more important to focus on the offshore workers due to their high-risk operations and tasks,” Kilany stated. The offshore work environment is more difficult than the onshore as offshore fields have specific emergencies that may arise unexpectedly. Additionally, offshore workers work under different regulations than the ones onshore, such as the work permit system, safety procedures, protective clothing requirement, and certain restrictions. On top of that, offshore fields are more confined and isolated. This harsher isolation from families, friends, and local communities can be especially hard.
“Employees are often working in isolated or hostile locations. This can lead to a lack of genuine down time, with offshore work being particularly draining. They spend a lot of time on the edge in high-risk situations,” Kilany said, adding that “stress and fatigue can quickly become overwhelming and could lead to mistakes that put the lives of others at risk.” Moreover, “the pressure and expectations on employees can lead to inner conflict based on balancing a career with family.”
Despite the evidence that offshore conditions have a stronger impact on workers’ mental health, both offshore and onshore workers are exposed to this psychological hazard. In case of employees who work abroad, far from their homeland, culture shock can also contribute to the employees’ emotional instability and companies should have a good program to help their employees adapt.
Mental Support Challenges
Employers are faced with many challenges while dealing with the mental health issue. Firstly, it is important to note that many employers do not consider mental health as a priority when compared to the higher demands they have; in this case, they often find insufficient resources and not enough time to tackle this issue. Dropping mental health at the bottom of the priorities list mainly happens due to the lack of awareness about this issue, which makes employers underestimate its importance and effects.
Another challenge is the lack of clear data around the impact of mental health, as well as data on the employees who suffer from this condition. When an incident happens, the hypothesis of human failure conditioned by poor mental health is often not considered. Because of this, it is difficult to develop sustainable projects to address the problem and even harder to identify who needs help.
How Can Employers Help?
Employers in the oil and gas industry should first be fully aware that having employees who suffer from poor mental health will be very costly to the company as the issue leads to a decrease in the workers’ productivity. Furthermore, replacing employees who leave due to these mental health issues adds additional costs to employers as unstable staff negatively affects the return that employers seek gaining with the recruitment process. In order to avoid that, employers should work to build a mentally healthy environment and stay alert to identify and act upon cases of poor mental health.
Kilany, who believes oil and gas companies should do more to offer potential solutions to treat anyone in the industry who is struggling with mental conditions, suggested that workers with these afflictions do not focus on things that are out of their control. Instead, they should focus on themselves and the way in which they respond to the challenging circumstances they face. “I strongly believe that real change starts from the inside. So, work on yourself first and you may be surprised by how things change,” he said.
In addition to this, employers must reorganize poor working processes that make employees face higher work intensity and time pressure. Some studies suggest decreasing working hours, which can be effective to solve the low performance caused by stress. This reduction can provide workers with some ease and comfort in doing their work, which motivates them and optimizes their actions.
Another method that can be experimented is providing employees with the freedom to organize their own work process and strategies to carry out their required tasks. This does not mean that workers would operate in a state of anarchy. Instead, it means that management would be encouraged to apply transparent decision-making and information policies with their employees and involve them in arranging these policies in a way that motivates them.
Moreover, employers should work on building a net of trust with their employees, which in return will play an essential role in promoting their commitment to their responsibilities and affect positively their mental health. Employers should also provide workers with emotional intelligence training, safety procedures, and supportive workshops concerning how to deal with stressful and extreme situations.
It is important to note that employers should also invest in training for themselves. Companies’ managers should participate in courses designed to enhance their abilities in dealing with their own employees and in instructing them in a supportive way to eliminate the intensity of the problems that they face daily in their work. Employers can also arrange some activities for their employees, like sports activities.
At the same time, they need to follow up with the psychological resilience of their workers by, for example, arranging a questionnaire to check their satisfaction degree and determine the problems they face, which will enable employers to spot which workers suffer from mental conditions. Additionally, companies can develop a health-related phone application that facilitates the communication between employers and employees on physical and mental health. In order to build a sustainable policy on mental health, the companies are also highly advised to develop a data bank on their workforce and workplace.
Mental Health as a Core Value
As poor mental health has severe impacts on the companies and their employees, addressing mental health should become one of the sector’s core values. In order to establish it as a pillar, the Egyptian oil and gas sector could encourage research and data collection on mental health in order to provide a baseline for monitoring plans to tackle mental health issues. This encouragement could come through an organization or team created to exclusively address this issue.
“Today, a good HSE and HR manager considers mental health as important as physical health by dealing with workers as humans who can create, innovate, and have more value added if they are treated properly,” Elewa declared.
Additionally, having mental health as a core value is a concept that must be built not only within the companies, but also in a university setting. Students who will be future engineers, geologists, technicians, and decision-makers should receive information on the importance of mental health, as well as on the problems they will face and the solutions to them.
“Involving more early-career engineers and students in the field work can effectively guide them to choose their own career pathways after overseeing the associated stresses and the needed stamina,” Osama Radwan, a senior petroleum engineering student, told Egypt Oil & Gas.
Furthermore, the Egyptian oil and gas sector must promote training to address mental health in all