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Offshore energy can do more for worker long-term health

18th October 2019

Remote locations, long hours, harsh weather conditions, restricted living quarters – these things can be tough mentally and physically for workers in the energy sectors. While the entry requirements for offshore jobs rigorously test physical resilience – including offshore survival and firefighting courses, emergency response training, and swimming training – little is done to support employees with factors that contribute to long-term health.

By Damian Lenihan, Executive Director, Europe at Aetna International

Damian Lenihan, Executive Director, Europe at Aetna International

Yet in the face of the unique set of physical and mental challenges that are part and parcel of their working environment, this type of assistance can be crucial.

Employers are required by law to ensure the safety of those on board, and must show they can mitigate risks of major accidents. From health and safety training to offering insurance that covers employees in case they get hurt[1], regulations are fundamental to the way these platforms operate.

But while adherence to these laws is vital, creating a safe working space and providing training should really be viewed as a minimum duty of care. Supporting the longer-term health and wellbeing of those who work under such difficult conditions, and particularly turning attention to maintaining robust mental health, is where companies who want their employees to thrive must direct more of their efforts.

Supporting employees in a challenging environment

Although jobs in this industry vary greatly – from technical and mechanical, to administrative and support roles, across the oil, gas, wind and marine energy sectors – all those who work offshore face similar challenges as a result of their working environment.

The good news is that strategies already exist to alleviate pressure on employees and their families. The well embedded ‘two weeks on, two weeks off’ policy[2], for example, allows workers to spend time on the mainland, offering short term respite from intensive work shifts. However, the continuous change in environment can be disorientating and put pressure on physical and mental health. This can be compounded by the tough weather conditions, low temperatures and storms that are intrinsic of daily offshore life. 

Indeed the pace of daily life is an ongoing challenge for offshore workers. While it is well accepted that employees who are rested are more alert and less likely to experience personal health issues, making sure workers feel rested is difficult.

Unfortunately, long working hours can lead to regular work fatigue, and a lack of personal space can worsen stress and mental health challenges. The physical requirements involved in many day-to-day activities, such as working suspended from ropes, with heavy machinery, in flammable, high risk and high pressure environments, can also add significantly to feelings of low energy and exhaustion.

Additionally, working in a remote location for weeks at a time means separation from friends and family – essential support systems whose absence can impact well-being and cause feelings of isolation. It can also be hard on families left at home, who may worry about the risks to their loved ones. With access to offshore platforms restricted to helicopter or boat, it is understandable that many employees end up feeling completely cut off.

Empowering health in the long-term

Thankfully, developments in consumer technology over the last ten years have played a significant role in helping to resolve these issues and bridge the communication gap – improving employees’ connection to the world and their lives at home. In fact, a simple Wi-Fi connection can not only ease feelings of separation, it can also pave the way for more accessible health support.

While offshore support for medical issues is required by law, treatment and consultations are often limited and focused on injuries or short-term health. This means that longer-term conditions can remain unseen and untreated. The rise of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), confidential workplace services that employers pay for, means employees are supported in dealing with work-life stressors. But most EAPs either require in-person meeting or at the very least a stable mobile network connection, making it difficult for offshore workers to subscribe. Virtual health solutions, on the other hand, give employees access to anonymous consultations online or via a mobile phone, meaning employees can access the care they need when they are out at sea and when they are at home.

As well as giving workers access to a healthcare professional wherever they are (and the reassurance to their families that they have extra support if needed), virtual health solutions can address some of the challenges associated with relocating for work. For example, in addition to working away for weeks at a time, workers may still have to travel miles to get to their hometown and GP after they arrive on the mainland. Virtual health works like a digital healthcare service, giving people access to primary care consultations, prescriptions and referrals wherever and whenever they need them.  

Virtual health apps – accessible from anywhere in the world with a Wi-Fi connection – also allow users to keep all their health records in one place. This can help people to make sense of and become more engaged in their ongoing holistic health, instead of only seeking help when a problem arises.

Health issues that are left untreated, whether mental or physical, will result in a lack of performance, time off work and incur extra compensation costs. It is therefore vital to ensure that work environments befit the employees that work in them. This is especially important given the fact we know that lifestyle choices and physical environments shape people’s health. And it’s why it makes sense for companies to have a more significant role in the physical and mental well-being of their employees, whether offshore or on the mainland.

 

 

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