2022March/AprilSafety and ESG

New study highlights impact of COVID-19 on mental health of offshore workers in Australia

Employees cited lack of access to social support, difficulties getting to work and returning home, and higher workloads among key stress drivers

By Stephen Whitfield, Associate Editor

The impacts that the COVID-19 virus can have on people’s physical health have been obvious, but the pandemic’s impacts on people’s mental health – while less outwardly obvious – are significant, as well. Offshore workers are no exception.

In a recent study, the majority (64%) of offshore workers surveyed said they were experiencing either a moderate or high level of general psychological distress. Additionally, 13% reported very high or severe psychological distress, suggesting that they may be experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

The report aims to provide insights to help organizations evolve the way they manage their offshore crews. It was commissioned by Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Agency (NOPSEMA), Offshore Alliance, and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. Over the past two years, Australia has implemented stringent protocols, such as state border closures and self-isolation protocols, to try and contain the spread of COVID-19.

From June to August 2021, researchers from Curtin University and the University of Western Australia gathered responses from 502 people working in Australia’s offshore oil and gas industry. Respondents answered questions about their mental health and wellbeing and provided details about influencing factors like their work schedules (roster), accommodations and travel arrangements. 

In their responses, workers specifically described feeling stress in relation to the uncertainty of getting to work on time, returning home and whether a lockdown would happen while they were offshore. 

Survey participants described facing challenges such as a lack of access to social support, with some specifically citing a lack of support from their employers. For instance, one respondent said “it’s been a constant battle to get living standards to an acceptable level.” Another worker noted that, due to state border closures, he had to live in temporary accommodations for much of his time off work over a 14-month period. In fact, he said he had only been back home once in that time frame. Nearly a third (32%) of respondents said they had encountered difficulties traveling home.

Table 1: Among the six most commonly identified rosters, researchers found the lowest wellbeing scores for the 21/28 schedule, although they couldn’t be sure why.

Causes of distress

The study also looked at the impact that different schedules had on workers’ mental health and wellbeing. While respondents reported 54 different schedules, six were found to be most common (Table 1). Comparisons of psychological distress across those six rosters showed no statistically significant differences. However, researchers did find the lowest wellbeing scores for the 21/28 schedule, although they couldn’t be sure why.

Researchers also looked at the impact of other workplace factors. Of note, approximately half of those surveyed said they had experienced work schedule changes since the start of the pandemic. Then, 60% of that half said there was little to no consultation, by employers with employees, about those changes. This points to a “concerning” lack of clear communication by employers, researchers said. 

A total 63% of respondents also reported their company had seen staff reductions on offshore facilities since the pandemic began, and some noted longer working hours and an overall increase in workload and pressure. A large number of individual responses said they believe staff reductions and longer working hours are major drivers of psychological distress.

Improving mental health

To identify ways to help offshore workers improve mental health, the study also examined the connection of factors within family and social life, the worker’s job, his or her personal attributes, and the facility and organization for which they work.

The study found that long and unpredictable work schedules, poor internet and communication facilities, and separation from family were factors strongly associated with negative mental health. Meanwhile, perceived line manager support, job satisfaction, satisfaction with food quality, regular communication with home, perceived priority given to mental health and wellbeing, and autonomy during the worker’s time off-shift were common factors protecting mental health. 

When asked to describe ideas for “quick wins” that would benefit mental health and wellbeing in the short term, they listed things like improved food quality; employers considering workers’ individual schedule preferences; boosting the quality of offshore internet/communication facilities; limiting room sharing offshore; increasing personal space on the facility; and providing recreation and leisure options to decompress after a shift.

Researchers said a key message they want to emphasize is the need for “relational repair” between offshore workers and employers. Sentiments reflected in the survey show that employers may have breached a “psychological contract” with their employees, or a set of unwritten mutual expectations characterized by respect, compassion, objectivity and trust. 

To start on this relational repair, the researchers proposed five recommendations. First, employers should make stronger efforts to provide social support to their workers. Social support, particularly from an organization’s leadership, is a key factor for employees’ positive mental health and wellbeing. For example, employers could promote opportunities for workers to socially engage with one another while they’re on an offshore facility. 

Second, employers should support employees in their efforts to connect with families while offshore and to travel home when they’re off rotation. With some workers facing longer stretches of time between visits home, and in some instances having no possibility of getting home due to border closures, workers reported a sense of struggle, stress and uncertainty. Attention to instances of poor internet and phone connections on site, and providing quick repairs, is also important so that workers feel better connected and can communicate daily with their families.

Third, employers should give more consideration to the impact that workload, accommodations and COVID-19 protocols have on employees’ mental health. Researchers recommended that employers assess their employees’ current workload and pay more attention to accommodation factors, such as food quality and the availability of social leisure options. 

Fourth, employers should communicate decisions with transparency. Finally, employers should engage their workers during the decision-making process. Not doing so can lead organizations to miss out on useful and important information, or more importantly, lead to workers feeling disengaged, undervalued and not respected.  DC 

Click here to access the full report on the NOPSEMA website.

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