International SOS explores how a culture that promotes health and wellbeing will better protect your workforce.
As November draws to a close, we also approach the end of Movember 2020. For those of you who aren’t aware of the moustache-mania, Movember is the charity challenge that takes place every year on this month to help raise awareness for men’s health issues.
The global movement which encourages participants to ditch the razor, was initially launched to raise awareness and funds for prostrate and testicular cancer.
However, the charity soon introduced mental health into the campaign after discovering that while testicular cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer, accounting for 1% of all cancers that occur in men and affecting around 2,300 men in the UK each year (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/testicular-cancer), one in eight men will suffer from poor mental health (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health).
This creeps into male suicide statistics with recent figures revealing that tragically, in Scotland last year, 620 men took their own life (https://www.scotpho.org.uk/health-wellbeing-and-disease/suicide/data/scottish-trends). This number will potentially increase, with reports showing that the impact of COVID, and its subsequent restrictions, will result in a dramatic rise in mental health issues.
Consequently, there is an increasing focus on prevention and wellbeing across organisations and workplaces.
But when your workforce operates in the hostile North Sea environment, what can be done to address mental health?
Tackling the issues
Taking a closer look at the offshore industry, links can be drawn between work, environment and health, with important issues to tackle including the effect of anxiety, the impact of shift work and the bearing such an environment has on an employee’s health risks.
Working on an offshore rig in the middle of the North Sea is by no means a standard workplace environment. Workers are typically exposed to dangerous, high-pressure activity on a day-today basis, in a sometimes bleak and predominantly male environment. This is compounded by shift patterns that are often made up of gruelling twelve hours of hard, physical labour involving working nights, and of course the separation from friends and loved ones.
This, sometimes isolated, type of lifestyle and working culture can be a breeding ground for anxiety and effects on mood, with many workers suffering from exhaustion and guilt.
Whilst drug and alcohol use are well controlled offshore, the nature of the rotating shift pattern can lead to episodes of binge drinking or substance abuse whilst onshore which, in turn, can have a real impact on mental health in general.
The preventative approach must move beyond the superficial tackling of symptoms and dig deeper into the embedded culture within the sector. For years, sub-contractor labour has led to a culture of presenteeism, where being at work and earning has taken priority over wellbeing. An ability to mask feelings of anxiety and depression is developed that eventually reaches crisis point, built up from weeks, months and even years of mounting pressure.
In order to prevent this reaching crisis, more and more workplaces are now adopting positive and proactive measures to health, notably helping staff manage and cope with the day-to-day pressures at work and home.
In addition, the introduction and implementation of “wellbeing officers” or mental health first aiders is also proving popular. Appointed co-workers can look out for symptoms and signs among colleagues who may be suffering. They are coached in soft skills, such as listening techniques, that can prove very effective in providing support to struggling colleagues, whilst also signposting to services that can be used for follow-up, professional support.
There are some easy ways to help deal proactively and reactively with mental health issues. These can include:
- Developing an action plan to change attitudes.
- Creating a mental health policy to set out values.
- Training managers and ensuring they champion awareness and fight stigma.
- Tackling work-related causes of mental ill-health.
- Educating the workforce.
- Keeping communication high on the agenda.
Good habits including regular sleep, exercise, eating well and balancing time between activities that give a sense of achievement, as well as offering fun or relaxation, can all be hugely beneficial for managing mental health.
Benefits all around
And it’s not just employees who can benefit. Investing in the health and wellbeing of the workforce can increase loyalty and reduce staff turnover as well as improving productivity and longevity.
Crucially, employees need to feel that they will not be judged or criticised for having a mental health condition and can therefore approach line managers to get the support they need.
The ability to understand and process the social, economic and environmental pressure that offshore workers are under benefits both parties.
A chance to talk regularly and openly will help nurture and develop an early intervention process that would see many avoid crisis point.
Carolyn Taylor is head of mental health, resilience and wellbeing at International SOS.
International SOS – a trusted partner to the oil and gas industry – has a robust heritage of over 40 years’ experience in providing offshore and occupational health services, SOS International supports its clients to reduce risk, increase efficiency and fulfil strict legislative requirements.