As workers adjust to recent changes in the offshore rota system, Nicole Stewart from behavioural change consultancy DEKRA Organisational Reliability, discusses the impact of certain offshore rota patterns on mental health.
Total was recently faced with protracted strikes over its move to three-week equal time rotas, while workers for Shell have been adjusting to a more popular two week offshore, three week onshore rota.
How people feel about the rota systems.
The perfect rota does not exist.
Many companies go on the pursuit to find “the best” rota patterns and for that reason we have seen in the past, and will continue to see in the future, rotas changing in many industries – including the oil and gas industry. There will always be someone or a group of people who find a new rotation unsuitable.
In the oil and gas industry there have been discussions about moving from a 3-3 to a 2-3 rotation in some companies. Where the perfect rota does not exist, it is important to consider what rota will be “safer”. A three week offshore duration can understandably take its toll on a person’s mental health for numerous reasons, as it is a long time to spend away from loved ones, missing important milestones etc, and can end up resulting in a distracted workforce. Therefore, one’s risk perception and motor skills can become affected, ultimately impacting decision making abilities, and potentially leading to safety critical errors. The 2-3 rotation offers a better balance between work and personal life for the sake of mental well-being.
The impact rotas have on individuals.
Fatigue can cause stress – stress can cause fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle.
Fatigue is a significant factor in why a 2-3 rather than a 3-3 may be a more suitable rota. Fatigue is often a major factor in incidents of any industry, not just within oil and gas. It is also the most preventable factor. There will be many offshore workers who work on night shift, carrying out physically and mentally strenuous tasks or have problems at home that make a three week duration only just bearable. An issue that exists is that it is difficult to prove someone’s level of mental or physical fatigue, and therefore, the impact longer rota durations have on safety. As oil and gas is an industry that can become obsessed with facts and figures, by not being able to prove the affects it has, may cause the industry to turn a blind eye to the issues it presents.
Where higher levels of stress and fatigue exist within an individual as a result of a longer rota period, this can result in problems with sleep. A study by Roehrs et al., 2003 showed that workers who get two hours less sleep a night than usual suffer the same effect on their performance as if they have had two to three beers. When a full night’s sleep has been lost, which is sometimes the case when someone is worried, stressed or working nightshifts, it is the equivalent of 10-11 beers. Again, this highlights the relationship between the length of a rotation and safety.
The financial implications of moving from a 3-3 to a 2-3 can be difficult for some to accept. It’s no secret that people are influenced by money; this is because financial gain is often how we define our success. For some, the stress of losing money may cause them to be more distracted on a 2-3 than a 3-3 rota, however in the most part, money doesn’t necessarily make us happier, and it certainly doesn’t make us safer or less tired. At the end of the day, we need to be careful that the conclusions we make about what rotation is better suited for us are not based solely on money, but on having a good home life that will in turn make us happier at work. And, more importantly, to never compromise our mental health for money.
A 2-3 rota provides more recovery time. Having adequate recovery time is important in relieving fatigue and is equally important for stabilising feelings of work related stress. Machines and equipment can operate 24/7 for extremely long periods of time, but humans are not built this way, so to work for three weeks in a row is not natural. It can be like running on a treadmill and feeling like you can’t get off. When you do eventually get off, a longer stay at home may, for some, be more beneficial to regain energy for the next trip.
Furthermore, those who work offshore are placed in environments where there may be personality clashes. Never before has the offshore environment had such a mixture of workers ranging from those who have come up through the ranks and gained experience over the years to people who have a purely academic/theoretical background. There are also young and more senior leaders in similar roles and all of the different backgrounds and personalities that exist offshore can cause uncomfortable tension – and even low-level bullying that make staying offshore for longer a hardship for some.
Ultimately, the stresses of working offshore are clearly present, as over 25 percent of people encounter some form of mental health problem in their life but for offshore workers, this figure is reported to be notably higher. Mental health is now as high on the agenda as it’s ever been. It is evident that the oil and gas industry are making more efforts to address this, as seen with the new conversations on rota’s and other means of encouraging people to speak up.
Out of your hands.
For most of us, it is not normal to be away from home for a significant length of time, and it can really take its toll on offshore workers. Added frustration can come when people feel decisions, such as their rota schedule, are being made by people who do not always work offshore causing the individual to feel powerless and stressed no matter what the rota looks like. This is due to a feeling of lack of control in such a significant part of their life, ultimately affecting the morale within the company and potentially impacting on productivity.
The main takeaway is that no rota system will appeal to everyone.
Right now, we are in the midst of understanding in more detail the effects rotas can have on a person’s fatigue and stress levels. As the UK is often seen as a poster child for health and safety compared to many other countries, it would be easy for oil and gas companies to brush off the significance of changing rotations and become complacent in our attempts and efforts to help reduce mental illness in offshore workers. However, by understanding the link between rota and fatigue, we can make better decisions as an industry and create safer working environments.