The North Sea offshore oil and gas industry isn’t immune from the effects of COVID-19, which are wide reaching and present significant challenges.
Although it’s in a unique situation, no matter what the specific role a staff member plays, the industry consists of two main types of employees: those who are normally office based and those whose usual place of work is on a rig miles out at sea.
Two weeks into the UK-wide lockdown, almost all non-essential workers who can Work from Home (WFH) now do so. This obviously applies to the oil and gas industry’s office staff, but by the very nature of the job can’t apply to the offshore employees. So with the dramatic changes to current work practices due to COVID-19, what lessons have we learned apart from a COVID-19 lexicon: ‘social distancing’, ‘delay phase’, ‘self-isolation’?
The first step for businesses will be making sure that employees have the right tools – probably wondering why they purchased desktop computers rather than laptops! But what about the effect that WFH has on onshore employees who are usually office based?
For those not used to WFH, the prospect is novel at first but quickly wears off! Here are some suggestions to help onshore employees maximise their wellbeing while WFH.
Prolonged WFH needs structures to ensure:
- The work gets done
- Employees’ wellbeing is protected
- Arrange frequent 1-2-1 telephone catch-ups, the idea being that the manager will assess workflows and check each employee’s wellbeing. It’s important to get feedback on WFH issues.
- Encourage inter-team communications. In the office, people chat to each other about work and have general social interaction. Regular communication helps with social isolation and discussion around WFH, sharing issues and solutions. For some, the office is their main social connection, so WFH will cause loneliness.
- Promote a healthy work-life balance. Some employees might use WFH to slacken off; others will pressure themselves to work longer to prove otherwise. Employers should deal appropriately with both behaviours and encourage staff to work contracted hours without impacting on home life because they are WFH.
- Be flexible. Many employees now have children at home and so will be juggling work and childcare.
- Set clear parameters at home. Let people at home know, ‘I’m at work now’ so they will leave you alone. Equally, let colleagues know when you are working and are available to them.
- You may not have a specific ‘office’ at home, but allocate a ‘workplace’ apart from where you would normally relax. This will help you focus on work and provide a ‘do not disturb’ signal. It will help with your mental wellbeing by compartmentalising, allowing you to switch off after work.
- Dress for work. As with the ‘office space’, your attire is a demarcation for you and the house that you are either in work or relaxation mode.
- Keep in touch with colleagues. Build regular calls into your day and try to replicate the buzz of the office remotely.
- Take breaks. Your normal regular breaks are important; check in with colleagues or get some fresh air. Taking a break from the laptop will maintain your focus over the day and help with problem-solving.
- Wellbeing awareness. Avoid becoming ‘house-bound’; get out when possible – take a walk, exercise, talk to your friends and family on the phone. Switch off from work and enjoy some personal time.
- Keep away from the fridge! Avoid comfort eating; stress causes cravings for sweeter, high-fat foods. Keep fruit closer to your workstation than biscuits or crisps. Put a sticker on the cupboard: ‘You don’t really want to eat this, it’s just COVID-19 stress!’ Don’t buy unhealthy food – if it’s not in the fridge you can’t be tempted.
- Feedback to your employer. Let them know how WFH feels for you. If they don’t know the issues they can’t adjust or plan. WFH is a solution that may not work for all employees. Alternatives may become apparent as the crisis develops, but if management thinks you are happy they won’t be looking at them.
For offshore employees who are working on a rig, there might be very few COVID-19 differences from their normal offshore routine. The rig is likely to be operating on a reduced manning basis, so there will be fewer bodies onboard and therefore more space. They may have had temperature testing and/or COVID-19 testing before catching the helicopter to go on duty, and their work pattern might have been adjusted to match reduced manning and helicopter transport. But very much ‘business as usual’.
Superficially this might be the case, but from an employee mental wellbeing point of view this is far from true.
Many offshore workers put their lives into ‘suspended animation’ during the time they are away from their family and friends on duty. They often just work, sleep and eat while offshore; they have limited contact with home and limited leisure time. Downloaded videos/books provide their entertainment and they count the days until they fly back to shore and head home. With this type of existence offshore, the mental impact of social distancing when back onshore should not be underestimated. Employees won’t be able to meet with friends, go to the pub/restaurant and socialise. The ‘release’ of being back onshore and off duty simply isn’t there to refresh and restore their mental wellbeing before having to head back offshore again. The impact of this situation could be significant if the lockdown extends over several weeks or months.
Usually employers won’t be in contact with workers once they are onshore and off duty, but this might be an occasion when a wellbeing call simply to ‘check in’ might be appreciated.
Employees should be encouraged to exercise (subject to government guidelines) and reconnect with family and friends using available technology – Facetime, Skype, etc. Those with younger children are likely to find that they aren’t at school, so there is the potential for some quality time with the family, perhaps helping with home schooling.
Offshore workers have always been a different breed, people who are able to endure hardships that many of us shore-based workers wouldn’t even consider. They have a level of personal resilience that will help them cope with the lockdown situation, but if employers have benefits such as Employee Assistance Programmes and Mental Health strategies, now is the time to make sure that they are clearly communicated to workers who will be facing considerable strain.
Ed Watling, Employee Benefits Consultant (Healthcare), at Mattioli Woods