Opinion: North Sea trends might be hard to predict but health should be a certainty

Dr Rikard Moen
Dr Rikard Moen

Whilst predicting any trends in the current international climate seems to be a difficult task, there are some certainties; healthier staff are more productive, with less sickness absence and improved safety performance.

The consequence of this is improvement in the bottom line for companies.

So why, when some North Sea businesses are facing the most challenging period in their history, have we seen a dip in investment in health and wellbeing support for their employees?

The easy answer is cost. With redundancy rates of up to 40% in some companies, they’ve naturally had to cut what they deem as ‘nice to have’ services for employees.

For example, in some cases, non-regulatory or health screening medicals have been removed or access reserved for key individuals who require them for insurance reasons. Where there was previously open access to mental health support and counseling, access is only available via EAP or OHP referral. Similarly, workplace resilience, wellbeing programmes and physiotherapy access have been reduced or removed completely in some businesses.

In fact, any area where there was no statutory requirement or operational imperative has suffered as a result of cut-backs. These were, and are, truly worrying times.

The impact, some would argue, is still yet to be felt. The instability of the industry means that any consequential analysis would be hard to formulate whilst the turbulence continues.

However, even the most ardent cynic would not argue with the claim that a coherent health and wellbeing strategy will reduce absenteeism, improve engagement, strengthen company loyalty and improve safety statistics.

Progressive businesses need to be aware of their longitudinal relationship with employees, short-term fixes are not appropriate in this space. Health and wellbeing cannot be relegated to the ‘discretionary spend’ company strategy file. Its existence ensures sustainable development and growth.

We gathered data from a number of sources which showed that there is a growing body of evidence clearly proving the business case and performance success story for proactive health management in the workplace, particularly in heavy industries like oil & gas and mining.

Existing research and studies of multinational organisations demonstrates that coherent wellbeing strategies have resulted in the reduction in lost workers days (64%), compensation payments (50%) and staff turnover (10%). In addition, a meta-analysis of 42 corporate programs found a 25% reduction in absenteeism and sick leave.

These well-designed and targeted workplace health programs resulted in an ROI that ranged from $1.40 – $4.90 for each dollar spent with a median ROI of $2.71. With this level of return why would a pragmatic and responsible company not invest in employee health and wellbeing?

By providing employees access to the full suite of occupational health services e.g. hygienist, OHP, occupational psychotherapist, ergonomics, physiotherapist, etc, companies will not only see the holistic benefit but this will improve long-term profitability.

Some companies are recognising this and taking immediate steps.

In recent months, we’ve seen customers’ introduce fitness assessments as part of the routine OGUK medical to try to ensure that staff involved in manual handling have the required fitness levels. This isn’t about ‘soft’ wellbeing strategies – this is a fundamental part of business operations.

We are also seeing clients analysing MERP requirements and looking at well-being programmes with targeted approaches – ultimately, taking a more holistic review of requirements by looking at long term benefits rather than short term needs or fixes.

Progressive companies will also look at human factors/ergonomics when considering process/policy design in addition to the technical requirements of a project.

A fully integrated, intelligent approach between companies and their occupational health provider should encompass industrial exposures, fitness for task assessments, health surveillance, workplace resilience and wellbeing programmes.

There are challenges; however, demonstrating the improvements in the short-term may be difficult. There may be no immediate direct financial benefit for shareholders and employer/employee buy-in to these ‘softer’ aspects. However, we are seeing some movement in the market, with broader understanding and awareness of wellbeing issues and the impact it has on the workplace being moved further up the agenda. We are making progress.

It is safe to say that forecasting in this current climate can sometimes be redundant, however, regardless of which direction the economic winds blow, you can be sure that, in order to create a sustainable business platform, companies in the energy sector need a sustainable workforce.

Dr Rikard Moen is the chief medical officer with Iqarus, Intelligent Health Solutions. The company provides offshore medical support and occupational health.