A shift in focus

Damian Lenihan explains why long-term health support is vital for offshore workers

Offshore workers face a unique set of challenges as a result of their working environment. Although jobs in this industry vary greatly – from technical and mechanical, to administrative and support roles, across the oil, gas, wind and marine energy sectors – the dangerous nature of the work and the length of offshore assignments means people are susceptible to very similar issues.

Remote locations, long working hours, harsh weather conditions and restricted living quarters can be tough mentally and physically. Testament to this is that, to even be allowed to work offshore, employees must pass a series of tests including an offshore survival and firefighting course, emergency response training, and swimming training.

Within this context, it is no wonder that health and safety regulations are so fundamental to the way these platforms operate. Employers must show they can mitigate risks of major accidents and are required by law to ensure the safety of those on board, including health and safety training and offering insurance that covers employees in case they get hurt1.

But while adherence to these laws is vital, creating a safe working space and providing training should really be viewed as a minimum. Supporting the longer-term health and wellbeing of those who work under such difficult conditions, and particularly turning attention to maintaining robust mental health, is where companies who want their employees to thrive must direct more of their efforts.

Supporting employees in a challenging environment
The good news is that strategies already exist to alleviate pressure on employees and their families. The well embedded ‘two weeks on, two weeks off’ policy2, for example, allows workers to spend time on the mainland, offering short term respite from intensive work shifts. However, the continuous change in environment can be disorientating and put pressure on physical and mental health. This can be compounded by the tough weather conditions, low temperatures and storms that are part and parcel of daily offshore life.

Indeed, the pace of daily life is an ongoing challenge for offshore workers. While it is well accepted that employees who are rested are more alert and less likely to experience personal health issues, making sure workers feel rested is difficult.

Unfortunately, long working hours can lead to regular work fatigue, and a lack of personal space can worsen stress and mental health challenges. The physical requirements involved in many day-to-day activities, such as working suspended from ropes, with heavy machinery, in flammable, high risk and high pressure environments, can also add significantly to feelings of low energy and exhaustion.

Additionally, working in a remote location for weeks at a time means separation from friends and family – essential support systems whose absence can impact well-being and cause feelings of isolation. It can also be hard on families left at home, who may worry about the risks to their loved ones. With access to offshore platforms restricted to helicopter or boat, it is understandable that many employees end up feeling completely cut off.

Empowering health in the long-term
Thankfully, developments in consumer technology over the last ten years have played a significant role in helping to resolve these issues and bridge the communication gap – improving employees’ connection to the world and their lives at home. In fact, a simple Wi-Fi connection can not only ease feelings of separation, it can also pave the way for more accessible health support.

While offshore support for medical issues is required by law, treatment and consultations are often limited and focused on injuries or short-term health. This means that longer-term conditions can remain unseen and untreated. Virtual health solutions, which give employees access to anonymous consultations online or via a mobile phone, could play a key role in filling this gap.

As well as giving workers access to a healthcare professional wherever they are (and the reassurance to their families that they have this extra support if needed), virtual health can address some of the challenges associated with relocating for work. For example, in addition to working away for weeks at a time, workers may still have to travel miles to get to their hometown and GP after they arrive on the mainland. Virtual health works like a digital healthcare service, giving people access to primary care consultations, prescriptions and referrals wherever and whenever they need them.

Virtual health apps – accessible from anywhere in the world with a Wi-Fi connection – also allow users to keep all their health records in one place. This can help people to make sense of and become more engaged in their ongoing holistic health, instead of only seeking help when a problem arises.

This shift in focus, from cure to prevention, is one that could massively benefit offshore workers and the companies they work for. We know that good health is impacted by lifestyle choices and physical environments, and that happy, healthy employees are the most productive, so it makes sense for companies to encourage an active approach to physical and mental well-being, both on and offshore.

1 http://www.hse.gov.uk/offshore/law.htm
2 http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr772.pdf

Aetna International
Damian Lenihan is Executive Director, Europe at Aetna International. Aetna International is committed to helping create a stronger, healthier global community by delivering comprehensive health care benefits and population health solutions worldwide. Aetna International also offers customised technological and health management solutions for health care systems, government entities and large employers to improve people’s health, enhance quality of care and contain costs.
For further information please visit: www.aetnainternational.com