Offshore pressure, onshore problems


The past five years have seen an unprecedented amount of interest in male mental health. It has never been so popular. Yet men have never been so in trouble. Current figures are shocking. Around one in eight men will have a mental health problem.

Men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community. Men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent. And at its most extreme, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45.

But it is not always so clear cut. At present there are over 26,000 people working on offshore rigs. The vast majority of them are men. They live in an intense, physically close environment with a demanding job. They have little access to ‘the outside world’ for weeks at a time. The team and crew around them – complete with its bravado, banter and machismo – is everything. And it is creating a timebomb.

These men are sent back to wives, families and communities and told to change, instantly. They must become family men, considerate husbands, patient parents. My experience – and that of many guys working on the rigs – is that this change is just too much.

Guys come back from the rigs exhausted. They are emotionally claustrophobic. They have a type of schizophrenia demanded of them. They have three weeks away from one half of their identity. Then, just as they have adapted to the other half, they must change again.

To be clear: ‘home’ is not the problem here. For that matter, neither is ‘work’. It is the huge pendulum swing between the two, that is the issue, especially if it means rotating day / night shifts. It creates an ongoing isolation.

Why should employers care? Beyond the obvious moral imperative, oil rig workers are expensive. Engineers, riggers and even support staff can all command premium rates of pay. That means anything that makes them more balanced – and so cuts the risk of burnout – is an investment, not a cost. And of course, happier employees are more productive.

But it goes one step further. An employee with purpose and structure is far more likely to achieve goals and complete the tasks set before them. That may mean time spent connecting with their family. But it may apply equally to the development of new skills. Which makes for a more valuable employee. There is also the fact that this approach is sustainable.

The oil industry has the highest divorce rate in the UK of any other profession or workforce. And it is not just because both partners become disconnected in the face of the 2/2 or 3/3 working pattern. It’s when they have kids. Offshore is a great job for a single man, and even a married one. But as soon as you have a family it can be a disaster. Elsewhere, when offshore workers leave their job and, try and find something else to do, couples find that neither side can cope with the change.

In the face of this, creating a structure that works for guys whilst on the rigs and back home is not easy. But it is simple. It is essentially gamification: turning the personal goals and more balanced behaviours of the offshore workers into a game, with an objective, scoring system and clear criteria for winning. These games need to be specific to the individual involved: there is no blanket approach here.

There are a few critical, emotional elements that need to be taken into account: typically these involve techniques such as meditation, journaling and self-inquiry. In the face of such techniques jarring with macho culture offshore, there needs to be a dose of realism here. It is down to the companies to create a culture on the rigs (and beyond) where the guys can access this kind of coaching.

It is then entirely down the men themselves to take advantage of that opportunity. And to do so consistently. Both sides will benefit.

But there will of course be resistance. In overcoming the barriers that men put up – as individuals or as a group – there is an issue of ‘style’. Men account for just 36 per cent of referrals to Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

Men – especially those in an environment like the rigs – are less likely to disclose their mental health issues. They are also far more likely to use potentially harmful coping methods such as drugs or alcohol. Why? Because it is far easier to go to the pub, casino or dealer than it is to figure out how to balance the different roles demanded of these guys.

Research shows that men will seek and access help when they feel that the help being offered meets their preferences, and is easily accessed, meaningful, and engaging. My experience, based on working with thousands of men, is that this starts with asking the right questions. You cannot ‘teach’ better mental health. But you can lead someone towards it.

There is also of course resistance from the offshore companies themselves. It can be difficult to propose ideas such as gamification, meditation training or circadian rhythms to senior management. But make no mistake, these ideas are the fastest route to a more productive, balanced workforce offshore. The alternative is an entire industry that drills itself into the ground, taking families and in some cases, entire communities with i

Paul Mort is current UK Master Coach of the Year, an international speaker and author of ‘F*cking Unstoppable – The modern mans guide to grabbing life by the balls’.
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