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More mental health supports needed for fly-in-fly-out oil sands workers: report

Photo: Art Wager/iStockphoto

Edmonton, Alberta — Contract workers who fly in and out of oil sands may experience higher levels of work-related stress and more mental health issues, according to a recent report led by researchers from the University of Alberta.

The researchers interviewed 72 contract employees who worked 10- to 12-hour shifts for rotations of six to 21 days, staying in camps while work proceeded at adjacent jobsites in Alberta. Citing stressors that include distance and time away from family, intense labor, long commutes, and camp living, the workers reported “worse general mental health, more work-related stress, and higher incidences of diagnosed long-term health conditions and use of mental health services” than those found in the general public, Sara Dorow, lead report author and sociologist at the university, said in a press release.

Among the findings:

  • 35% of the workers sought assistance for mental health – including counseling, medication and/or information – in the past year.
  • Although 76% had access to health care services while on rotation, more than half of them indicated they wouldn’t use the services for reasons that include fear of negative consequences such as “layoffs, lost time, or loss of respect from employees and crew members.”
  • 22% reported not seeking out health care when it was needed in the past year; reasons include lack of time, inconvenience, bad experiences, no funds and not receiving help when requested.
  • More than 40% disagreed with the statement: “There is good communication at work about psychological safety, that employers are committed to minimizing stress and that management values well-being as much as productivity.”
  • 48% said they felt somewhat or not at all comfortable with seeking help for mental health out of fear of stigma, possible professional consequences and lack of information.

The researchers’ recommendations for employers include:

  • Manage work schedules to reduce fatigue and stress
  • Offer flexible rotation and travel schedules that accommodate distance and family situations, as well as provide consistent coverage of travel costs
  • Enhance or establish trusted, onsite or in-camp mental health supports
  • Ensure safe, third-party reporting mechanisms for psychological safety issues
  • Enhance mental health training and education across the workplace

“Probably our main policy recommendation would be to build in more mental health supports,” Dorow said. “Research is clear: If people don’t trust that there is a climate of support at work, it’s going to have a significant impact on their mental health and whether they report issues or use services.”

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