Mental health and wellbeing in the offshore sector

If a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks’ quarantine in a foreign hotel room overlooking a car park can seem an eternity

di Mark William Lowe*

336 interminable hours of staring at the same walls, watching CNN and catching a movie on Netflix can take its toll and so it is essential that, in terms of wellbeing, staff deployed to countries where a two week quarantine period is mandatory are correctly looked after. Wellbeing and mental health are two terms that many consider buzzwords or trendy phrases, however, as the difficulties generated by the Covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated, this is not the case at all.

Passing two weeks in a four-star hotel room may well be light years away from spending two years chained to a radiator in a Beirut basement, nevertheless, the sensation of frustration at the loss of precious time and being deprived of one’s freedom can take its toll. The state of an individual’s mental health in large part determines their wellbeing in the same manner that their wellbeing determines in large part their mental health. To exit this Catch-22 scenario, the first step is for the employer to recognise their responsibilities and implement measures that can reduce stress levels.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

In order to protect the wellbeing of the workforce, including those in quarantine, a number of considerations have to be made but what are the best practices in these situations? According to William Miller, Director Of Operations at SR8 Offshore, everything comes down to building a relationship with the employee and making sure that they don’t feel abandoned or “only of interest when they’re on the rig or the vessel.” According to Miller the issue of mandatory quarantine shouldn’t be taken lightly, he believes that: “We have a Duty of Care towards our people and it goes far beyond the legal obligations, these are our colleagues and so it’s a moral, ethical duty rather than a legal one. We can have people leaving for a task that have problems at home or any number of issues that we don’t necessarily know about and so finding themselves locked down in a hotel room for fourteen days can be very stressful. Our policy is to first and foremost make sure that the environment that they’ll be staying in is as comfortable as possible, that means proper air conditioning, a good internet connection, access to international television channels, and, as strange as this may seem, a decent view from their hotel room where they can distract themselves by watching life pass by rather than staring at an empty parking lot.”

Miller makes a point of checking in with quarantined staff via Zoom on a regular basis and points out that “they have to know that we’re here for them, checking that all’s fine and intervening if necessary. It can even be something simple like making sure the room’s OK, that they’re satisfied with it. Due to Covid-19 related hygiene considerations it can be difficult to change rooms after a week but when possible we ask the hotel to do so. It gives our people the sensation of change, a psychological input that says ‘We’re half way through this’, something that breaks the monotony and sends a positive signal.”

OUT OF CARE
Duty of Care According to Enrico Vergani, Team Leader of the Shipping and Transport Focus Team at the leading Italian law firm BonelliErede, the issue of Duty of Care takes effect from the moment an employee or consultant leaves their home and continues without interruption until such a time as they return: “It’s important to understand that the employer has a Duty of Care towards the employee or consultant during every single moment that they are working on behalf of the company, that has to be construed as a continuous obligation, from the minute they leave home until the minute they safely return home. In the specific case of being quarantined upon arrival in a foreign country, the legal obligations of Duty of Care are as stringent and pertinent as at any other phase of a transfer.” In Vergani’s opinion, offshore workers and, more generally, seafarers are considered as being ‘rough and tough’ and thus exempt from wellbeing or mental health issues. He believes that “this is simply not the case, it’s a myth that needs to be dispelled in the context of the modern workplace. With very few exceptions, national laws oblige employers to ensure the correct level of Duty of Care and in simple terms this means that as a company you’re either compliant or you’re not. If you are then you’re to be commended, and expected to keep and improve the level you reached, if you’re not then you should be urgently taking a very close look at your policies.”

MANAGING CLIENT EXPECTATIONS
Going beyond the ethical and legal considerations of Duty of Care, Miller believes that in ultimate analysis investments in employee wellbeing always pay dividends: “A happier, more content workforce will stay with you. Unpleasant issues can be avoided and thus everyone benefits.” SR8 Offshore’s Director Of Operations also pointed out that paying attention to employee wellbeing and mental health is something that clients appreciate, “clients care, it’s not true that they’re only interested in what your specialist delivers, what they want to see is that you’re looking after your people so that, in the specific case of quarantine, once they exit the hotel and join the rig or vessel they’re feeling fresh and are ready to give their best. I’ve got companies that ask me specifically about the specialists under quarantine so they want to know and you have to give them the right answer.”

*Member of the Advisory Board at Pyramid Temi Group

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