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Tackling health and wellbeing in oil and gas

25 April 2019

The health and wellbeing of staff are ever-greater priorities for employers at a time of major change in the industry. Wireline looks at two distinctive company initiatives that fit the bill.
Programmes being rolled out at BP and Centrica Storage both embrace a theme that the oil and gas industry is already familiar with – resilience.

A psychological wellbeing initiative instigated by BP across its North Sea operations takes a long-term view of how such support can not only benefit the individual, but also deliver safe and reliable operations.

And the emphasis is very much on positive thinking. “Too often in the health and safety arena we’re dealing with the reactive side and as professionals that’s not where we want to be. This was a great opportunity to put us on the front foot and, by the measures available, it has been highly successful,” says its health manager Alan Dickson.

At Centrica Storage, its rounded programme encompasses mental and physical health, and has been shaped to promote long lasting and positive behavioural change.

“Workplace stress and other health-related issues can affect anybody and they need to be supported correctly,” says its occupational health manager Francis Riley. “We have a social and clinical responsibility to people: they come to work healthy, and they leave healthy.”

Reflect and evaluate

BP’s North Sea programme has its origins in training and support materials produced by the wider company’s central health team.

Alan’s team was already embarking on support initiatives in 2017 for staff facing challenging circumstances. These included people impacted by divestment of assets, as well as drilling and project teams about to experience a potentially-stressful upsurge in workload. At the same time – and amid a period of continuing industry uncertainty – it spotted an opportunity to mould some of the group materials into a proactive and progressive campaign for a wider audience .

The team successfully made the case for including health and wellbeing in an ongoing, multi-topic training programme for around 200 first-level leaders, such as supervisors and team leads. From late 2017 onwards, Alan and his colleagues led a series of 90-minute sessions for groups of up to 20 people at a time.

“It wasn’t necessarily for people who felt they needed support – they might already feel strong, but this might help them be even stronger. It was all about taking a positive approach,” he explains.

Each session was founded on practicalities, featuring three exercises that asked delegates to focus on how they manage:

• External resources – in particular, maintaining a support network of people around them
• Internal demands – assessing their life priorities and where they need to direct time and energy
• Internal resources – avoiding fatigue, and the consequences of it, by evaluating their work-life balance and managing their energy

“It wasn’t about telling people what to do, but encouraging them to look at where they were,” adds Alan. Practical advice and guidance was available to help delegates address individual issues that emerged from the sessions. And it wasn’t just focused on the work environment. “If you are struggling with something outside work, the chances are you’re not going to perform at work. It’s moved care for our people up the business agenda,” says Alan.

The programme was also designed to equip first-level leaders with the skills to spot potential psychological issues affecting members of their team.

Rewrite the rules

The desire to introduce a new, forward-looking health and wellbeing culture was also the impetus behind the work at Centrica Storage, which produces and processes gas from the Rough field in the southern North Sea for Centrica.

The business has been running a series of activities, ranging from health fairs and workshops to sports-themed campaigns, but Francis says these created peaks of activity rather than achieving sustainable change. Keen to embrace a new approach, it teamed up with specialist service provider Tua Optimum to develop a new programme for its 300-plus workforce across five offshore and onshore locations.

Francis says it’s the first time he has seen this kind of approach in his 30 years of professional experience. “It’s based on one-to-one support from dedicated and fully-trained wellbeing coaches who aren’t focused on increasing productivity, resolving a technical challenge or performing training,” he explains. “It’s targeted at helping us meet our goals of behavioural change and sustainability.”

All employees have had the chance to take part in what is initially a three-pronged schedule:

• An individual session with a coach to help them build up a picture of what makes them tick and what they want to change
• A full health check, providing benchmark statistics against which progress can be measured
• A fitness assessment, if required

A bespoke action plan emerges from this process and, as appropriate, a health and fitness training programme.

“It adds up to a really comprehensive approach,” says Francis. “What I really like about it is that it doesn’t necessarily end up as a gym, swimming or pilates programme. It might be breathing exercises or a walking routine. Or it might be nothing like that at all – perhaps just a chat once a quarter with their wellbeing coach to talk through coping strategies.” Participants can maintain contact with their designated coach and undergo regular reviews to get maximum benefit from the programme.

Fit for the future

The programme was launched in early 2017, and over the course of the first year 235 people had signed up and participated in one-to-one coaching. Over the same period, Centrica Storage witnessed a 7 per cent reduction in sickness absence.

Among those who took part, they lost a combined weight of 350 kilos and 8.5 metres around the stomach. Francis, however, points to the importance of mental health as part of the overall programme. “We’re seeing cost savings in terms of reduced sickness absence, but we’re also seeing qualitative evidence about improved mental health – we’ve had lots of positive feedback,” he adds. “In a time of change, of reorganisation and restructure across our industry, this is really proving its worth.

“This sort of sustainability and behavioural change can’t happen through assessments performed remotely on a computer. It can only come about with trained wellbeing coaches working on a one-to-one basis.” Other Centrica businesses are now showing an interest in adopting the same approach.

At BP, meanwhile, Alan says virtually every participant got something from the programme and the feedback suggested people welcomed the chance to take time out for self-reflection. “Most training is focused on being a more productive employee, but this was about ‘how do I make myself feel better?’,” he says.

“We weren’t looking to produce measurable results, but to raise awareness. We got tremendously positive feedback but, critically, it now has our senior management asking us how we might take it forward. Its success has been recognised and there’s an opportunity to do more.”

That ‘more’ is set to take the form of a full-scale physical wellbeing and mental health programme for the entire North Sea workforce. “With a fitter and more alert workforce, the business is less likely to witness mistakes and less likely to have a process safety event,” adds Alan. “If you can be the best version of yourself today – and that’s the ultimate aim – you’re less likely to make a mistake, whether you’re operating a valve or writing a procedure.”

Alan and Francis share a belief that creating more resilient people leads to a more resilient business. “Resilience is not about taking on more work,” says Alan. “It’s not about the business trying to get more out of people; everybody has a heavy workload already. We’re trying to help people perform, and if individuals perform then the business performs.”

Francis adds: “We’ve engaged with our employees in this way to make them more resilient, and they’re benefiting by looking at things from new perspectives.”

This article was first published in the Summer 2018 issue of Wireline.


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