EAP use skyrockets for oil and gas workers

Industry has seen increased EAP use for addiction, elder care and child care

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of employees in the oil and gas industry seeking help for addiction issues, particularly alcoholism, according to a report.

From 2006 to 2008, the industry experienced a 112-per-cent increase in employee assistance program (EAP) access for addiction issues and a 481-per-cent increase in access for alcohol-related problems, found a study by EAP provider Shepell-fgi.

The very nature of the oil and gas industry, which includes shift work, high stress and isolation, presents inherent risk factors for addiction problems, said Michael Kennedy, regional director of Western Canada for Shepell-fgi.

Many oil and gas workers are in small communities or camps in remote locations, far away from family and social supports. When they’re not working, there aren’t many choices for distraction, which can lead to substance use and abuse, he said.

“There are some challenges with working in this sector and it can come out in the level of utilization for addictions, but (the rate) also indicates the employers are doing a good job putting these programs in place and helping to make sure employees are aware of and accessing these services,” said Kennedy.

Just because there’s an increase in people accessing EAPs for addiction issues doesn’t mean addiction is on the rise in the industry, he said.

“All we can see from the data itself is there are a greater number of people accessing help,” said Kennedy.

The number of oil and gas employees accessing EAP supports in general has been higher than the national average for several years, found Health and Wellness Trends in the Oil and Gas Sector, which looked at EAP access among 36 upstream petroleum industry organizations from 2006 to 2008.

EAP utilization among employees in the industry, and their dependants, was 34 per cent higher than the Canadian norm in 2006 and 40 per cent higher in 2007 and 2008. EAP utilization for addiction issues among oil and gas workers was also 35 per cent higher than the national average in 2008.

The higher access rates show the stigma around counselling is beginning to lessen in the industry and society at large, said Travis Davies, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Calgary.

“I think that’s really important and really positive,” he said.

“Companies are very open to retaining employees and want to make sure they get the help they need if they need it.”

Employers have also recognized addiction issues in such a safety-sensitive environment need to be addressed quickly and are focusing on prevention by directing employees towards supports before there’s a crisis, said Kennedy.

“We’re seeing employers start to train managers and supervisors to look for symptoms (suggesting) that there may be challenges an employee is having,” he said.

This move toward prevention can also be seen in the industry’s higher-than-average access rates for other supports, said Kennedy. For example, EAP utilization for nutritional counselling among oil and gas workers in 2008 was 21 per cent higher than the national norm.

In the same year, employees in the industry also accessed EAPs for elder care and child care at a higher rate than the national norm (120 per cent higher and 43 per cent higher, respectively).

“We know it’s not just an addictions issue,” said Kennedy. “Given the demographics of this workforce, they often have both children that need care as well as parents that need care.”

And it’s not just employees accessing the programs, he said. EAP use by spouses was 33 per cent higher than the national norm in 2006, 56 per cent higher in 2007 and 75 per cent higher in 2008.

Many workers in the industry have to travel on the job, leaving spouses and children behind, which creates a different set of challenges for the spouse who becomes, in effect, a single parent, said Kennedy. This could contribute to the higher access for family support issues, he said.

However, the industry had lower-than-average utilization rates in 2008 for several supports, including work counselling (38 per cent lower), financial counselling (38 per cent lower) and nurseline services (30 per cent lower).

Davies and Kennedy agreed most employers in the oil and gas industry have EAP programs and are working hard to promote them.

“Across the board, everybody has a very well-defined EAP program,” said Davies.

But employers should continue to work with employees to find out what kinds of resources they want so the programs can be tailored to meet their needs, said Kennedy.

Organizations should also look at integrating the EAP with other workplace programs, he said.

“Ideally there’s an integrated approach that would include health and safety, occupational health and human resources, all of those other programs, in a way that supports employees, their health, their productivity as well their families, and also (looks) after the employers’ needs.”

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