By its nature, the unique and dangerous work setting on offshore oilrig Hibernia takes a toll on workers. The platform is 315 kilometres off the coast of St. John’s and is the workplace and temporary home to 270 workers who rotate 21 days on the platform and 21 days at home.
Being away from friends and family for long periods can diminish workers’ normal coping mechanisms during stressful experiences. Furthermore, offshore workers can feel helpless if there are family problems back home, according to Steve Tizzard, a member of Unifor Local 2121’s health and safety committee at Hibernia.
To combat these risks to mental health, a worker-led Platform Wellness Committee decided to develop a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program at Hibernia in 2015.
And the mental health awareness program went on to receive national recognition from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), winning the C.M. Hincks Award. The award is named after Clarence Meridith Hincks who was a legendary figure in Canadian mental health and founded the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1918.
The award is provided annually to an outstanding organization that has advanced mental health through its work or volunteer activities in the areas of reducing stigma and discrimination, addressing social justice and the social determinants of health, and maintaining or improving mental health for all, according to the CMHA.
The campaign at Hibernia Management and Development Company beat out 10 other nominees to win the award to “honour workplaces for exemplary processes, tools and programs that foster positive mental health for employees.”
“We’re so thrilled that Unifor members could take a leadership role in improving mental health in this unique workplace,” says Sari Sairanen, Toronto-based director of health and safety at Unifor. “When workers are involved from the ground up, health and safety campaigns are always going to be more effective and more innovative.”
Founded on “actively caring,” the Hibernia program has three components: training workers in MHFA; mental health awareness “moments” for team safety meetings; and actively caring in the community.
First aid for mental health is gaining prominence as a critical part of any workplace’s health and safety toolbox. MHFA is provided to someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. Like physical first aid, which is given as a first response before professional medical treatment is available, MHFA is administered until a professional health-care provider can help.
From panic attacks to suicidal thoughts, MHFA interventions can provide comfort, help prevent problems from escalating, and save lives.
Not only can this immediate intervention help workers to address needs and be safer at work, it can reduce losses in a workplace resulting from disabilities and absenteeism.
Mental health has an impact on an entire workplace, not just the person living and surviving with the need. Employers can also benefit from strategies that reduce conflict and increase recruitment and retention.
The campaign has been a success because the MHFA program was devised with workers and not implemented from the top-down, says Unifor.
“Workers want to be engaged and invested in their workplace health and safety, and mental health promotion is no different,” says Sairanen.
Back on the oil platform, Local 2121 has trained more than 300 workers on MHFA. The training is free and offered by trained instructors who are also co-workers.
Some of the unique challenges for offshore workers mentioned above — for example, caring for family from a distance — are integrated into the curriculum. Guest speakers who have suffered from mental health issues are also invited to share their stories.
Mental health awareness “moments” are presentations at offshore safety meetings, led by workers who take advantage of one of 16 videos in an online library. A new topic is chosen every 42 days, based on worker and leadership feedback.
Content and speaker notes are developed by safety and occupational health teams onshore, and the presentations at safety meetings offshore are led by workers.
Topics have included: depression, anxiety, caring for your family from a distance, and substance abuse and talking to teenagers.
The Hibernia program’s third component involves reaching out to the community. In 2015, Hibernia partnered with the Gathering Place in St. John’s, an organization that assists the homeless or precariously housed. Many people there have complex physical and mental health issues.
Hibernia workers support the Gathering Place by volunteering as groups on a regular basis on different initiatives. For example, they prepare and serve food, do maintenance work and spend time with guests.
When asked what the future holds for the program, Tizzard is optimistic.
“I think this training has a bright future because more workplaces are starting to recognize that mental health is not a private matter to ignore and sweep under the rug,” he says.
Within Unifor, Mental Health First Aid is catching on. Tizzard has been at several events outside his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador to discuss training and getting new programs off the ground. He says he’s been encouraged by the openness shown by both workers and employers.
“Important conversations are starting about tackling mental health and mental illness at work. I couldn’t say that 10 years ago.”
Ian Boyko is the New Westminster, B.C.-based communications representative at Unifor. For more information about Unifor Local 2121’s training, email Steve Tizzard at email@example.com. For information about Mental Health First Aid, visit www.mhfa.ca.