Mental Wellness in the Offshore

How one rig worker is advocating for mental health support in offshore workplaces.
By Nicola Ryan

Life offshore is not for the faint of heart – it’s a tough industry for workers and their families. Steve Tizzard has worked in a communications, weather and ice management role on Hibernia for nearly 25 years, and he is very familiar with the dangers, challenges and rewards that come with working offshore. He works closely with helicopter and vessel transportation and safety, and now in his role as a mental health advocate, he details how the industry is evolving to keep workers safe and sound.
“I think if you ask many workers in this industry, the rewards first start with the rotation,” Steve writes in an email sent from the Hibernia platform approximately 315 kilometres east of St. John’s, NL. “Being able to have three weeks off after a three-week rotation is not the norm. People who enjoy travelling, the outdoors or completing other projects can do so given the rotation. There’s also a family-oriented feeling on many installations offshore. Friendships that are built are very strong. Knowing that we can live and work in Newfoundland and Labrador and help contribute to the future of the province is a great feeling.”
As for the challenges, there are times when they seem to outweigh the rewards. “Challenges like not being home for special family events and holidays [are difficult],” Steve writes. “Equally as difficult, not being home for sad occasions like an illness or funeral. And, with the unpredictable weather on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is never a guarantee that after three weeks offshore a worker will arrive home on time.”
Those work hurdles can become stumbling blocks in employee’s personal lives. “When it comes to relationships, those are particularly challenging,” he continues. “Rotational family dynamics are not typical; one person being absent for six or more months a year can take a toll. It takes a significant amount of work and commitment for both parties to keep a relationship healthy and happy.”

A monumental mindset shift
Clearly, working offshore presents stressors, anxieties and dangers that are different from any other workplace. But for many years, toughing out rig life meant workers faced these challenges alone. After a workplace tragedy in 2009, addressing the need for mental health support and services on the rig became one of Steve’s priorities.
“The Cougar 491 tragedy changed so many things for our industry,” he says, recalling the helicopter crash into the ocean that killed 15 passengers and two flight crew during a routine flight to bring workers to the oil fields. One passenger survived. “It was one of the most impactful and devastating things that I have ever had to go through professionally and personally. Losing our friends and coworkers brought many of us to question whether we could continue working offshore or not. So many issues arose from the inquiry including transportation safety, fidelity in training and helicopter operations. As a workforce, I think we were in a state of anxiety, despair and uncertainty. As things started to evolve, and operational changes made it safer for us to travel, many workers realized that we didn’t focus on ourselves. In the months and years post-accident we learned we needed avenues to talk, strategies to listen and opportunities to seek professional help if required. Once many of us started sharing our lived experiences, and how we were feeling, and started reaching out for assistance, we knew we had to take things further with formal training. Stigma is everywhere – the offshore workplace is no different.”
Steve completed Mental Health First Aid instructor training offered through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. He also became certified as a Psychological Health and Safety Advisor, trained in suicide intervention with ASIST from LivingWorks, and he created a wellness committee for workers offshore.
“A wellness committee is designed to do a few specific things,” he explains. “Clearly, it is to take care of workers and make sure they are feeling their best both physically and mentally, but there is another reason, too. A wellness committee should encourage workers to get to know each other better; this includes management and supervisors. That way, if someone is behaving differently, seems unwell or appears to be going through a difficult time, we can recognize it. This kind of relationship will make starting conversations easier; sometimes a non-judgmental listening ear can make a big difference. Other times, it could mean pointing them toward EAP services or other external resources. The goal is to help people come out of the shadows, stop suffering in silence and access the help that is available.”
Steve says watching the transformation of the offshore workplace into a safer place where workers could access help was amazing. “I think back to my career before 2009, and struggle to remember any mental health conversations at that time,” he writes. “Unfortunately, it was never spoken about. If people were suffering, they were doing so in silence. So many of us, no matter the industry or position, deal with mental health issues every day. Until we can talk about things, explore education, and seek tools and strategies openly – free from judgment – stigma wins. However, addressing the psychosocial factors in the workplace, speaking openly about mental health and treating mental health the same as physical health will go a long way to help those suffering.”
The offshore oil and gas industry continues to evolve in the way it approaches the mental health and wellbeing of workers. Just this past January, for the first time in Canada, OHS regulations include employee wellness – a change Steve and others have been advocating for since 2016.
“This change ensures that companies will at least now start to talk about mental health and give effective ways for workers to obtain the assistance they require without fear of being stigmatized or worrying about jeopardizing their job. Knowing the words ‘mental health’ are written into legislation will always hold a special place in my heart.”
This year, Steve was awarded a Workplace Champion of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH). “I am truly humbled; [receiving the award] means a great deal to me personally, as both a mental health advocate and an offshore worker,” he writes. “I don’t do this for accolades or awards. My reward is sitting back after a conversation with a coworker, knowing in my heart I have truly helped that person receive the supports they so desperately need. I feel overwhelmed knowing my coworkers and friends see me as a confidential, helpful person who will listen non-judgmentally.”
Steve now operates All the Best Consulting alongside his wife, Kelli. Together, they offer training and consulting services to promote better workplace mental health.
“I would never be able to do the advocacy work and training without the unconditional support of my wife, Kelli, who is always there for me, to listen and encourage no matter what the circumstances are,” Steve writes. “We want to see better workplaces. It is something we do side by side – that is pretty special.”
As for the future, while Steve thinks that his days offshore may be winding down, he knows he will always be an advocate for mental health and worker safety. “The past few years have been difficult for many workers; workers in the oil and gas industry are no different. The word ‘future’ can be a scary one at times. I hope the importance of mental health in our offshore workplaces will be a legacy for future workers. When I finally leave the Grand Banks, I’ll feel confident knowing psychological health and safety has a strong foundation, with passionate workers coming behind me to continue the advocacy.”

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