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Mental health in the oil sands

By Erika Beauchesne in Fort McMurray, Alberta
EcoLog, 9/5/2014 12:26:00 PM

When John McIver moved from Cape Breton, N.S. to work as a crane operator in Fort McMurray, his wife and teenage son stayed behind.

Lonely, McIver distracted himself with his job at a hauling and hoisting company, 3DM.

“That’s all I did. Work, come home, have a shower, go to bed, go to work again,” McIver told EcoLog News.

This June 2014, his wife and teenage son moved to Fort McMurray – a move he says vastly improved life. “It just feels like a home now.”

But Fort McMurray is not home for the thousands of workers flying in and out for jobs unavailable in their home provinces.

As thousands flock to the oil sands — often leaving their families and support systems — the subject of mental health gains attention.

According to the most recent data from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, there were 30,000 to 40,000 mobile workers in 2012.

That number is rising, says Sara Dorow, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, who has researched Fort McMurray’s commuters.

“Some people can do this for a long time. They learn tricks of the trade, ways to keep going and maintain a sense of normalcy,” Dorow told EcoLog News. “It certainly has a toll on people — not just their own lives, but personal relationships.”

While mobile workers may be susceptible to isolation or depression, Dorow notes that obtaining accurate data is a challenge to studying these mental health effects. Many workers are not being tracked and tend to fall through the cracks due to their mobile lifestyle.

One 2009 report by Shepell·fgi, a Canadian provider of workplace health and productivity solutions, came close.

The report, called Health and Wellness Trends in the Oil and Gas Sector, found that oil and gas workers accessed Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) at a rate 40% higher than the national average between 2007 and 2008. It also found a 481%-increase in EAP access for alcohol abuse.

The report cited several reasons for this, including increased worker mobility and absence from families.

Those numbers echo findings by Angela Angel, a Calgary-based natural resource sociologist who studied male camp workers in Fort McMurray. 

During the 2008 boom’s peak, high quotas and pressure to work extra hours made some workers feel “like a mere cog in the machine,” Angel told EcoLog News. 

She identified other stressors, such as a lack of freedom. Some complained they could not even do things like take evening walks to unwind. Another theme was large salaries accompanied by high debt. 

These stressors are worsened when mental and physical effects are internalized, common in a "big boys don’t cry work culture,” Angel notes. 

Getting male workers to feel comfortable addressing health issues is one step the B.C. government has taken to reach out to resource workers. 

The B.C. Northern Health Authority launched a marketing campaign, called the Northern BC Man Challenge, with tools ranging from nutritious eating tips to health resources. The language is aimed at men to understand and connect with. 

“Alberta needs to look at these issues, both government and industry,” says Angel, who is also a consultant and program manager with Habitat Health Impact Consulting. 

Angel is working on developing a Mobile Worker Well Being Assessment Tool targeted for camp spaces. The tool is similar to ones used for environmental or safety health impact assessments. It focuses on social and physical conditions at work camps, and makes recommendations to improve those spaces. 

“Companies have developed amazing safety programs here. But what’s missing, and what’s beginning to gain attention, is the emphasis on mental health,” she says. “People are starting to realize it affects the bottom line and there’s a huge push to attract and retain workers while keeping those workers healthy.”

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