One statistic which stood out when the HSE published its Health and Safety Statistics for 2022 was the confirmation that stress, depression, and anxiety are now the most common forms of work-related ill-health in the UK. Although the overall prevalence of work-related ill-health has been decreasing year on year, mental ill-health is on the increase, and that trend looks set to continue. Last year 914,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression, or anxiety, and 17 million working days were lost as a result.

Whilst the HSE's statistics relate to the entire UK, this is undoubtedly a challenge facing the offshore energy sector as much as any other. In its whitepaper "Changing minds: saving lives" published in March, the North Sea Chapter of the International Association of Drilling Contractors called for "an urgent new approach to mental health in the North Sea". The whitepaper highlights research by the International SOS Foundation which identified that 40% of offshore shift workers experienced suicidal thoughts at least some of the time while at work.

That is an incredibly sobering statistic for the offshore energy industry, and one that cannot be ignored – at any given point in time, up to 40% of those working offshore may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. The nature of working offshore presents unique challenges from a mental health perspective. Workers are away from the support of friends and family, and small arguments during a call home are not easily resolved from somewhere in the North Sea. Technology is also changing the experience of living offshore. Downtime is now increasingly spent alone watching television on a tablet rather than socialising with colleagues. For some that will only exacerbate feelings of isolation and anxiety.

The scale of the mental health challenge facing the offshore energy sector, and all UK employers, raises both ethical and legal issues. Irrespective of what the law may require, supporting both the physical and mental well-being of staff is, quite simply, the right thing to do. Society now expects a genuine focus on mental wellbeing from employers. At a time when the offshore energy sector's social licence to operate is in sharp focus, this is an expectation that can’t be ignored.

Legal duties arise too, particularly in the context of UK health and safety law. The first issue for duty holders to be alert to is that stress, anxiety, and depression materially increase the risks of accidents offshore. Fatigue, a lack of concentration and distraction are all symptoms of poor mental health. They are also all key risk factors in relation to workplace accidents. When undertaking an assessment of the risk of physical activity, duty holders must include an assessment of the risk to that activity if a member of the team is struggling with their mental health.

Risk assessment of operational activity is second nature for the offshore industry, and any change necessary to include poor mental health as a risk factor should be easy to implement. However, dealing with the symptom is not enough. We need to address the underlying causes of mental ill-health in our workforce.

Employers have a legal duty to protect the mental health of their employees just as much as their physical health. The obligation under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 "to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees" is not limited to physical health and wellbeing. It is incumbent on every employer in the offshore energy sector to put in place measures reduce the risk to their employees' mental health to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable.

What those measures are will depend on the nature of the work being undertaken and the outcome of the stress risk assessment that the HSE expects all employers to undertake. Common measures will include training of mental health first aiders, provision of confidential counselling services and management of rotas and shift patterns to reduce stress and fatigue.

In many workplaces, both on and offshore, a culture shift will also be required. Employees must feel able to talk about mental health and to speak up about their own personal challenges. Many still do not, and there remains a degree of stigma attached to poor mental health, and employers must address that. The development of a positive safety culture with a genuine "no fault" approach to stopping work on safety grounds is something that the energy sector is rightly proud of. The next step in its evolution is to ensure a culture of inclusivity and support around mental health. There is no one size fits all solution, but the first step is understanding the challenges employees are facing and talking to them about any support that is required. One thing is clear, doing nothing is not an option. That could be as much of a threat to the industry's social licence to operate as failing to embrace the journey to net zero.

This article was originally published in OGV Energy in May 2023.