International Men’s Day Series – Paul McElhone’s Story

During a recent conversation about men’s mental health, I was asked whether it takes a certain type of person to be able to handle working in far flung and isolated assignments in the oil and gas industry.

The question was framed in a complimentary manner, suggesting that those who handle working under such conditions are somehow made of tougher stuff than those who do not. The reality of course, is quite different. The workforce in such locations are the same as those in any sector or location – normal people; mostly working out of necessity, carrying with them much of the same thoughts, anxieties and hopes as any other person.

Thankfully, in my experience, the vast majority of people are inherently good. When a team is faced with a collective challenge in an isolated environment, a sense of comradery forms and individuals tend to naturally look out for one another. In my opinion, this soft human approach is the basis for success in any team and any location. However, this soft approach is very difficult to document or plan, and unfortunately cannot be solely leaned upon to ensure everyone stays well, all the time.

The perception of someone’s mental wellbeing, as is well understood in this day and age, can unfortunately be misleading. Unlike previous generations, we are all at least aware of the concept of mental health nowadays. We all most likely know someone who has experienced it, may have felt affected by varying degrees of it at times and can appreciate the debilitating impact that it can have on a person, relationship or family.

As a project team in a very remote location, we have multiple systematic and technical tools at our disposal to try to mitigate the risk of someone executing a potentially hazardous task in this frame of mind. We have annual medicals to assess wellbeing. During the course of the year we cover a wide range of topics through weekly presentations and daily briefings related to the environment, safety and health. We include subjects such as mental health and mindfulness. We organize campaigns to raise awareness. We talk of the buddy-system. We have checklists and prompts in our last minute risk assessments at site to judge each other’s frame of mind prior to starting a given task.

All very technical approaches. But probably not entirely effective. The truth is, as the majority of the workforce here are men, we all tend to be more comfortable not delving too deeply into this topic, and are content with finishing the conversation and just getting on with the days’ work.

Perhaps this is something that needs to be remedied. Perhaps not. Of the enormous volume of information available on this subject online, one quote that stands out is Shelly Gray’s claiming that ‘Idle hands make fretful minds’. One thing that is certainly different about remote working life is that you are kept busy. A lot of rotational colleagues of mine, past and present, have admitted to the time away from ‘normal life’ being somewhat therapeutic and beneficial in itself. They are kept busy daily with tasks and are almost always surrounded by their team mates. Of course I’m not suggesting that avoiding problems at home is healthy, or that hard work is the only solution to what is a very complex emotional state. But maybe seeking out a purpose, and leveraging the resilience gained from working through adversity needs to be better recognized as an important part of the mindfulness discussion.

Based on personal experiences with those who suffer with mental health challenges, it is the balance of listening, acknowledging purpose and giving someone the right amount of space that has the potential to help most. Making the time, and being brave enough to start these discussions with those suspected of suffering is the real challenge, whether it be at home or at work. Regardless of how mainstream the topic of mental health has become, genuine help is most likely to be found in personal, low-key moments – not in technically managed solutions or corporate communications. Caring, and making a personal effort to help someone who needs it will probably always be the most effective way to tackle men and women’s mental health challenges.

And so to answer the question – does it take a certain type of special person to work on tough assignments: No. It doesn’t. But the experiences and effort expended teach you a lot about yourself and your strengths. Perhaps this is what prompts industry leaders to speak of resilience in such lofty terms. Perhaps we need to convert the determination that we apply in our work lives into a form of resilience in areas of our lives that are not so purposeful. Or perhaps we just need to better use the soft approach, and look a little closer for someone who looks like they need a chat.