In March of this year, I and many of my ex-colleagues and friends in the oil and gas industry watched in exasperation as Russia and Saudi Arabia embarked in an oil price war, unprecedented not because of why it was being waged, but rather when it was being waged. The oil industry is no stranger to monumental commodity price fluctuations, but the timing of this one felt incredibly short sighted.
Against a backdrop of a growing global health crisis (as it was in March), falling demand in China and a slow march over the last few years towards a net zero future, the timing of the price war was awkward at best, foolish at worst.
Three seemingly unrelated events, all combining to create a perfect storm, resulting in one inevitable outcome, a sea change in the future of this giant sector.
In the UK alone, just over quarter of a million people were employed in the sector in 2019. Each and every one of these individuals are impacted in some way by this seismic shift we are all witnessing. For some it will be immediate job loss, fuelled by companies scrambling to halt their financial meltdown, for others it may be income reduction or pay freezes as organisations look to trim the sails in order to weather the storm.
For nearly everyone, the biggest shift will come from the uncertain future ahead coupled with the turning tide of public sentiment against the industry. These two points alone will have a long and enduring impact on the wellbeing and mental health of the workforce that will last long after redundancy packages or parachute payments have finished.
Dealing with Uncertainty
Let us assume each employed person has on average three dependents, that could be partners, children or parents. Worry and anxiety doesn’t just affect us, it affects those around us, and has an impact on those directly dependent on us. Thus, it stands to reason that here in the UK over a million people now face this uncertain future together. While many other sectors can and will recover post Covid, the question marks remaining over oil and gas are much greater. Long term uncertainty can feel overwhelming, with no escape.
“It can bring to the surface our worst fears and highlight our greatest insecurities.”
The oil and gas workforce and their families are not spread evenly across the UK, rather they are in pockets. A major concern for many will be the lack of alternative industry in these areas, and therefore limited opportunities for those to pivot to new sectors. The unenviable option is to uproot families to move, which can bring further issues such as loss of their support network, increased financial burden for those unable to afford property in more expensive areas and change of schools where children are involved.
There is also a stark reality that in a male dominated industry, voicing feelings and speaking up about fears, is still viewed as bad for your career or reputation. Men are not good at asking for help, a fact borne out in the suicide statistics often quoted.
The Guilt Complex
Anti-industry sentiment has been a creeping phenomenon over the last few years and I remember feeling it as far back as 2015. A growing number of people referring to themselves as engineers, technical or from the ‘energy’ sector, to avoid a public admission of being directly associated to fossil fuels and being seen as the proponents of global warming and the destruction of our planet.
“Many people achieve a sense of identity and also pride from their work.”
Indeed it can form an important anchor and provides a strong sense of self. When suddenly that is called into question, to the point where rather than being proud we feel ashamed, this can lead to strong feelings of guilt. Knowing the rest of the world views you on the wrong side of an ethical debate, can for a while at least create a them and us mentality, a global face-off, a ‘we provide energy security’ stance, but that is often short lived. Public sentiment has not abated, people haven’t forgotten and moved on, climate change is real and here to stay. So even to the most hardened industry veteran, eventually doubts will surface, which side am I on.
Those doubts can come from the most unlikely places. A child coming home from school and asking if it’s true that you kill dolphins. Seemingly preposterous statements that linger in the backs of our minds and sow the seeds of doubt.
Human beings for the most part love to be loved. Our rational brain provides us with morality, ethics and judgement, and sets us apart from ancient ancestors who were simply wired to survive. The way the industry is shaping up for the future, it seems like the survival instinct we all have is on a direct collision course with our need to feel loved.
“How do you manage long term uncertainty? How do you pivot without jeopardising everything that you have worked for? How do you stay on the right side of the ethical debate? How do you ask for help?”
These questions and many more will be racing through the minds of every person in the industry or associated with it. The answers will touch the lives of many millions of people here in the UK and even more worldwide.
“It is no longer an anxious future but an anxious present too.”