Mental health issues common in oilsands workers, University of Alberta study reveals

·3 min read
Poor morale in oilsands work camps was cited in the study as one of several sources of stress. (DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Poor morale in oilsands work camps was cited in the study as one of several sources of stress. (DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

After a failed marriage and heart attack, working in Alberta's oilpatch was too stressful for Darryn Ferguson.

When another opportunity arrived for love, he took it and changed careers to be closer to home in British Columbia.

While working in the oilsands can come with big paycheques, a recent study from the University of Alberta suggests workers face significant mental health challenges.

"Not one person I met had a good, solid relationship at home," said Ferguson.

He worked for a decade in work camps near Fort McMurray before leaving the industry in 2019.

Distance and time away from family was a major source of stress for participants in the study. Other factors included loneliness, poor morale in camp, difficulty maintaining healthy eating habits, discrimination and thoughts of suicide.

To help cope with the camps' isolation, Ferguson started taking antidepressants.

"I was a pretty calm guy my whole life and then working up there, I would instantly snap," he said.

It's one of the first studies in Canada to examine specifically the mental health of fly-in, fly-out employees who work in the oilsands.

Submitted by University of Alberta
Submitted by University of Alberta

Researchers noted significant proportion of participants feared repercussions at their job if they went to seek help for their mental health.

"I think that's a real concern, this culture of mistrust around employer support," said the study's co-author Sara Dorow, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Alberta, on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

In an email to CBC, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, one of the operators of work camps in the oilpatch, said the company provides opportunities for employees to improve their mental health with a wellness program, which provides resources for workers to maintain a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle.

Difficulties of camp

Ferguson said there are programs in the oilpatch to help workers' well-being, but emphasized employers could be more proactive in getting staff to seek help, especially after tragedy.

Over the years, Ferguson said he has lost count on how many of his coworkers have died from overdoses and suicides.

While the study only had 72 participants, Dorow said it still provided an important snapshot of industry and echoed similar research in other countries, including Australia.

Liam Harrap/CBC
Liam Harrap/CBC

Although the oil industry has substantially improved physical safety of workers over the years there is still a need for additional supports for oilpatch employees, said Perry Berkenpas, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA).

Similar research undertaken by the OSCA echo the study from the U of A, he said.

Dorow hopes industry will use her study to provide more mental health resources to employees.

Sparking conversation

The Buddy Up campaign, managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), launched earlier this year in Fort McMurray. It encourages men to have conversations with friends, especially if they are in crisis.

"We really need to have those conversations and be there so people are not suffering in silence," said Amanda Holloway, executive director of the CMHA in Fort McMurray.

"It's about creating a moment of safety where people can feel open to potentially engage in those dialogues."

Even though it has been two years since Ferguson left the oilsands, he said the industry still keeps asking him to return, even offering a salary 10 times higher than what he makes now.

Regardless, oilpatch work is not tempting him.

"I tell them to lose my number because I will not be going back," said Ferguson.

"I don't want to lose this girl because she's pretty darn awesome."

If you or someone you know is in distress, call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566.

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