Northern Alberta industries urged to support unique mental health issues of employees

Employers need to be more proactive in helping workers maintain their psychological well-being, including by being more cognizant of suicide prevention strategies, a mental health summit in Grande Prairie, Alta., heard this week.

A two-day mental health summit, hosted this week by Northwestern Polytechnic and the Resource Centre for Suicide Prevention in Grande Prairie, focused on promoting wellness in trades, industry and agriculture. The northwestern Alberta city, a 460-kilometre drive from Edmonton, relies heavily on agriculture, forestry and oil and gas sectors.

It was the first summit to specifically focus on mental health in these industries, said Tracy Golnick, director of men’s mental health at the centre. 

Northern Alberta has a high suicide rate compared to other regions in the province. In 2021, there were 192 confirmed suicides in the region, according to statistics compiled by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

OK to talk about struggles

“In northern Alberta, we have a lot of industries that have a culture of ‘Work hard, play hard’ and a mentality of ‘You just get it done,'” Tammy Monro, a public education and outreach director with the Resource Centre for Suicide Prevention, said in an interview.

These kinds of attitudes are common in agriculture and oilfield trades, Monro said.

“You don’t talk about your feelings. And we’re really hoping to break down those barriers and break that stigma as well and let people know that it’s OK to talk about their mental health.”

Drivers of suicide in the region are not well understood. However, work-related factors — such as working in remote communities and volatile work environments — may be contributing to the suicide rate, Monro said at the summit.

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Employers can play a significant role in reducing suicide risks among their employees, she said. 

Golnick said companies are becoming more attuned to the mental health needs of their employees. 

“There are a lot of new conversations happening in companies, so they’re kind of almost blazing that path when it comes to best practices,” Golnick said in an interview.

“Some companies are doing it really well. Some people, or some companies, are just starting to have those conversations.”

Remote work camps, similar to this one north of Prince George, B.C., can present unique mental health issues for employees. (Coastal GasLink/Contributed)

Oil and gas exploration company ConocoPhillips Canada has stepped up to support mental well-being in the workplace, offering an employee assistance program and peer support, said Lindsay Partington, a ConocoPhillips field supervisor who attended the summit. 

“You are away from home and family. It’s making sure that we have all the resources and support in place if you need someone to reach out to,” Partington told CBC in an interview.

Partington oversees field services, such as trucking, chemicals and permitting at a ConocoPhillips site close to Fort McMurray. She was involved in initiatives to improve employee mental well-being, including being on the company’s health and wellness committee, even before taking a management position.

“I was just very passionate about it,” said Partington, who now is a company leader in getting resources and supports in place.

Golnick said rotational work can be difficult for some employees. 

“There are some people that thrive in a fly-in, fly-out” type of rotation for work, she said. “And there are some individuals that struggle.”

It’s important for companies to recognize and have conversations about the potential emotional toll of shift work, she said.

Golnick said some companies are offering their employees opportunities to recharge their batteries, even if it’s in a remote work setting. 

“Some of the camps that I’ve personally been to really put an emphasis on that work-life balance. There are lots of opportunities to kind of connect outside of the workday,” she said. 

“So, even though you’re at camp there’s time to socialize at supper. There’s times in the game rooms. Companies often will bring in speakers on different topics, theatres, a lot of physical activity.

“A lot of companies formed their own communities for their employees when they’re outside of work.”

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