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Spiritual support

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With seismic changes seen across industry in recent years, Wireline caught up with Reverend Gordon Craig to discuss the evolving role of the UK oil and gas chaplaincy and the support it offers.

In the five years since Wireline profiled the role of UK oil and gas chaplain Reverend Gordon Craig, the purpose of the chaplaincy has not altered, but the industry which it serves has. Much strategic change has been seen across industry, especially following the prolonged downturn during 2015-16 – and the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the plunging oil price, has had a fundamental impact in recent months.

Numerous mergers and acquisitions across the operator and contractor communities, the emergence of new players, the development of the decommissioning agenda, the rapid growth in energy transition work – all amid a new economic landscape – had already served to reshape the North Sea industry before the pandemic took hold.

Gordon assumed the role of oil and gas chaplain in 2012 after a long career in the military, where he spent more than 20 years as a chaplain with the Royal Air Force, stationed in a variety of international locations as well as in the UK. “Having spent most of my previous career in the military, where you typically moved around every two years or so, I guess my initial expectation in this role was that things in UK oil and gas were pretty much set in place,” he says.

“That hasn’t been the case at all in recent times. So much has changed, and in some ways our role has changed with it.”

“The industry-wide work on mental health wellbeing is a really welcome development. It’s been fascinating to see how well it has been received at all levels.”

Working on wellbeing

The industry’s collective decision to prioritise mental health wellbeing in the workforce, as well as to invest in sources of support, has been one of the key developments Gordon has witnessed over the past two years. It’s also a topic that has increasingly become an area of focus for the chaplaincy. Gordon has been regularly involved in supporting mental health training offshore, focusing in part on how people can help colleagues who may be experiencing difficult times.

“The industry-wide work on mental health wellbeing is a really welcome development,” he says. “It’s been fascinating to see how well it has been received at all levels – I was a little sceptical initially about whether that would be the case, but it’s had a very positive reception.”

The issue, inevitably, is assuming an ever-greater profile in the industry as the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the low oil price take a toll on people offshore and onshore.

“The one word I’d use to describe the prevailing atmosphere in the industry at the moment is ‘anxiety’,” says the chaplain. “People are experiencing the unknown: they simply don’t know what is going to happen in the coming months.

“Even the ‘luckier’ ones – those who have been continuing to work – still have anxieties over issues such as keeping safe at work and the security of their job in the longer term. So many things are making people anxious and that inevitably raises stress levels.”

Gordon suggests there are broad principles that companies and organisations can embrace to help their people deal with the prevailing uncertainty.

“Companies can’t give definitive answers to lots of questions at the moment as they themselves don’t know precisely what is going to happen. But if their communications can be as honest and transparent as possible – if they can build up a level of trust through that transparency – then that certainly helps.

“If employees feel that their employer is genuinely concerned for them and is being open with them, that goes a long way in supporting people.”

The Piper Alpha memorial, Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen.
Rose garden and Piper Alpha memorial, Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen.

Virtual connection

The chaplaincy was set up in the late 1980s, with a mission to provide pastoral and spiritual care to those who work or have worked in the industry, past and present, and their dependants. Funded by the industry through OGUK, it was for many years based in the offices of Total E&P UK in Aberdeen. Following Total’s acquisition of Maersk Oil in 2018, it moved to present-day host operator Shell Exploration and Production. “Total was great to us over a long period of time, and we’re equally grateful to Shell for its support today,” says Gordon.

The team, which also comprises assistant chaplain Reverend Dr Ian McLean and administrator Lynne de Boer, has of course had to reshape its working practices during the COVID-19 restriction measures.

Lincolnshire-based Gordon has effectively been working from home, but the requisite use of virtual technologies has in some respects had a positive impact. In particular, he says it has potentially heralded new ways the chaplaincy could engage in future.

Early during the lockdown, the April 1 anniversary commemoration for the 16 people who died in the 2009 Super Puma crash off Peterhead went ahead with the use of technology. “We held a virtual act of remembrance on YouTube and it was fascinating to see it receive well over 2,000 views from people in the wider industry,” explains Gordon.

“We had anticipated it would mainly be a family-oriented remembrance, but the numbers indicate otherwise. In addition, many viewers posted comforting comments that the families might not otherwise have seen. It’s given us food for thought; we might want to consider using such technologies again when appropriate.”

In the immediate future, it could offer a means of helping to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster in July this year.

More broadly, Gordon says the wider commemoration aspects of the chaplaincy’s duties have evolved in recent years. “I detect a growing wish in society at large to mark past events and remember those who have lost their lives, and I think that’s reflected within our industry.

“Whenever someone loses their life in oil and gas work it’s a very sad event, but also a significant one, and remembrances are increasingly including an emphasis on the importance of safety.

“It’s certainly a feature that’s developed over the past few years, and it’s good to see. It shows that people not only want to remember; they want lessons to be learned and pledges made that such things can’t happen again.”

“I detect a growing wish in society at large to mark past events and remember those who have lost their lives, and I think that’s reflected within our industry.”

Supporting role

One of the key practical dimensions of the chaplaincy’s work is a trust that has been in existence since 1990 to provide financial support for people facing hardship through circumstances such as illness or injury.

Supporting the administration of the trust is still part of the chaplaincy’s role, as is Gordon’s everyday contact – remotely at the moment – with vulnerable individuals and families who value pastoral and spiritual support more than ever during these difficult times.

“We want to provide them with whatever support we can – and in the process it helps to reassure them that the industry hasn’t forgotten them, amid all its current challenges,” he says.

For now, Gordon’s usual schedule of offshore visits has been postponed, and he expects this will be the norm for the foreseeable future as operators continue to enforce safety measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. In the meantime however, the doors of the chaplaincy are always open, and anyone seeking help or support can visit the chaplaincy website at ukoilandgaschaplaincy.com or call 01224 883355.

Gordon has also been routinely directing people to several websites which carry useful information related to COVID-19, in areas ranging from mental health wellbeing to practical aspects of working life.

OGUK: oilandgasuk.co.uk
Step Change in Safety: stepchangeinsafety.net
NHS: nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters
NHS Scotland: clearyourhead.scot
Military: headfit.org

“These sites, and others, offer great information and support. But we appreciate that people, if they are feeling down or anxious, sometimes won’t find the energy to look at these sources themselves,” says Gordon. “We’d encourage others – perhaps family members or employers – to support them in accessing these resources.”

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