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Energy Employees Not Ready for Office Return

Engineers at a desk

(RAEng Publications, Pixabay)

15 May 2020. A survey shows a large majority of energy industry workers prefers to continue working remotely than return their regular offices during the Covid-19 pandemic. The survey results were published yesterday by UH Energy, University of Houston’s energy industry partnership that conducted the survey, with industry and employee organizations, as well as Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland and Texas A&M University in College Station.

Many states and cities in the U.S. continue to struggle with balancing Covid-19 public health concerns against economic needs. While some vocal opponents demonstrate against stay-at-home orders, recent polls show the public largely supports the temporary restrictions. As reported on Saturday by Science & Enterprise, three-quarters of American adults believe restrictions should stay in place or be increased, while two-thirds are more concerned about restrictions being lifted too quickly than not being lifted quickly enough.

The Houston survey polled 448 energy workers, mainly in the oil and gas industry (66%), but also in power and utilities (8%), with the remainder in alternative energy, geothermal, and water sectors. Respondents were, on average, 42 years old and had 14 years of experience. The researchers, led by Houston industrial psychology professor Christiane Spitzmueller and UH Energy chief energy officer Ramanan Krishnamoorti, over-sampled women, who make up 59 percent of the respondents, and ethnic minorities, to enable more detailed analysis. Respondents were recruited through participating energy industry and employee organizations, who answered online surveys between 27 April and 5 May.

About eight in 10 respondents (81%) normally work in offices, with 11 percent already laid-off or furloughed. Of this group, about seven in 10 (72%) prefer to continue working from home rather than return to their work places in the next month. In addition, one in five respondents (20%) would take unpaid leave in the next month if offered by their employers, while five percent said they would rather quit than return to their jobs in the next month. Respondents with longer tenure in the industry are more willing to return to work than newer employees, and those from multi-generational households — with children or parents under the same roof — are less willing to go back to their offices.

For many but not a majority of all participants, both office and field workers, health concerns enter into their assessments. A quarter of respondents (25%) say they have a pre-existing medical condition that risks complications from Covid-19 infections, while seven percent report symptoms consistent with Covid-19 infections. Three respondents said they tested positive for the SARS-Cov-2 virus, but for those with symptoms few were able to get access to a Covid-19 diagnostic test.

Survey participants expect their employers to take extra measures to protect returning employees. These steps include a phased return, with staff in enclosed offices returning before workers in open spaces, as well as disinfecting work spaces during the day, and providing protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Older workers and those with pre-existing medical conditions are also expected to return well after younger and healthier employees.

While the vast majority of energy workers report good physical health for the previous 30 days, many survey participants report numerous mental health experiences. Three in 10 respondents (30%) say they experienced mental health issues in five or more days during the previous month. And 10 percent of respondents report mental health issues in 15 or more days during the previous month.

Among the policy implications presented in the report are the need for employers to go beyond standard human resources and employee-assistance programs, and offer flexible working arrangements for returning workers, as well as meeting the mental health needs of laid-off energy workers who are suffering the most during the pandemic.

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