‘There were some dark nights’: Oilfield workers fight for jobs and hope as industry flounders

Chris Malmberg knows seven people who have taken their own lives in the past five years.

Since the price of oil nosedived in 2015, the industry has weathered  hard years marked by layoffs and job losses. Coupled with the crippling  onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which at one point forced the price of  oil below $0 per barrel, Malmberg said there isn’t a lot of optimism out  there about the future of the industry.

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“There’s just no rainbow. There’s no real light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Malmberg, a 20-year veteran of the industry who currently works in  downtown Calgary selling completion services, believes if any other  industry faced the same number of suicides and mental health problems as  oil and gas, it would be considered a crisis.

“Our industry is so volatile. You’ve got your peaks and you got your  lows, and we know that. But this has been going on for five years. There  are guys that haven’t worked for three years,” he said.

Alberta’s oil industry has been struggling for years. While the  provincial economy has long been dependent on oil and gas, riding out  booms and busts, in 2015 the price of oil crashed to less than $40 a  barrel. The COVID-19 pandemic has made that oil recession worse, says  Malmberg – many employees are facing the reality they may never work in  oil and gas again. Many have already left the industry or been forced  out of it; he has watched familiar faces of friends and colleagues  disappear from Calgary’s streets as the oil price crisis dragged on.

“Back in the day, when times were good, I couldn’t walk more than 10  feet without running into somebody I knew. And now, you walk downtown  Calgary and you’d walk for 15 minutes and not run into anybody you  know.”

The toll of an industry’s collapse

With the 2015 oil price collapse, Malmberg lost his own job. That,  coupled with the end of nearly two decades of marriage, took a toll on  his mental health.

“I personally went through a pretty dark time in my life,” he said.  “Being unemployed and going through a messy divorce – there were some  dark nights.”

Though he has found work in the industry since, Malmberg says there  are many oilfield workers who can’t find jobs. Some are older; some have  worked in the same field for 25 years and can't find another job with  just a Grade 12 education.

Those who have found work either in offices or out in the field face their own set of challenges.

“They’re out in the middle of nowhere, working in horrendous  conditions,” Malmberg said, including frigid temperatures in the dead of  winter. “There is a lot of addiction and there is a lot of alcohol  involved.”

Meanwhile, office workers face the threat of the industry’s turbulence claiming their jobs.

“There’s not one person sitting comfortably in a chair (in) downtown Calgary,” Malmberg said.

“It’s depressing.”

In PetroLMI’s 2019 labour market update,  the organization estimated Canada’s oil and gas industry would close in  that year on 52,200 jobs lost since 2014, a period of time during which  the labour force also shrank by 19 per cent as jobs dried up and  workers left the industry.

That market report states Canada's oil and gas industry invested more  than $80 billion in capital into the country's economy in 2014. By late  2016, capital investment dropped to less than half that – about $38  billion. Although 2017 brought a minor rebound in investment to $43  billion, along with improving commodity prices, investment fell again in  2018 and was expected to fall to $32 billion in 2019.

The greatest impact of that reduced spending was expected to be felt  in Alberta, which PetroLMI estimated would see a 28-per-cent decline in  exploration and production capital expenditures, from about $17.7  billion to $12.8 billion.

Commodity prices continue to struggle as well. This past February, Alberta’s 2020-21 budget estimated oil prices would average out to $58 U.S. per barrel for West Texas  Intermediate (WTI) for the year, but following the onset of COVID-19,  the provincial government now estimates prices will hit $35.60 U.S.

The jobs crisis only deepened when the COVID-19 virus spread to  Canada. The shutdown of provincial economies impacted 5.5 million  workers across the country, according to Statistics Canada. In May,  Alberta’s unemployment rate hit a high of 15.5 per cent. In August, it  still sat at 11.8 per cent. For the past two months, Calgary has topped  the charts for unemployment rates country-wide.

Ehsan Latif, an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University,  said people who lose their jobs typically feel psychological impacts  because their work is deeply tied to their self-esteem. A slumping  economy drags the mental health of workers down with it.

Anxiety hits people whether they have a job or not: employed people  often watch unemployment rates rise and worry their jobs will be the  next to go.

“What (the employed) will do is they will try to work more or try to  find another job,” Latif explained – many work longer hours or take on  extra work to prevent being laid off or let go during a recession, while  many others will start preparing their resumes in case they lose their  current jobs.

Men in crisis

Vincent Agyapong, a professor of psychiatry at the University of  Alberta who works for the addiction and mental health unit for Alberta  Health Services, said fluctuations in the economy contribute to the  mental suffering of people in oil and gas. Working conditions contribute  to those mental health problems as well, he added – factors such as the  hyper-masculine culture in the oil and gas industry, and the use of  substances to help cope with mental health problems, compound the mental  health suffering of industry workers.

Agyapong worked as a clinical psychiatrist in Fort McMurray, where he  conducted research on the mental wellbeing of oilfield employees that  found referral rates for mental health services increases during a  recession.

Through his research,  Agyapong found men were more likely than women to seek out mental  health supports during the recession in Fort McMurray – the opposite of  what happens when times are good.

“There was actually a change in the demographics of those who are seeking mental supports,” he said.

“Those who traditionally or ordinarily are more stable become  vulnerable because they probably have been impacted by the recession.”

Agyapong said many of the men seeking help at that time – and when  the Fort McMurray wildfire struck – were getting help for personality  disorders, which people usually have since childhood.

Men were either finding more time to access mental health services  after the recession hit, or the recession was making their personality  disorders more prominent, he said.

Agyapong said when men do reach out for help, they are often in a  crisis situation, whereas women often reach out for help sooner.

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Agyapong organized the  Text4Hope program launched by Alberta Health Services. That is a free  program that sends daily supportive text messages to subscribers. The  messages are based on cognitive behavioural therapy.

Eighty-eight per cent of subscribers are women; 12 per cent are men.

“You can see that men are not really people who, in the initial  stages of a mental breakdown, would go and seek help compared to women.  Women want to seek out appropriate help before things get worse, but by  the time (a man) comes in, it’s a bad case and they need more support  and more resources to get them back on track,” Agyapong said.

The suicide rate for men also increases when the economy crashes –  particularly in the trades. In the wake of mass oilpatch layoffs,  Alberta’s suicide rate in the first half of 2015 jumped 30 per cent compared to the previous year. Three hundred twenty-seven people took  their own lives between January and June. Demand for counselling also  increased, with the Calgary Distress Centre seeing an 80-per-cent increase in phone calls that year.

The oil and gas industry has a much higher amount of male employees  than other industries. More than three quarters – 76 per cent – are men,  compared to 55 per cent province-wide.

Masculine culture

That demographic breakdown and a hyper-masculine culture contribute to higher substance use and suicide rates in oil and gas.

Psychologists say overall in society men may face more social and  self-stigma if they feel they can’t cope with or manage their mental  health situation on their own.

Simon Fraser University psychologist Dan Bilsker said one of the  reasons men tend to suffer more is because they don’t share their  concerns or distress.

“They’re often trying to keep it to (themselves) – not just keep your  feelings to yourself, but don’t tell your own story,” Bilsker said.

He also says men are culturally taught to turn to alcohol, which makes mental health struggles worse instead of better.

Malmberg says that culture of silent suffering exists even after  people leave the industry. While many people are suffering from the  stress of losing their jobs, nobody directly talks about it.

“Everybody just smiles and waves. Everyone’s got their burdens in  life right now in the oil and gas industry – you just grin and bear it.  No one’s opening up about their issues. It’s like one of those things  where everybody has enough problems and you don’t need to hear mine,”  Malmberg said.

Pride factors into that as well – people don’t want to admit they are  struggling financially after years of working, or that they didn’t save  as much as they felt they should have during the good years, he added.

“Everyone kind of wants to just make everyone believe that everything’s OK and life is good,” Malmberg said.

Some go to desperate lengths to keep working, which take a toll on their families as well.

Shelley Meakin-Chamzuk, whose husband Ron works in the oil and gas  industry, said her husband’s wage was cut in half when the pandemic  struck. Watching him deal with that hurt her own mental health, as did  caring for six kids while Ron had to work out of town.

“We’re just trying to survive, and it’s not the privileged life that I think a lot of people think it is,” Meakin-Chamzuk said.

“With my husband being away, and knowing his wife was sick, that was  not easy on him. He’s very strong and very supportive … he never  admitted it, but I know it was hard on him.”

Meakin-Chamzuk has lost three friends to suicide in the past year due  to the economic downturn, losing their jobs and their concern over the  direction their lives were headed. She said she is concerned about the  men in her life.

Life after the oilfield

Malmberg, while still working in the oil industry, has opened up a  pet food business with his significant other: MOMMS Premium Pet Foods in  Calgary.

The duo saw the writing on the wall about the industry’s future.  Though he's still involved in oil and gas, their new venture is going  well so far, Malmberg said.

“Gradually over time I’m going to one day retire from the oil and gas  industry, and I’ve got something to fall back on,” he said.

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