Flexpatriate rotational assignees in the energy industry

by Reimara Valk

Globalisation, an increase in cross-border business transactions and the need for temporary and short-term access to specialised talent for the execution of overseas projects, have resulted in the emergence of alternative forms of global mobility.

One such alternative form is flexpatriate rotational assignments, which are a form of international mobility in the energy industry often used on oil rigs and other remote onshore and offshore locations.

Flexpatriate rotational assignees travel from their home country to a place of work in another country for a defined period of up to seven working days a week with interaction predominantly confined to the work context, followed by a break in the home country.

One of the major challenges these rotational assignees face in their working lives is maintaining good physical and mental health, a concern for organisations in the energy industry. Research has shown that among the most ‘suffering’ employees are those with the lowest wellbeing scores where the annual per-person cost of lost productivity due to sick days is USD28,800.

For employees who are at the midpoint of the ‘struggling’ zone, the cost of lost productivity is USD6,168 while employees with the highest levels of wellbeing or those with the highest scores in the ‘thriving’ category, USD840 a year. Thus, the business case for a healthy workforce is clear – reduced sickness, fewer accidents, higher commitment and improved resilience, retention and ‘brand’.

So why do rotational assignees struggle with maintaining good physical and mental health? An empirically-grounded case study research in a global post-merger and acquisition organisation operating in the energy industry has provided an answer to this question.

The rotational assignees have heavy physical job demands and lack certain job resources to comply with job demands. Consequently, this can create stress and diminish their work-related wellbeing.

They often share accommodation with rig crew members, have no shower or proper heating when it is freezing cold. These job demands exhaust their physical resources and lead to the depletion of energy and a state of exhaustion, consequently creating health problems such as sleep and biorhythm disturbances and being overweight.

Meanwhile, mental or emotional job demands relate to work pressure, work overload, aggression from client, and hindrance at the work site where employees often try to hide things to avoid strict safety rules. As a result, conflicts arise leading to mental strain as rotational assignees need to control their emotions to get along with co-workers on site.

Safety and security concerns pertaining to working in politically unstable, hazardous or life-endangering countries like Libya, Saudi, Yemen, Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico, Mali and Nigeria are another category of mental or emotional job demands. It is not uncommon for rotational assignees to experience camp raids, kidnapping and shootings on work sites.

Such events are mentally and emotionally stressful, leading to diminished psychological wellbeing. In order to cope with these job demands, rotational assignees need proper job resources at the organisational, interpersonal, specific position and task level.

Rotational assignees generally have a personal drive to satisfy clients’ needs and in return, they receive professional treatment from their client. Combined with support from their peers, this brings about positive client interaction, an important job resource at the interpersonal level.

In addition, having the right amount of decision-making at work is also a powerful job resource as it enables flexpatriates to regulate certain job demands. However, in reality, they experience a lack of role clarity. Often, it is only when they arrive at the work site that they are clear about what the client needs.

On a positive front, task significance is an important job resource where flexpatriates set performance outcomes for themselves. This generates positive feedback from the client which is conducive for their work-related wellbeing.

The current downturn in the oil and gas industry has significantly reduced the flexpatriates’ salary and job security – job resources at the organisational level. Overall, such lack of sufficient job resources to comply with job demands can create stress, and therefore might affect their work-related wellbeing.

What is important for their work-related wellbeing is a balanced blend of physical, mental and emotional job demands as well as energy resources to actively cope with stress at work and possibilities to replenish the energy in their spare time.

Considering that organisations operating in the demand-intensive energy or oil and gas industry largely depend on flexpatriate rotational and regular field assignees for generating business revenue, it is crucial to design and implement HR policies and practices that provide them with the job resources that can help them cope with high job demands and achieve better health and wellbeing.

Examples of these job resources are e-Health platforms to enable assignees to monitor their own health aimed at preventing the development of chronic diseases that are associated with one or more lifestyle-related risk factors such as unhealthy eating, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Such e-Health platforms, especially during organisational changes and volatile market conditions, will not only help flexpatriates improve their wellbeing and productivity but also benefit the organisations’ in terms of reduced sickness costs on top of sustaining global competitive demands.

Reimara Valk is a senior lecturer of human resource management at the Faculty of Business, Curtin Sarawak. She can be contacted at 085-44 5047 or by email to reimara.v@curtin.edu.my.

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