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Can hologram technology promote family connection and combat anxiety and depression in oil and gas employees?

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The below article has been co-authored by Dr Albert Valdez (left) and Dr Andrew Jeremijenko (right). Dr Valadez is the Clinical Manager for Credentialling and Mental Health Services at Aspen Medical and Dr Jeremijenko is Aspen Medical's Group Medical Director. This article has appeared in the APPEA Journal of May 2022. The paper was also presented as a poster presentation at the APPEA Conference in Brisbane in May 2022. 

Abstract

Younger oil and gas workers suffer more from anxiety and depression than their older counterparts (Žeželj, 2019). Several factors contribute to emotional distress, but isolation and family disconnect are two predominant contributing conditions. Separation from social support results in missed milestones such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries (Mette, 2018).

A large sector of oil and gas employees is young, primarily male, with an average age of 36, with 22% being between 20 and 24 years of age (Student Scholarships, 2022).  For some, employment in oil and gas marks the first time they are separated from family. Others are parents with children under the age of ten. These young employees are members of Gen-Z and technology natives who have a natural preference for innovative telecommunications (Casey Foundation, 2021). Members in this demographic are familiar and comfortable with virtual reality in gaming and communication.

In the post-COVID era, most have grown accustomed to web communication. Presently, technology has evolved beyond 2-dimensional interaction. Mixed reality involves using holograms to provide “telepresence” through holo-teleportation and provides an in vivo experience for both the employee and his family members. This technology allows participants to have a virtual presence resulting in a live-lived experience with loved ones complete with familiar surroundings and objects. A realistic virtual presence is thought to mitigate the effects of separation.

Introduction

Target Population

A large sector of oil and gas employees is young, primarily male, with an average age of 36, with 22% being between 20 and 24 years of age (Student Scholarships, 2022).  For some, employment in oil and gas marks the first time they are separated from family. Others are parents with children under the age of ten. These young employees are members of Gen-Z and technology natives who have a natural preference for innovative telecommunications (Casey Foundation, 2021). Members in this demographic are familiar and comfortable with virtual reality in gaming and communication.

Physical and Mental Fatigue

Working in the oil and gas industry presents a unique set of challenges on employees’ physical and mental health [Stansfield & Candy, 2006]. Often, the physical demands result in musculoskeletal complaints that contribute to sleep problems and fatigue. Psychologically, employees commonly report increased depression, nervousness, and general anxiety. Reported problems contributing to these conditions are lack of supervisory and peer support, role conflicts, and shift work (Mette et al., 2018).

Mette and associates (2018) identified a strong correlation between shift work and mental/physical fatigue. Strenuous work tasks, length of deployment, and job intensity significantly contributed to decompensation. Shift worked coupled with the length of time at the site led to a higher probability of mental decompensation and fatigue. Fatigue intensifies as the end of the deployment period draws nearer. Whilst deployment periods and work/rest periods can vary from site to site, workers who spent more the 28 days away from home experienced increased levels of anxiety, depression, and sleep disruption (Mette, 2018).

Workers also reported that previously used coping mechanisms were not as effective when working remotely. For example, researchers found that workers had difficulty detaching from their job and found themselves talking about work after their shift ended. Often exercise and good eating habits become neglected whilst on-site and contribute to higher levels of stress and weight gain. Also contributing to the inability to detach was the absence of privacy at some sites. The lack of spatial separation between the offshore workplace and residence contributed to the failure to compartmentalise leisure apart from work. In some instances, employees who prefer seclusion had an even more difficult time detaching from the work (Sutherland & Cooper, 1989).

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are the most common psychological condition among oil and gas workers. It is also reported that employees under forty years of age are more susceptible to adverse psychological outcomes. Nineteen percent of offshore workers reported some form of obsessive-compulsive tendencies and phobic anxiety (Žeželj et al., 2019). These behaviours and conditions were attributed to long periods of exposure to stressors and job demands. Aside from the physical demands, stressors such as night duty, adverse weather conditions, constant noise, vibrations, and inadequate ventilation can increase anxiety. Extended exposure to these stressors can lead to chronic psychological disorders that can become more difficult to treat. Furthermore, these psychological disorders can have deleterious outcomes, including accidents leading to significant material losses (Wulsin et al., 2009).

Another major contributor to emotional distress is the presence of psychosocial stressors. Isolation from family and friends, along with perceived neglect of family responsibilities at home, are considered significant stressors. This is especially true for workers with young children. Feelings of guilt for not contributing to the care of children and relief for spouse or partner are common. For expatriates and workers whose native language is other than one commonly spoken at the worksite, the loss of community and connection can be even more profound. Many of the on-site tasks require teamwork and communication, thus leaving some expatriates who cannot speak the primary language feeling like outsiders and, in some circumstances, burdens. Further complicating factors for expatriates are cultural beliefs and religious practices such as morning and evening prayer that might not be practised by most of their co-workers (Žeželj et al., 2019).

Family Matters

In a qualitative study exploring the lived experience of offshore gas and oil workers, it was reported that family and partner social support was a primary coping mechanism to mitigate the stressors associated with long deployments (Mette et al., 2018). Participants further reported less stress when their partners agreed with the decision to work away from home for extended periods. Most workers reported that daily contact contributed to their overall well-being. It was identified that workers wanted to know and feel connected to the day-to-day happenings at home.

Stable marital relationships are still tested by the distance inherent in working in the oil and gas industry. Unstable relationships significantly compound the stress associated with being away from home. In families with small children to care for, resentment and anger are common emotions experienced by partners. Further, researchers revealed that the deployed parent's prolonged absence negatively impacts school-aged children’s well-being. In boys, there are increased levels of behavioural problems at school. Decreased academic performance and increased bullying behaviour were commonly reported in families with a parent working offshore (Meredith et al., 2014). These authors believe that with the advent of communicative technologies, especially augmented reality, the stress of being separated from family and friends can be mitigated.  

Telecommunication (a brief history)

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this paper to present an in-depth analysis of the evolution of telecommunications, the industry’s history and rapid and recent growth are worth a brief overview.

“What has God Wrought?” is a reference from the Holy Bible and were the first words in a telegraphic message written by the inventor, Samuel F.B Morse. On May 24, 1844, Morse sent this message from Washington D.C. to Baltimore and revolutionised the national communication system. He later invented Morse Code which accelerated communication throughout the United States and the world. The U.S. Radio Men used Morse Code in World War II and are largely credited for being instrumental in winning the war in the Pacific (American Library, 2022a).

A few decades later, Alexander Graham Bell made his first telephone call on March 10, 1876.  He later wrote to his father to imagine a future when “friends converse with each other without leaving home.” By 1918, ten million Bell telephones were in service across the United States and revolutionised the way we connect in real-time (American Library, 2022b). In 1971, Ray Thomlison sent the first email, further catapulting the world into a new era of human connection (Swatman, 2015). Whilst the telephone was ground-breaking, the internet, conceptualised in the 1950s and mainstreamed in the 1990s, ushered in the information age (National Science and Media Museum, 2020). In 1997, America On-Line, utilising the internet, unveiled AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). For the first time, in-home subscribers could communicate with friends and family through text in real-time (Maize, 2020).

Motorola released the first cellular phone in circulation in 1971, but the product did not become mainstream and affordable until the 1990s. Later, the first iPhone was released on June 27, 2007, allowing people to download applications, access the internet, and communicate through text and voice. In June 2013, iPhone added Facetime to its features, and subscribers could connect with audio and visual simultaneously, thus enhancing the communicative experience. (Križanović, 2020).

Conclusion – Where to from here?

A new Era in Communication and Connection

Covid-19 has popularised several new meeting platforms such as Teams and Zoom. The use of these platforms to stay connected remotely and conduct business will likely remain well after the end of the pandemic. However, these platforms do have a limitation in that they are two-dimensional. A new era of connection that could enhance a real-life-like experience for family members to stay connected is being ushered in by virtual reality and its variations. The data clearly supports that remaining connected to loved ones promotes overall wellness. Bringing these physically distant loved ones “to life” has the potential to transform communication from traditional calls to virtual visits.  Therefore, these authors believe that these advancements can help oil and gas workers remain connected with their loved ones, resulting in reduced rates of anxiety and depression and increased overall well-being (Hilty, 2019).  

The gaming industry has popularised virtual and mixed reality, but their uses have expanded significantly to include medical training, psychotherapy, and military simulations (Bhinde, 2019). The use of holograms is the next chapter of virtual reality development and allows for a real-life image to project remotely.

Whilst various companies are racing to get this technology into households, it appears that Microsoft’s HoloLens is making significant strides to mainstreaming holographic technology into homes. Microsoft currently markets a $3000 augmented reality system that can transmit 3D holograms or holoport images worldwide (Sierra Software Ltd, 2018). The holograms are interactive and allow oil and gas workers to feel like they are in the same room as their loved ones (Macdonald, 2016). Much like the telegraph, landline, and cellular phone, this technology will likely revolutionise the way we stay connected. More research exploring how augmented reality and the utilisation of holograms can facilitate connection between oil and gas employees and their families is needed.

References

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Casey, A.E. (2021). What Are the Core Characteristics of Generation Z? [online] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Available at: https://www.aecf.org/blog/what-are-the-core-characteristics-of-generation-z [Accessed 13 Feb. 2022].

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 Žeželj, P.S., Peloza, O.C., Stamenković, F.M,  Vranić, S.M,  Hajrić, S.S. (2019). Anxiety and depression symptoms among gas and oil industry workers. Occupational Medicine. 69, 22-27.