Human resources

Study Finds Most Workers Prefer WFH as Companies Return to Normal From COVID-19

In a survey of 448 workers across the oil and gas industry, UH Energy asked key questions about returning to work during the global pandemic.

University of Houston campus
University of Houston

The economic fallout of COVID-19 cases in the US has altered the employment situation for workers in the oil and gas industry. As companies reduced capital expenditure and operating expenditure, they were also forced to implement job cuts, work furloughs, and work-from-home polices.

In early May, many oil and gas companies began the process of returning to a new, unprecedented normal as countries look at easing quarantine restrictions and stay-at-home orders brought on by COVID-19.

A study released in April, led by the University of Houston (UH) Energy umbrella, showed most workers in the energy sector approved of how their employers handled challenges brought on by the pandemic. But they were far less optimistic about their job security and the future of the industry.

In a follow up survey released in May, UH Energy found 70% of industry workers would prefer to keep working from home (WFH) if their office reopened in the next month. When asked separately about a furlough option, 20% were willing to take an unpaid furlough to avoid a physical return to their office space.

The UH Energy-led survey, which included Petroleum Equipment and Services Association (PESA), Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), Pink Petro, a company supporting women in the energy industry, and Texas A&M University’s Energy Management Institute, queried 448 energy workers on their expectations for returning to work during the global pandemic.

Of those surveyed, 81% usually work from an office, 11% were laid off or furloughed, and the rest were either working in the field/offshore or in another capacity. The analysis focused on employees who had been working from home since mid-March 2020; energy workers in the two other groups were included in analyses around health and well-being.

Findings also showed employees who had concerns about childcare and those living in multi-generation households had greater reluctance to return to an office setting. Older workers and those with long industry tenure favored returning to work more than younger workers.

In terms of workplace factors, if employees believed their supervisors would effectively work to mitigate COVID-19 infections, by enforcing physical distancing and sanitation rules, they were less reluctant to return.

Other chief concerns included the following:

Access to Testing

The white paper states access to testing continues to be a concern for energy workers, and pre-existing conditions put almost a quarter of those surveyed at risk of complications from COVID-19. Out of respondents surveyed, 6.6% experienced COVID-19 symptoms and said they were unable to obtain testing. Three respondents tested positive for COVID-19.

Among energy workers, approximately 25% were diagnosed with pre-existing conditions that put them at increased risk of complications from COVID-19.

Cleaning Protocols

Employees who were confident that their employers would implement enhanced cleaning protocols, and provide personal protective equipment (PPE), were less concerned about returning to work than employees who did not feel PPE would be provided or supplemental cleaning would be put in place. Employees generally expected a phased return to work but did not expect to see resources available to quarantine exposed employees or undertake effective electronic contact-tracing protocols.

Physical and Mental Health

Respondents reported continued good physical health with a small number indicating their physical health was impaired in the last 30 days. In contrast, the survey showed mental health issues were prevalent, with total health impairment over the last 30 days exceeding pre-COVID-19 national norms. The white paper states job insecurity and work-family interface issues predict mental health among energy workers during COVID-19.

Key solutions were covered in the paper’s executive summary.

Effective Solutions

Overall, flexible policies, supervisor strategies, and efforts to accommodate worker perspectives are likely to be most effective in enhancing employee productivity and well-being.

For workers with children, concerns about childcare need to be addressed to avoid alienating parents, particularly women energy workers. First-line supervisors’ strategies in mitigating workplace infections will play a critical role in addressing employee concerns about returning to the office.

Employees living in multi-generation households may more urgently need dispensation from returning to their physical work environment.

Securing access to PPE and implementing enhanced workspace cleaning protocols are likely to be effective organizational strategies in mitigating return concerns.

Also, if contact tracing is required and health and temperature scans are recorded, organizations should be prepared to carefully explain the rationale for their implementation and efforts to ensure workers’ privacy. Discussion of mental health issues needs to be prioritized given their prevalence during the pandemic.

Finally, employers need to pay attention to the mental health needs of laid-off workers. As the energy industry is likely to undergo more job cuts over the next few months, employers should consider addressing mental health issues as part of the separation package.