Ill or just feeling unwell?
All participants claimed they had gone to work despite experiencing health problems that they believed could have prompted them to rest and take sick leave. The reasons given for attending work when ill varied. However, the decision was primarily based on the question: Am I ill or just feeling unwell? Unwell was defined as feeling 'under the weather', but capable of working through the day, a few days, or even the remainder of the shift if necessary: If you're a bit unwell or have a cold, or maybe you're feeling feverish, you'll go to work anyway (3/7).
However, if they felt more severely ill offshore, the participants would be ordered to stay in their cabins or be transported home. If their medical condition was contagious, their presence on board was considered a safety violation: If you have a really bad flu that your colleagues might catch, then you stay at home! (3/4). Fellow workers might also pressure colleagues to stay away from work for this reason. If they became ill at home, a medical doctor was consulted to certify their absence.
The shift shapes the continuity of the work and controls the logistics of working offshore. If a smaller health problem occurred, the participant's decision of going to work even if feeling ill seemed to be affected by their location; onshore or offshore? One participant explained:
1/5: [I]f you have a cold ... if I was onshore I probably would have spent a day or two in bed, but when you know you're [already at] work then you go anyway.
Thus, when a small health problem occurred offshore, participants made efforts to go to work, but when a similar problem arose ashore, they had the option of joining their shift after a short delay. However, a few participants indicated that they did not like being sent offshore after the shift had started because of the challenges of entering their team's established schedule. Consequently, efforts were made to start the shift at the agreed time. One participant recalled an incident exemplifying this:
1/2: I remember a few years ago (...) a friend asked me if I had a backache and I told him yes. He said: "You need to be off sick!" "No", I answered, "I have one goal now and that's to recover so I can go offshore on Tuesday." And I did.
One participant claimed: Attitudes towards work and your personality matter when you decide to go to work despite illness (3/1). A positive attitude towards one's own work is often regarded as job satisfaction. The concept of job satisfaction was repeatedly used as an argument to go to work even if feeling ill:
3/2: If you're satisfied with your place of work and kind of enjoy it, then I think it's easier to go to work and just perform, even though you feel a bit unwell. If you hated it and didn't enjoy it at all and even dreaded it, then it would be so much easier to be off sick.
A participant demonstrated this in the following excerpt:
1/1: On the last trip offshore, I should've stayed in a hospital bed or at least stayed at home. But I came out ... I increased my limit of endurance a bit.
Moderator: Why would you do that?
1/1: I like my work so much so I really wanted to come out.
Moderator: What about your own health?
1/1: Well, I suffered a bit. I was assigned to less demanding tasks, so I just felt that I would tolerate going to work. (...). I'm quite fortunate because I don't have a specific quantity of work to do every day. I have free rein and therefore I chose to go to work. But the main reason is that I am satisfied with my job.
Offshore work differs from onshore work in several ways, and the participants' understanding of the concept of job satisfaction seemed to include aspects that may not be embraced by individuals working eight-hour days onshore. The participants stated that in order to cope with their physically confined working environment - the oil platform, the long working hours, as well as the constant presence of colleagues - they had to embrace the platform as a 'home away from home': When you're out here, you don't have your family around you, so you sort of depend on your colleagues (1/5). They not only worked together, they lived together. Hence, colleagues became friends and, to some extent, even replacements for absent family. A term frequently used, to describe the emotional closeness among the workers in this environment, was 'family': It's like we have two families: one at home and one out here ... it's almost like that (2/4). All focus groups voiced familiarity amongst colleagues as a necessary and positive element of offshore life. Familiarity allowed them to involve themselves if someone else is having a bad day (...) (3/5) and thus, either help the person concerned, or get help for them.
Being a team worker
The CS staff work in teams, each team having designated areas to cover, including cabins and common areas, in addition to the onboard laundry service. Each team member was given a specific area, e.g. a floor. When finished with this area, the team member was expected to help other team members who still had work left. The kitchen teams worked differently in following a task rotation system.
Attending work with reduced work ability might affect colleagues' workload negatively since their help to perform certain work tasks was often required. In theory, the rule was clear: If you're so ill that you become an inconvenience for your co-workers, then you stay off sick (2/6). Nevertheless, it was argued that showing up for work with reduced work ability would be better than leaving an entire workload for colleagues to handle: You know that your colleagues will have a harder day at work if you don't go down there (3/7). Having a replacement sent from ashore could take days, so efforts were made to show up for work even if feeling unwell, in which case co-workers helped by easing the workload:
2/7: If someone has a backache or something like that, we'll have them do a lighter job. We'll do the heavy work, and just wait and see if they'll get better.
Knowing that adjustments might be provided to ease the workload was an important condition for attending work despite feeling unwell. Not all adjustments were done for the individual, it was expected that some adjustments were made by him or herself. The willingness to learn how to perform work tasks in a less demanding manner from a more experienced team member was one way of adjusting:
2/1: As an experienced oilrig worker you've learned how to work efficiently and you can teach your less experienced colleagues how to ease their work tasks. Accessibility to equipment makes work less demanding and might allow you to manage to work despite pain and disability. However, co-operation and goodwill is needed to succeed.
However, apparent in the discussions was the fact that the goodwill was limited. Participants were specific regarding restricting collegial assistance: ... you're able to go a few days, but by then we should have a replacement (2/7).
Leadership and company policy
1/5: This decision (to go to work or not) is also influenced by the culture of the work place, the expectations of my colleagues, and the company.
The CS leaders had a central function onboard, being the link between the individual, the team, and the company. The participants' discussions on current leadership entailed respect and appreciation:
2/4: And he is a good mixer - and only sticks his head out whenever he has to make a decision, right? Or delegate or inform or ... Otherwise we're a team, everybody. It's one big team.
Appreciation was frequently voiced about leaders who did not hover over the individual team member, but trusted each of them to perform the agreed job. These leaders also provided equipment and resources needed by the team or the individual.
Health promotion and reducing sickness absence were major aims in present company policy and reflected a strong focus on maintaining a healthy work environment. Participants reported that they were regularly informed of the different platforms' absentee rates. Participants from a platform with high sickness absenteeism expressed discomfort towards the indirect connection made between sickness absence levels and their social work environment:
3/5: I think it's scary to equate thriving at work with sickness absence. In comparison to other platforms, [we've] got an enormous level of sick leave, but does that say anything about the social work environment? I would like to say that this is one of the best platforms, socially speaking, that I've worked on.
Still, participants on all three platforms commended their leaders' handling of sickness absence:
1/2: The leaders here are really good; they'll contact people who are ill. They'll call them and talk instead of just accepting 14 days sick leave. Then it'll be two, three days and they're [back at the platform]. There is a difference between that and 14 days sick leave, because then it's suddenly six weeks before you're out again. So they're good at that. I think that's important. It's human; everybody likes the attention that shows that the boss cares.
The leaders followed company policy when calling up the absent worker at an early stage. When possible, workers with reduced work ability were invited back to work with adjustments made to their workload or time. The leaders counselled the returning worker and arranged any necessary adjustments in the team. As a result, they were enabling a more formalized sickness presence, i.e., the individual with reduced work ability worked on terms that did not cause inconvenience for the team or jeopardize the individual's health.