Seafarers’ wellbeing

Maria Carrera on taking care of seafarers.

I will always remember participating in a panel discussion on operational efficiency in shipping back in 2017. I brought forward the importance of the crew’s wellbeing for safe and efficient operations: ‘We must focus on the wellbeing of people. They will perform better and safer this way,’ I said. I was not only ignored, but questioned by a former Master Mariner. He was also a member of the discussion panel, and for some reason, probably defending his marine technology company, was just interested in removing seafarers from vessels as the solution for shipping because, he argued, ‘Humans are just a source of mistakes’. I guess he forgot all the occasions when seafarers’ actions, including his, contribute to normal operations and save the day in a very complex and demanding working environment. 

Covid-19 has put seafarers’ wellbeing and psychological health at the front of many discussions in the maritime industry. Shipping is responsible for transporting about 90 per cent of global trade by volume, and seafarers are the key element of the maritime workforce. Seafarers’ working and living conditions – very harsh in normal situations – are seriously affected by Covid-19. Travel restrictions and failure to declare seafarers as key workers in many countries have put them in an unprecedented stressful situation. Stranded seafarers cannot return home and others cannot sign on for new employment. This problem is far from being solved and could even get worse.

The latest Seafarers’ Happiness Index, carried out by the Mission to Seafarers charity, highlights that crews feel unsupported during Covid-19, mainly due to extended contracts, lack of shore leave, lack of connectivity, and concerns around mental wellbeing, and there is a worrying increase of tension and social frictions on board, all of it seriously affecting seafarers’ mental health. Moreover, disturbing trends indicate an increase in suicides among crew members on board passenger ships and an increase in man overboard incidents during Covid-19. There is an increasing need and demand for social and psychological support for seafarers. 

Recent initiatives, clearly catalysed by the impact of Covid-19, underline the urgent need to promote the workforce’s mental health and wellbeing in the maritime industry. The Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing was signed by more than 800 organisations in February 2021 to protect the welfare of seafarers. In March 2021, Maritime UK launched a mental health pledge to promote employee mental health and wellbeing to executives in the sector. 

Beyond public declarations and pledges, caring work culture is essential in shipping to promote seafarers’ wellbeing during and outside pandemics. This caring work culture would implement holistic health approaches oriented to the promotion and education of the workforce’s physical, mental and social wellbeing. Moreover, this caring work culture would promote a compassionate understanding of mental health problems in a male-dominated industry, ‘to help those who need to ask for help to do so, and those with lived experience of mental health problems not to be seen in stigmatised terms such as weak or incompetent or unable to flourish’ (see Building a caring work culture – what good looks like, Division of Clinical Psychology). A paradigm change in taking care of seafarers is needed. Putting their wellbeing at the centre of discussions and actions will also reduce the stigma around mental health.

Dr. Maria Carrera, PhD, MSc, CPsychol
Research Associate
World Maritime University

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Firstly thanks to Dr Carrera for opening a conversation surrounding seafarers. There are over 22000 Brits in the Merchant Navy and very little attention directed toward them other than when a cruise ship hits an island or everyone's hair straighteners are stuck in the Suez Canal. 

I'm a Master Mariner, serving ship's Master and have been at sea for twenty years. I'm just in the latter half of a BSc in Psychology. I'm shocked that another Master Mariner has seen humans as any kind of disadvantage to the industry - a strange and disheartening attitude. 

The recent pledge Maritime UK have encouraged companies to sign up to is very much only a first step. This now needs thought, time and investment which we've so far seen little evidence of at the working edge of the industry. 

Senior Officers are trained in, among other things, fire fighting, medical care, sea survival and, more recently, have been trained in surface aspects of leadership and management but these are areas which have been historically neglected. There has, as far as I'm aware, never been any training offered in people management or any form of first step counselling. In recent times I've had to manage two crew who have lost their father while on the ship and an officer having an episode of increased anxiety and depression. These are things we've never been professionally equipped to deal with. 

I raise a query. How could you distill mental health and counselling into a kind of first aid course for delivery to ships officers? 

Apologies for any spelling errors or inelegant grammar. This is written on a mobile phone, on a bad internet connection and the ship is moving around a lot!