The ongoing pandemic is creating extra challenges to seafarers, who may become bored, frustrated or lonely and their families may also experience difficulties. For this reason, companies should create an on board caring culture to address mental health matters.
everal factors can affect seafarers’ mental health, such as job stress, family pressures and limited shore leave. Being away at sea can also make it difficult to access support. However, everyone reacts differently to events, and changes in thoughts, feelings and behaviour vary between people and over time. Thus, companies must create an environment in which seafarers will have no fear of reprisal; will be able to reduce the stigma they will if they mention their mental health.
What can companies do?
#1 Develop clear policies
These policies will set out procedures which protect the mental health of their seafarers and ensure that shore based staff have a deep understanding of how to support their colleagues. This should also include a focus on the onboard environment to make sure it is conducive to good mental health. Furthermore, these policies should ensure that there are adequate facilities and opportunities for socialising and having time away from work duties. As well as this, they should also help create a culture where proper rest times are observed.
#2 Stay up-to-date with research findings
Shipping companies should constantly be taking notes of important research findings. For example, a plethora of researches have found that improved connectivity on board can significantly improve seafarers’ wellbeing. Other research has discovered that there is an increasing amount of evidence linking diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with the wellbeing of employees.
Taking this into consideration, ship owners can work towards a more equal gender balance on board ships which can have a positive impact on both men and women on board. Finally, further research into seafarers’ mental health has discovered a very strong connection of working conditions and the prevalence of suicide. Just by being aware of this connection, companies can take significant steps to address it.
#3 Training in mental health awareness
Training in mental health awareness for seafarers and shore based maritime professionals can have a very positive impact on seafarers’ mental wellbeing. Such training will help to ensure they are well prepared for some of the challenges that seafaring comes with. Mental health training also increases understanding of mental health issues, thus helping to greatly reduce stigma.
In fact, if mental health is no longer considered a taboo, seafarers will be more comfortable seeking help and/or talking about their problems with their supervisor or a colleague.
What is more, this kind of training can be beneficial in helping seafarers to recognise that a crew mate may be struggling and provide them with the skills and confidence to start a conversation. Another important factor is that it can equip seafarers and senior staff with the skills needed to effectively respond to a concern on board or within their company.
The importance of training mental health awareness was also highlighted in a Yale study into the mental health of seafarers. This study shed light on the vulnerability of cadets, who have not been given adequate preparedness training. For this reason, Yale recommends training in resilience for seafarers, particularly cadets, as a way to prevent mental health issues on board.
#4 Counselling and emotional support
Counselling and emotional support services should be available to seafarers. These services can literally be the difference between life and death for a seafarer experiencing suicidal thoughts. They can also help seafarers to find ways to cope with life on board which may not have been possible without accessible support.
If that happens, then it would lead to a happy, more productive worker. In fact, the risks of serious trauma such as serious injury or pirate attack also make counselling and support services essential to seafarers. Port based welfare services providing face to face support such as those offered by the Mission to Seafarers, Stella Maris and Sailors’ Society are essential for the same reasons.
What has the industry done so far
Despite these increasing concerns, there are still large gaps in knowledge about the rates of suicide at sea as most Maritime Administrations do not collect data on suicide rates and because suicides can be misreported. Nevertheless, maritime charities, unions and private companies have developed training and outreach programmes designed to improve the mental health of seafarers.
More specifically, ISWAN has developed mental health awareness training, that can be adapted to all seafarer ranks as well as for shore side staff who support seafarers.
What is more, there has been an increase in the number of shipping companies providing their seafarers with confidential helplines which offer emotional support and counselling. Namely, existing helplines such as SeafarerHelp have been focusing efforts on raising awareness of their support in this area in recent years, while new counselling helplines have been set up by unions representing a large number of seafarers such as NUSI.
Furthermore, there has been some work within national authorities and trade associations to pay attention to the mental health of seafarers.
More specifIcally, the UK Chamber of Shipping issued guidance to shipping companies on developing a mental health awareness policy, with the UK Government Maritime 2050 commiting to produce mental healthcare guidelines and developing standardised training in the area for seafarers.