How often do you deal with cases where you feel there is more to do than you can achieve in a specific timeframe? The ability to “work under pressure” is a key skill in the fast-paced business environment. For seafarers, this pressure often manifests itself in the dynamic shipping environment that gives birth to different tasks from day to day and the unpredictable conditions that characterize life at sea.
ork-related stress affecting seafarers has specific characteristics, often different from the one seen in other jobs. Heavy weather, time pressure, increased workload, complex paperwork, high traffic and other dangers in the form of accidents, injuries, and diseases, are only a few difficulties that can make seafarers’ life onboard challenging. If the loneliness, separation from family, fatigue and limited recreation activity are added to the equation, crews have a lot of pressure to encounter while working onboard.
However, on the contrary to shore-based jobs, the seafarer does not go home at the end of the working day. This can make the sense of pressure to build over time. Constantly working under stress worsens the quality of life, wellbeing, and can also negatively affect health. As stress is unavoidable, it is critical to learn how to handle it in a healthy way and even channel it into productivity.
Working under pressure onboard: Practical examples
- Equipment Failure: While a general cargo vessel was carrying 750 tons of metal sheets to Klaipeda, Lithuania, the crew reported a water ingress in the forepeak part. There was already about 60 cubic meters of water in the forepeak which was close to the critical limit. As a result, the crew onboard had to pump out the water from the vessel. Water ingress in the forepeak was caused by a defect in the non-return-valves in the ventilation duct.
- Navigating in busy waters: While transiting the Singapore Strait traffic separation scheme, the officer on watch has to deal simultaneously with a combination of high traffic as well as visual and radar information, in order to identify both smaller vessels and keep a proper distance from large ship traffic in the lanes.
- COVID-19-related stress: The Covid-19 crisis created excessive levels of work-related stress among seafarers during the pandemic with a rise in insomnia and depression. Research by medical experts in Italy, Spain and Denmark in the first months of the pandemic revealed that more than half seafarers felt unsafe doing their job.
Working under pressure onboard: How to cope
Prioritize: Learning to distinguish what is urgent and what is not is the golden tip of good time management and not as simple as it sounds. The Eisenhower Model by former US President Eisenhower is a good strategy supporting you in prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance and sorting out those less urgent or important tasks which you do not have to do yourself. This results in four quadrants with different work strategies:
(1) urgent and important;
(2) important but not urgent;
(3) urgent but not important;
(4) neither urgent nor important.
Work against procrastination: Procrastination often extends the normal time you would need to complete a task, thus increasing stress and triggering feelings of guilt. Dealing with paperwork is among the tasks that many crew members would pleasantly postpone. We could suggest “stop procrastinating”, but you already know this is not the simplest task in the world. A useful tip is to introduce small “rewards” for yourself every time you complete the task, such as “I’ll finish this and then watch the episode”, or similar tactics that can help you get the work done and in time.
Don’t neglect your breaks: When in a rush to get a task done, it is easy to skip lunch or your 10-minute break, but this is the most common trap to productivity. The few minutes that you will take off the task will help you decompress and free your mind, in the end enhancing your efficiency and relieving the pressure.
Learn to say no to things that are not urgent: Evaluating each task on your list can help you decide if any of these can be postponed. Trying to do everything together is not helpful for your mental health and often results in imperfect outcomes.
Maintain other interests: The particular nature of seafaring means that the working time and the relaxing time are taking place in the same environment. This means that seafarers need to be extra vigilant to maintain their mental health by distinguishing working from recreation time.
Expect the unexpected: Unexpected situations are a normality for life onboard. Learning to expect the unexpected can help seafarers develop the mental readiness for any tasks.
Maintain mindfulness: Among its several benefits, mindfulness helps remaining calm in stressful situations. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to experience the current moment and include that awareness into your everyday life, reaping multiple benefits, such as less stress. There are several apps you can download that can help you adopt a mindfulness practice.
Invest in your soft skills: Soft skills, such as effective listening and flexibility, are the sine-qua-non of the required skillset for the modern working environment and seafaring makes no exception. At the end of the day, learning how to remain calm and implementing complex problem-solving can make the difference between success and disaster.