During the last SAFETY4SEA Athens Forum, Capt. Yves Vandenborn, Director of Loss Prevention, The Standard Club, discussed seafarers’ wellbeing from the mental and social point of view. Nationalities and different cultures have different ways of socializing, he argued, so companies should adopt new ways to encourage socializing amongst seafarers onboard.
When we talk about wellbeing, we need to focus on many aspects; not only on the physical side, but also equally on mental and social aspects. Overall, seafarer wellbeing is a holistic concept combining physical, mental and social wellbeing. This is important; I feel that very often people forget how physical wellbeing is related to mental wellbeing. If you are not happy in your body, you are not going to be a happy person. Subsequently, if you are not a happy person on board, you are prone to become risk to the safety of the ship and your other seafarers onboard.
According to statistics, 64% of seafarers are considered overweight. One extra cup of plain white rice has almost the same calories as a Big Mac. There are a number of Asian nationalities who love to have a second cup of rice with their food onboard but that is the equivalent of having an extra big mac. Maybe that is one way to put it across to seafarers that they shouldn’t be eating that much or at least they should try and eat healthier on board of ships.
Almost all seafarers agree that food is very important on board in order to be happy. A large percentage would agree that they want to eat healthier on board; but strangely enough, 20% of them also bring food to their cabins. So, they say on one hand; yeah sure, I want to eat healthier but on the other hand they’ll go and put snacks in their cabin and eat. One of the main things missing will be vegetables- fresh food.
What do seafarers think?
- 95% of seafarers rate food as “very important” to job satisfaction
- 80% would rather eat healthier
- 19% supply themselves with food stored in their cabins
- Fresh products, native food, variety and quality are often missed
- 20% of seafarers took dietary supplement pills.
MLC is requiring operators to train chefs; however I am not sure how much in reality that makes a difference on board. I don’t feel it when I do surveys and when I get food on board of a ship; that it is not necessarily healthier than when I was at sea. Training is really important there; not just for the chef but for all seafarers as well. Make it clear to them how much food they do require in a day, as compared to how much energy they burn and what kind of food.
In general, I think life on board of ships must have changed since I was at sea; I used to be quite a lot more active when I was on board. Nowadays people seem to be stuck in their cabins or in office on board of ships; they don’t have the same level of activity anymore. There is quite some variation there with the type gym equipment that you can get on board of ships; not too sure I’d be happy to go to a gym fitted in an empty old container. But it is something that can be done quite easily on board. You don’t need to have large room or heavy equipment; it is quite easy to do training or activities on board. And I believe quite strongly to incentivize this for seafarers; give them something- doesn’t need to be money; for instance, it can be a little bit more leave time and extra vacation days, cash prizes, gift certificates or inclusion in the company newsletters. For this scheme to work, there needs to be a reward, a goal and a means of measuring the success/achievement of this goal.
Again, why should we do this? Why do we need to look at physical wellbeing? Very much because from an insurance perspective we see the results of poor physical wellbeing resulting into illness claims. There are way too many illnesses that can be easily prevented by having a better enhanced PEME system in place prior to joining or having healthier crew on board of the ships.
Looking at mental wellbeing, there has been an increase in suicides among seafarers. There is now, everybody agrees, an issue with mental wellbeing on board ships. We all know the contributing factors. We all know that seafarers are away a long time from family at home; we know that shore leave is not an easy task these days. There is stress, everywhere. Again, what can we do about this? I think we really need to look at education again. There are many programs available for seafarers, there are various helplines available, even in apps. There are many options, but do seafarers know them? Do they know that they can call someone when they feel a need to talk? Another item I would like to add; it does not need to be somebody on board who has psychological training or a doctor; but somebody that can recognize the problem in somebody else on board; somebody that can then go and talk to that seafarer; ‘’are you ok? Is there anything wrong?’’ If it is established that this seafarer is having a problem, he/she can then be referred to somebody that will be able to give professional help.
The problem is that these days, there is no social life anymore on board of ships. People all go into their cabin at the end of the day- I am generalizing, I am sure there are exceptions and that some ships do have a social life. What are some of these distractors? Everybody is having their own personal devices. There is plenty of Wi-Fi on board these days and people will go and chat with their family in their cabin or they go and watch a movie. One of our ship owners was saying he is giving Netflix to his seafarers and they can stream movies on board. But I wonder, how is that going to help a person dealing with a problem that he has? How is he/she then going to be able to talk to somebody and feel better?
In order to enhance their ability to communicate, develop meaningful relationships with others, and maintain a support network that could help them overcome loneliness, I think we need to take into consideration the distractors to this and think out of the box. For instance, regarding alcohol bans; it is true that one of the main incentives to try and at least talk to other people is if you’ve had a glass; it makes us all a lot easier to talk to. Coffee doesn’t do that for many people. I am a firm believer in alcohol restrictions rather than an outright alcohol ban. Of course, with all the crew nationalities on board there are different ways; different nationalities, different cultures have different ways of socializing- not everybody is the same in how they like to release their stress and a common way needs to be found.
Now, regarding the increased availability of personal devices, laptops and tablets; the majority of seafarers do agree that communication is extremely important. In general, seafarers view the internet as essential in this day and age, internet access and wifi are often cited as key recruitment and retention factors amongst seafarers, particularly younger ones. So, switching off the Wi-Fi on board of ships is not going to help, it is a given these days that seafarers want to have access, to be able to call their family. But it can be controlled better. I would not recommend having Wi-Fi in cabins, definitely not on the bridge or in the engine control room. Instead, make Wi-Fi or internet access accessible in common areas. If then they receive bad news from the family, if then they feel lonely, they have somebody else they can talk to. If they call in their cabin and something is wrong at home, what are they going to do? They will just feel bad and face the situation alone.
What do seafarers think
- 60.8% seafarer viewed communication as “extremely important”
- 97.3% seafarers believed communication facilities played crucial role in promoting wellbeing for seafarers
- 85% of seafarers active on social media
- Seafarer communication with family: 73% Extremely important; 18% Very important; 6% Important; 3% Moderate to not important
In conclusion, we should try and improve the socializing on board; get people to talk again on board. And that can be done through an incentivizing scheme. You can organize activities that are both physically active and promote the social wellbeing; Ping-Pong matches; basketball games; make people do, even karaoke – if you can start dancing at the same time, anything that makes people move, have a laugh with each other, it will make them feel better. But this is not happening on board of ships and that is what needs to change. Have a competition between different ships; the one that can do the most steps on a monthly basis will get front page news in the next company magazine. And again, I am in favour of alcohol restrictions rather than alcohol bans.
Above text is an edited version of Capt. Yves Vandenborn’s presentation during the 2019 SAFETY4SEA Athens Forum.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.