The SAFETY4SEA Crew Welfare Week took place 20-22 June 2023, where various presentations and panel discussions explored issued surrounding crew welfare. Mental health and welfare were also discussed as it is a crucial aspect of a person’s wellbeing.
n this context, mental wellness onboard was the subject of a panel discussion. The speakers focused on ways to support seafarers’ mental health and continue raising awareness across the industry to eliminate the stigma that still exists around mental health conditions.
The importance of mental health
Mental wellness is defined as a synthesis of how we feel and how we function. The importance of mental wellbeing as a crucial aspect of crew welfare was a point that all speakers highlighted.
As Maris Cirulis, Managing Director, CleverPoint Marine, pointed out, a poor mental state affects cognition which means that it’s not just a health but also a safety issue for people onboard.
Many people don’t understand that mental health is still a huge issue. When it comes to mental health, not speaking about it can actually cause serious problems.
… agreed Güven Kale, Clinical Chief Officer, Mental Health Support Solutions
From a safety and accident perspective, it is very important that we have a happy ship and mentally sound and rested seafarers who are able to focus on the job and do it well. Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of claims rising.
… agreed Guru Kohli, Business Development Manager-Marine, AP Companies. Guru Kohli additionally observed that, over the past two years, mental health has overtaken back pain as the second most common reason people seek medical care.
Factors with a negative impact on mental health
#1 Harassment and bullying
The alarming trend of instances of harassment and bullying onboard was highlighted by most of the speakers. Harassment and bullying significantly deteriorate a person’s mental welfare and self-image while fostering an environment of inequality and fear.
As Guru Kohli highlighted, instances of harassment, bullying and victimization may be common, but people are not able to communicate their concerns. Especially juniors, he added, are being made fun of for not picking up fast enough.
Furthermore, he pointed out that as a seafarer’s work environment is also home, they have to come in contact with the colleges that they may have a problem with, even after work. This can be especially aggravating.
#2 Stress and fatigue
The nature of the seafaring job can be very stressful. An extended time spent onboard, exposed to isolation, inadequate sleep and stressful job requirements can make seafarers feel exhausted. In addition, subpar living conditions and lack of specialist advice have serious negative impact.
One of the hidden risks nowadays because of the increased complexity, unpredictable work environments as well as because of the vast amounts of info our brain needs to process daily, people have the habit of working in a state of high alertness and even stress.
… said Maris Cirulis
Like Kohli, Maris also stressed the important consequence of the fact that seafarers are 24/7 at work. Maris mentioned that as they get used to this, stress or toxic and negative behavior might go unnoticed, causing a very slow wear and tear of the body and mind, therefore leading to these mental health problems.
Maris also clarified that seafarer health does not deteriorate from just one stress or fatigue event, it’s a thing that happens over time. It’s not the number of stressors but rather how an individual responds to each stressful event, he explained.
Moreover, Güven Kale identified extended length of contracts and less people onboard as a result of insufficient manning levels cause work stress to continue to pile up on seafarers, as they get less rest that they are supposed to.
Many people see seafarers as workers, but they are human not robots. We should respect basic human needs.
… Güven Kale highlighted
Meanwhile, Christopher L. Hall added that lack of recreation, limited access to care, and onboard noise and vibration literally rattle one’s sense of well-being.
Finally, as Guru Kohli pointed out that new technology and digitalization and, as a result, new training, puts even more pressure on seafarers.
Ways to promote mental welfare
#1 Ending the stigma
The stigma surrounding mental health may have gradually reduced in the last years in some parts of the world, but alas it remains an alarming phenomenon.
Terminating the stigma that surrounds mental wellbeing and treating it with equal importance as physical wellbeing is a huge step in improving seafarers’, and generally people’s, mental welfare.
Reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues. Changing this could have a huge impact because we still have very little data and research in maritime on the actual state of mental health, purely because a huge part of people is not willing to talk about it.
… claimed Christopher L. Hall and expressed the idea that if the stigma is ended, providers will be able to give more personalized and efficient mental health solutions.
It’s crucial to train and educate them to make them feel comfortable speaking with metal health providers and breaking the stigma around mental health.
… agreed Güven Kale
Gisa Paredes, Chief Strategy and Commercial Officer, WellAtSea APS, made the significant point that industry continues to hide the number of suicides for example, and psychiatric cases that they are facing because they want to look good.
This is still stigma, and we are contributing to it.
… Gisa Paredes pointed out.
#2 Policy and regulation
During the pandemic, all the regulations we had in the maritime labor convention were thrown out of the window. All the Port and Flag states refused to cooperate and allow seafarers access to medical health.
… said Guru Kohli
As a result, he suggested that the MLC needs to be broadened or made better and companies need to ensure a humane working place. Kale also suggested the following measures:
- Shorter contracts
- More shore leave
- An extra watch keeper
- More shore support for maintenance so the crew can go ashore
- A system where the crew can express concerns without censorship
On a socio-ecological health behavior model, policy can create profound changes.
… said Gisa Paredes, adding that policy would also separate the organizations that want to make a difference from those who would rather get a seminar over with to prove that they have complied.
Organizations are trying to achieve this high productivity and KPIs leaving behind the employee experience of how they do their work and how they feel about it.
… agreed Maris
Gisa Paredes also supported the idea that the organization should promote a culture in which mental health is treated with the importance it deserves.
Furthermore, investing in mental health can have a great outcome for companies and organizations. As Christopher L. Hall, Managing Director, Hong Kong, The American Club, stated: every dollar spent for mental health brings back another four or five dollars.
Ultimately, Christopher L. Hall made the interesting point that support is not uniform across the entire industry as shipping is very diverse with significant cultural differences. This creates a wellness gap that needs to be addressed.
#3 Collaboration and leadership
In my view collaboration is key because all industry stakeholders have to have shared responsibility when it comes to current as well as future state of seafarers profession
… said Maris Cirulis, adding that the industry should view the seafaring profession as a lifestyle. Organizations should be aligned to support seafarers throughout their journey from the academies to their jobs.
Meanwhile, Gisa Paredes claimed that there can be better collaboration in the industry by being more transparent with reporting and data.
We need to get the c-suite engaged. The CEOs of companies. It’s not good enough to have the middle level of people interested. A top-down approach is needed.
… said Christopher L. Hall claiming that stakeholders need to understand that a happy ship is a safe ship and profitable ship.
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