In an exclusive interview to SAFETY4SEA, Mr. Jannik Grothues, Managing Director, MHSS, talks about seafarers’ mental health challenges, noting that cases of bullying and harassment, suicides, panic attacks and hallucinations onboard show an increase.
The conditions for seafarers are partially getting worse, he says, which makes it very challenging to motivate new generations of seafarers to start a career at sea. In that regard, having a compassionate leadership style allows for clear and authentic communication, which is essential for the crew’s mental well-being.
SAFETY4SEA: From your perspective, what are currently the key challenges with regards to seafarers’ mental health and what is your organization’s approach towards?
Jannik Grothues: One of the main challenges facing seafarers is the reduction in costs and the number of seafarers on board. The reduction makes it very challenging for seafarers to keep stress low while keeping a balanced approach towards mental health. Changing crews seems to be increasingly difficult, as old crews are often at the end of their contracts, and it is difficult to find replacement seafarers quickly when seafarers need to sign off due to mental health conditions. The conditions for seafarers are partially getting worse, which makes it very challenging to motivate new generations of seafarers to start a career at sea. MHSS supports seafarers in their current situation by providing training for the top 4 as well as psychological support, and crisis intervention for all seafarers. We also carry out assessments of the work culture of shipping companies and suggest recommendations on how to enhance the organizational structure. To improve working conditions on a broader scale of the maritime sector, we are currently collaborating with Care4Sea and MOAI on a study that will evaluate both medical and psychological parameters.
S4S: What are the key priorities in your agenda for the next five years?
J.G.: Our key priority is to raise more awareness regarding the topic of mental health, this includes talking about mental health openly and explaining how crucial it is, especially for people in high demanding jobs. Within the next 5 years, my aim is to normalize asking for psychological support as it is to ask for radio medical help. Every seafarer should have access to this kind of support.
S4S: Do you think the mental health issues relating to mariner welfare are being adequately addressed? What is your feedback so far?
J.G.: Even though we are glad that the topic is finally getting more attention, we are still at the very beginning. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to educate and make the industry aware of this topic. The majority of people that have gotten in touch with us learned about the depths of mental health and its effects for the first time. It has been brilliant to work together and support and educate them since oftentimes they are in desperate need. Most of the time, we meet shipping companies and seafarers who are very grateful for our work, which makes our job so enjoyable.
S4S: How does a happy crew onboard look like? What are the top 5 factors that define crew happiness?
J.G.: Feeling safe and at home on board. Colleagues that feel like friends. Compassionate leadership. Meeting basic human needs. Appreciation and realistic expectation from management
S4S: Have you noticed any trends during the last years and a possible alarming trend for the years to come with respect to seafarer’s mental health?
J.G.: More and more seafarers tend to reach out due to bullying and harassment, slow or little internet availability (connection to family is therefore difficult), and problems with top-down leadership onboard. We’ve also had a rise in critical cases that include suicide ideation, panic attacks, and hallucinations on board.
S4S: Which best practices would you recommend from your perspective to ensure good mental health onboard?
J.G.: Speaking from our experience, one big factor of best practice to ensure good mental health onboard is leadership. The concept of leadership bears the responsibility and shapes the work culture, ultimately having a major impact on the entire workforce. Having a compassionate leadership style allows for clear and authentic communication, which is essential for the crew’s mental well-being. This is especially of high importance for the top 4 of a vessel as well as the management.
S4S: What are currently the hurdles for enhanced crew welfare onboard and what needs to change to enhance working and living conditions onboard?
J.G.: In our opinion, a lot of the crew members do not get the appreciation they deserve. They are the backbone of an industry that would not exist without them. A satisfied crew is a productive crew, meaning they need less attention regarding problems, accidents, miscommunication, costs, and unplanned changes.
S4S: What is your wish list for the operators with regards to mental health? What needs to be considered to discussions around mental health issues onboard and ashore?
J.G.: I would like to see seafarers provided with everything they need to fulfill their basic human needs. This simply begins with enough sleep, good and healthy food, free access to water and internet, the possibility to meet each other, and a simple gym to do sports. Good food is essential and access to heathy, well-balanced, and local meals can make all the difference.
S4S: What are the next steps/ trends in a post pandemic shipping with regards to seafarers’ wellbeing?
J.G.: The pandemic drew attention to this topic due to the intense work conditions, but mental health issues are ongoing. The most important step after the pandemic is not to lose the momentum to improve the seafarer’s well-being.
S4S: Do you have any projects/ plans that you would like to share with industry stakeholders?
J.G.: “Stop assuming, Start asking” is our campaign to ask seafarers about their challenges to truly meet their needs and to give them a platform to express their struggle. We are conducting a study together with MOAI Health Ltd, Care4Sea and the King’s College London, combining physical and psychological data to research the current situation of seafarer. From these data we want to derive recommendations for the industry to ultimately set standards for shipping companies to improve mental health of the seafarers. My colleagues and I are contributing together with a number of other psychologists in this feel to create a body (Maritime Mental Health Professionals Community of Practice (MMHPCoP)) that creates guidelines that define the minimum qualifications that a service needs to have to provide responsible mental health support. We do that to protect, regulate, assure quality and prevent harm by potential services that do not fulfill the minimum qualification.
S4S: If you could change one thing from your perspective, what this one thing would it be and why?
J.G.: More compassion for each other. Being compassionate in the workplace makes a huge difference on various levels. A team that works well together is always stronger than a team that is afraid to communicate mistakes, doesn’t ask for help, or doesn’t trusts each other’s competencies. Having enough seafarers on board to assure seafarer’s rest hours and sleep can be continuously protected and guaranteed.
S4S: What is your key message to industry stakeholders to foster resilience in these challenging times?
J.G.: In order to foster resilience and enhance crew welfare, it’s important to adapt to the new circumstances step by step. Doing so by implementing new innovative concepts which we have carefully created with a group of clinical psychologists during the challenging times of the pandemic. These concepts include a large variety of courses and presentations on different mental health related topics, exercises or even ship visits from our team. The pandemic has shown us the importance of adaptability in responding to unexpected events as well as navigating the challenges by supporting one another.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
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