Isolation has always been an aspect of life at sea and one of the main arguments for all those refraining from a potential seafaring career. What are the main drivers of this isolation and how has this been redefined in the era of COVID-19?
While there are many great things about a career at sea –good wages, meeting different people, places, and cultures–, one of the not so hot issues is having to cope with spending long periods away from home, family and friends. In the worst of the cases, seafarers, who are way for months, may miss some part of their children growing up.
And although being a seafarer is all about being away from home, there are specific times of the year, which are double harsh to spend away from loved ones, such as the Christmas holidays, New Year’s, Thanksgiving or birthdays.
In the meantime, increased workload, fatigue, work stress, as well as lack of interaction and bonding among crew members are all factors which may add to the mental pressure and feeling of loneliness.
What are the main factors of seafarers’ isolation?
- Poor connectivity: Poor communication with loved ones was the most regularly seen complaint from seafarers during SAFETY4SEA Crew Wellness Survey, which took place in late 2019, reflecting feedback from over 9,000 crew members worldwide. While everything around us becomes connected and Internet is a crucial part of our everyday lives, it is not a given for crews plying the world seas, due to the low bandwidth which requires more investment in equipment.
- Lack of teambonding: The more crew members lack friendship and interaction, the more they feel alone, homesick and depressed, with long-term consequences for emotional well-being. On the one hand, there are concerns that many crew tend to retreat behind closed cabin doors, which results in too little social cohesion onboard. On the other hand, this may occur because they lack opportunities for a fun and engaging social activity they can share with their mates. This is where the responsibility of the shipowner enters the game. Needless to mention, recreational activities and inadequate social interaction onboard was the second most common area of concern as highlighted by the same SAFETY4SEA survey.
Seafarers’ isolation in the years of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the concepts of socialization and isolation under new perspective for every single one of us. From isolation as a potentially adverse consequence of their job, to isolation as a mandatory requirement, seafarers now have bigger stress to handle, as now their one and only get-out is an efficient Internet connection.
And notwithstanding the fact that about 400,000 crew members remain onboard far more than expected due to pandemic restrictions and have to perform social distancing also with their mates, the issue of isolation has to be in the spotlight of seafarers’ mental health examination in the post-COVID-19 era, as only a part of the huge impact of the pandemic on the maritime industry for the foreseeable future.
How can I ease the loneliness onboard?
-Keep some traditions: It is not always practical while onboard, but maintaining some of the habits and traditions of your family can provide some level of comfort without realizing it. For example, if you are Filipino and it is Christmas, do not neglect to decorate your parol or make your noise in Media Noche. This is an interesting way of exchanging cultural knowledge with other crew members and get to know each other better.
-Talk as much as possible to your loved ones: If you find good connection, do not miss the opportunity to call your friend, husband, wife, parent and kid, or simply send them a message/photo or a video card.
-Surround yourself with pictures of family and friends: We may live in the digital era, but printing some photos to decorate the space above your bed will provide you with warmer feelings and bring your loved ones a little bit nearer.
-Take care of your physical health: This is a ‘passpartout’ tip for maintaining some level of wellness while onboard. When we are tired, a small problem feels like the end of the world; this proves the great impact of body to mind. So take care of yourself! Eat well, sleep in regular hours and keep some basic exercise and the feelings of depression will be softened.
-Talk to your mates: When at sea, the people you have around you are your companions; choose some of them to discuss and share your problems with. If you feel lonely, reach out to others, do something together. This can give anyone a sense of time out and can be a good distraction.
A seaman’s life is a balance between the shore and the sea. Several gray zones regarding seafarers’ wellness are related to their social life, be it the poor communication with their people who stay back due to the nature of their job or the socialization with their mates due to limited opportunities for interaction and quality time onboard.
While it could be suggested that isolation is a price for a sacred function they provide to the world, a heavier investment on internet connection represents a ‘quick win’ for shipping companies who want to be at the front of their crews’ wellness and provide access to the internet as a basic right, rather than a luxury.