The ability to motivate and retain seafarers is a critical manpower issue in view of global labour shortage and high turnover rate among seafarers, with reasons varying from the complex nature of the job to the inadequate response from the shipping industry itself, as highlighted during the pandemic.
2019 SAFETY4SEA Crew Wellness survey, which took place in late 2019 to a total of 9,768 seafarers, showed a better-than-expected outcome with respect to crew wellbeing, with seafarers achieving high satisfaction scores in many sections, but this seems to be redefined in a time of a pandemic.he
A fly on the ointment of a lasting debate on crew wellness at sea was the year 2020 when COVID-19 left hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded onboard beyond contract limits, unable to go home and reunite with their people. The latest Seafarers’ Happiness Index identified huge challenges with crew changes, not only in the limitations of leaving or joining a ship, but also in the treatment and facilities provided during quarantine. Some senior officers said this was the worst situation they have known in decades in the industry.
This was also confirmed through a recent crew wellness survey by Filistos ASCOT SA and partners on 4,989 seafarers, that identified a percent increase by more than 7 times of job dissatisfaction in 2020 compared to 2019, “signifying the desire of seafarers to find another field of work”. The most interesting fact about this is that the percent is very close between ratings and officers. Even the participants who are amongst the top four officers scored high on this factor with no significant difference to the other ranks.
However, even before the pandemic and amid a growing interest in crew wellness, a 2018 survey of 1,000 seafarers by union Nautilus found a quarter of seafarers screened positive for signs of depression; 26% reported feeling ‘down, depressed or hopeless’ on several days over the previous two weeks; and 20% felt down, depressed or hopeless every day. But how could this trend be explained? Let us explore:
-Duration of serving time contracts: The duration of seafarers’ contracts varies, but they typically work between four and six months on ships, followed by a period of leave. This makes working conditions of a seafarer unique, compared to other jobs, as it requires some sacrifices. More specifically:
- Personal sacrifices: This is the main reason why a seafarer may opt for a different career path onshore. The nature of seafaring as a job may repel potential romantic partners from investing in a future relationship and creating a family, for the simple reason that seafarers have to be far from home for consecutive months. For married seafarers, being away from home may lead to increased stress and feeling of loneliness, while it is also possible that they will have to miss important moments, such as some stages of their children growing up.
- -Limited social life: The ultimate sacrifice of seafarers is that they have their personal and social life divided into land and sea. Confined into a limited space for months with the same people, a seafarer sacrifices valuable moments such as celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, new year’s, and other holidays with their friends. Participants during the latest SAFETY4SEA Crew Wellness survey also expressed key concerns regarding socialization and recreational activities onboard, separately.
-Poor communication: This is a chronic problem associated with life at sea and a constant area of concern for seafarers who call for better care on the issue from shipping organizations and technology providers. Poor communication with their loved ones was the most regularly seen complaint from seafarers during the 2019 SAFETY4SEA Crew Wellness Survey -even before the pandemic started.
-Increased workload: When at sea, crews often work 10-12 hours shifts, seven days a week – performing tasks that require constant professional attention. Fatigue and workload were also the no1 obstacle to social life onboard (38%), according to a 2019 SAFETY4SEA poll. An observed trend of crews’ reduction onboard for financial savings, along with decreased wages due to different nationality standards and tax schemes, may trigger disappointment for certain crew nationality groups compared to others.
-Work hazards: Seafarers are typically involved in transporting high-risk materials, such as flammable liquids, explosives, radioactive waste, and others. They often work aloft and are engaged in risky operations, such as confined space entry, mooring, and drills. All these create chronic stress for seafarers linked to the nature of their job. This is further exacerbated if the ship plies in high-risk areas, such as the Gulf of Guinea.
-Regulatory constraints: Complex procedures, endless paperwork, advanced training guidelines, new or revised codes and increasingly demanding environmental regulations can create a really stressful and hectic routine for seafarers onboard.
Overall, several recent studies seem to validate a decreasing level of satisfaction of seafarers in a time when shipping already struggles to attract a skilled workforce. Seafarers highlighted that they are subjected to degrading and frustrating treatment, making it clear that the entire process needs to be reviewed and improved. However, as technology advances and the Internet becomes more and more an integral part of our life, a brighter light appears on the horizon:
For instance, where usually responses at the Seafarers’ Happiness Index were full of frustration at the lack of Wi-Fi or poor-quality at a high cost, in the last Quarter of 2020 many respondents reported that their companies have stepped up and provided either a better or cheaper service, or have given drastically improved free provisions to the vessel. This industry response is hopefully expected to spread to wider sections of life onboard and retain talents within the sector.