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How can the maritime industry stop losing crew members?

6 March 2019

The maritime industry is haemorrhaging crew members, and it's not about the pay. If we want to keep people at sea, we need to make ships happier places to work. ANDREW LININGTON reports on a recent cross-industry meeting that aimed to figure out what to do…

How do we turn all the good talk about seafarer wellbeing into effective action? That was the key question facing an industry 'think-tank' staged in London in February 2019.

The event was organised by former Bibby Line cadet Andrew Cowderoy, who now runs the specialist maritime fitness firm ZS Wellness after his seagoing career was prematurely terminated by a serious illness in 2013.

'I established ZS Wellness with a very clear mission to educate, train and prevent seafarers from running the risk of loss of career or life and to educate the shipping industry to take a proactive rather than reactive approach to both physical and mental health,' he said.

Mr Cowderoy organised the think-tank meeting – which was attended by representatives from Nautilus, maritime charities, welfare organisations, crewing agencies, trainers and health experts – in a bid to identify ways of building on recent discussions about seafarer suicides, mental health and physical wellbeing.

'There is some fantastic work being done across the globe, but as an industry we are quite good at keeping it to ourselves,' he pointed out. 'There’s a wealth of information out there and we don't want to keep reinventing the wheel.'

Opening the event, ImpactCrew founder Karen Passman said evidence showing a rise in mental health problems among seafarers is of concern, and there is a broad consensus on the need to bring practices in the maritime sector into line with other industries.

She noted studies showing high rates of crew turnover – as much as 50% over 12 months in the superyacht sector – and said attention should be paid to the reasons why so many seafarers leave their jobs after fairly short periods.

'There is a perception that it is all about money,' Ms Passman continued. 'But money doesn't keep staff in the long-term and if people are unhappy they are not going to stay.'

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ZS Wellness founder Andrew Cowderoy addressing the 'think-tank'

Surveys had shown that low morale, bullying and unfair treatment cause a lot of problems, and around 16% of crew were moving on because of dissatisfaction with their jobs, with similar numbers leaving due to unhappiness with time-off and rotations. But almost two-thirds of junior crew leave because of poor leadership, she noted.

Steve Cameron, from the CMR consultancy, said wellness is much more than being free from illness – and it was generally accepted that a fit, happy and healthy crew would be safer and more productive.

The maritime sector is facing increasing competition from other industries for talent and it needs to be thinking strategically

However, he pointed out, the Seafarers Happiness Index run by the Mission to Seafarers had shown the average level of happiness to have fallen from 'a not particularly impressive' 6.69 out of 10 to 6.5 out of 10 over the past year.

Mr Cameron said reports to the Mission had identified the way in which poor connectivity at sea fuels stress and isolation felt by seafarers. 'There are worrying reports showing that social isolation carries more of a health risk than not exercising,' he added, 'and it might be twice as harmful as obesity.'

Liz Baugh, from Red Square Medical, said efforts should be directed towards tackling the high rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among seafarers. 'If monitored closely, there are things that can be done to reverse the effects of diabetes and it does not mean that the seafarer's career has to be stopped,' she added.

Mental health training should be embedded at every level of maritime education, Ms Baugh argued, and the standards of ships' medical chests should be improved so that they better reflect the wide range of conditions that seafarers can face at sea.

Whitehorse Maritime director Paul Shepherd said seafarers could benefit from the support provided through mentoring schemes, such as the programme operated by the Honourable Company of Master Mariners which not only helps its 250-plus mentees to deal with some of the demands of their career but also provides useful insight into the challenges that they face.

V.Group cadet training officer Lee Clarke agreed that mentoring could help to prepare young people for their first trips to sea – and introducing lifestyle and wellness training as part of STCW courses could also reduce the number of adverse experiences.

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Steve Cameron of the CMR
consultancy

Seafarer medical examinations presently fail to address psychological conditions, he added, and there is a need for seafarers to be trained to recognise the signs of mental health problems among colleagues. Follow-up support is also needed for post-traumatic stress issues following accidents and incidents onboard.

Intermanager secretary-general Captain Kuba Szymanski questioned the shipping industry’s commitment to combatting some of the worst problems affecting seafarers – pointing to difficulties in securing funding for further research into the impact of long hours and long tours of duty on crew wellbeing.

'There is lots of research going on into seafarer wellbeing, but it is not being done in a joined-up way,' said Sailors' Society chief executive Stuart Rivers. 'Much more could be achieved if it was done in an integrated way.'

Mr Rivers said his charity had launched its Wellness at Sea programme to provide practical health and wellbeing advice – including a special app for seafarers. 'We would love to see this being used more fully and made available free of charge to every seafarer,' he added.

Freedom Training and Consultancy director Tracey Keane described another programme providing practical support to seafarers. Developed for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary following an earlier programme for the Merchant Navy Welfare Board, the safeguarding and suicide prevention scheme was launched in June 2018 and has already provided mental health awareness training for around 180 people.

Ms Keane said the scheme aims to get seafarers talking to each other and to empower them to openly discuss the problems they face. More than 140 of those who have taken part report that they are now more confident about helping others, 22 are receiving support for issues that cause them stress and anxiety and eight are considering counselling.

'You don’t have to be a mental health professional to help,' she explained. 'Just getting people to talk and open up about things makes a massive difference.'

UK P&I Club crew health programme director Sophia Bullard said the enhanced checks conducted through the marine insurer's pre-employment medical examinations are a beneficial option for owners, managers and seafarers. 'It makes good sense to carry out such tests, as many seafarers are ticking timebombs with conditions that have not been identified,' she pointed out.

'Many seafarers see wellness as being all about trainers in green tights drinking green smoothies,' Mr Cowderoy added. 'As a former seafarer I wanted to come up with a solution that makes it as easy as possible for a seafarer to understand the importance of wellness at sea.'

The Wellship programme developed by his company uses smart technology to help seafarers devise keep-fit strategies, backed up by training and education and regular progress reviews. 'Through some really simple steps, people can transform themselves, and a happy and healthy crew are far more productive,' Mr Cowderoy said.

In a further attempt to coordinate and collaborate on seafarer wellbeing issues, he has launched the Global Maritime Wellness Network to bring everyone actively involved or interested into online communities, organising regular webinars with experts from around the world.

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Freedom Training and Consultancy director Tracy Keane (left) and UK P&I Club crew health programme director Sophia Bullar. Karen Waltham (right), managing director of HR Consulting at Spinnaker Global

Closing the event, HR Consulting managing director Karen Waltham said shipping has a long way to go to catch up with other industries. Its approach to human resources is about 25 years behind the curve, she suggested, and training and HR are often the first casualties of shipping company budget cuts.

While big operators such as Maersk have strategies in place to address fundamental staffing elements such as resource planning, learning and development, talent development and succession planning, there are still a significant number of medium-sized shipping companies with no professionally-trained personnel in their HR departments, she added.

However, Ms Waltham said, things are starting to change and an increasing number of shipping firms are putting HR at the core of their organisations. 'The maritime sector is facing increasing competition from other industries for talent and it needs to be thinking strategically,' she argued.

If operators are to recruit and retain the skilled seafarers they will continue to require, they need to have clear and consistent approaches to HR strategies, she continued. This not only means competitive salaries and good benefits packages, but also good promotion opportunities, continuous staff training and development, regular and transparent communications, investment in corporate social responsibility, employee autonomy and a focus on employee wellbeing.

Ms Waltham ended on a positive note. 'We are trying to commit to doing something meaningful and making real change and a real difference,' she added. 'I think that in the last five years, change is being embraced much more by the shipping industry and seafarer wellbeing is absolutely pivotal to such a strategy.'

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