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Prepare for action: practical measures to improve crew wellbeing

13 June 2018

The shipping industry is full of talk about seafarer wellness – but how can that talk can be turned into practical measures to make crews' lives better? ANDREW LININGTON hears some proposals from an expert panel…

Seafarer wellbeing seems to be high on the agenda everywhere – but why is it hitting the headlines now, and what can be done to make real and truly beneficial changes to life onboard?

Those were the questions addressed during a seminar organised by the Nautical Institute's London branch, looking at the future of maritime professionals.

'Last year we dealt with around 3,000 cases involving some 8,000 seafarers, taking a wide range of calls on things such as contractual issues, wages and repatriation,' said International Seafarers' Welfare & Assistance Network (ISWAN) executive director Roger Harris.

'Over the last few years, we have been getting more calls about mental wellbeing, and we have trained up the team to deal with emotional support.'

Mr Harris said the debate within the shipping industry reflects increasing recognition of the importance of mental wellbeing in all workplaces – with studies showing that 12.5m working days are lost each year in the UK alone as a consequence of work-related stress, depression and anxiety. There is evidence of a 'massive problem' within the shipping industry, he added, related to factors such as social isolation, separation from families, smaller crews, long voyages, little or no shore leave, bullying and harassment, and precarious employment for many seafarers.

The attention now being paid to seafarer wellbeing is welcome, Mr Harris said, and should help to break down the stigma surrounding the issues and develop strategies for dealing with the problems. 'We can do things about it,' he stressed. 'You can build resilience, first preparing people for a career at sea, and then providing access to physical exercise, good nutrition, social bonding and positive psychology. Shipping companies need to look at the factors causing stress and support crews with mental health issues.'

Sophia Bullard, the crew health programme director with the UK P&I Club, said marine insurers are taking the issues very seriously – with statistics showing that people-related claims outstrip those arising from collisions or pollution.

The Club has also produced figures demonstrating that suicide rates among seafarers have more than tripled since 2014 and account for around 15% of deaths at sea.

However, she noted, it can be difficult to deal with psychological problems. 'Pre-employment medical examinations try to screen out a range of health conditions, but it is rare for crew to fail because of mental health issues,' she pointed out.

Shipping companies should develop fleet-wide crew wellbeing policies and programmes, Ms Bullard argued. These should ensure that seafarers get adequate periods of shore leave, onboard social life is encouraged, careful consideration is given to cultural factors in crewing, mentoring is supported, good internet access is provided, continuity of employment is offered, and adequate communal space and activities are provided onboard.

Seafarers should also be given the skills to recognise the signs of mental illness, she told the seminar.

These include frequent minor illnesses, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, feeling run-down, lack of care over appearance, sudden weight gain or loss, evidence of self-harm, voicing thoughts of low self-worth and confidence, irritability and aggression, loss of humour, increased errors, missing deadlines, forgetting tasks, becoming withdrawn and spending increased time alone in the cabin.

Things are not all negative, Ms Bullard stressed, and there is a growing range of support services in place – including ISWAN's 24/7 helpline and the Big White Wall initiative in the UK. 'The biggest thing we need to get rid of is the stigma,' she added. 'There should be no fear of recrimination for anyone with problems, and that is something we can all work on.'

Ship design is a major concern ‒ vessels need to be made more 'human friendly' to improve both safety and crew wellbeing.

Classification society expert Joanne Stokes told the conference that the shipping industry needs to do more to make vessels more 'human-centred' to improve life onboard and tackle some of the design issues which pose problems for crews.

Ms Stokes, who is head of human factors with Lloyd's Register, pointed out that people will always be 'somewhere in the loop' despite the moves towards autonomous shipping.

However, she stressed, there are big questions about the skills and knowledge that will be required in the future, and more attention should be paid to ergonomics. At present, she argued, seafarers are often overlooked during the ship design and build process, and shipping lags behind many other industries, which are much more regulated in this area. The limitations of humans need to be better assessed to avoid the potentially 'devastating consequences' of ignoring the way in which they interact with technology and systems onboard.

'If ships are not designed properly or people are stretched, it affects performance,' she pointed out. 'Humans are very adaptable and seafarers often make adjustments in response to poor design to perform their duties, but sometimes these adjustments can take you further from the safety envelope.'

Julie Carlton, head of seafarer health and safety at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), said the Agency is looking into research on human-centred design and is also working on new guidance covering a wide range of 'wellbeing' issues – giving best practice guidance for shipping companies and advice for seafarers.

'We don't want wellbeing to be considered as an optional extra – it should be built into what we do,' she added. 'A happy ship is a safe ship, and a mentally and physically well crew are likely to be alert, effective and productive.'

Dr Olivia Swift, from the University of London, outlined research showing how important decent connectivity is for seafarers – enabling regular contact with home, better interaction when returning home, and reducing stress by maintaining social bonds.

While there are grounds for cautious optimism over internet provision at sea, Dr Swift noted that many seafarers continue to suffer from restrictions or limitations on their access, and fragmented connections can actually increase stress.

Studies show that socially isolated people are 3.4 times more likely to suffer from depression, she pointed out, and social isolation at sea has a lot more to do with changes in vessel design and policies such as dry ships. Instead of blaming connectivity for a decline in social life onboard, there should be a focus on using digital technology for communal activities such as gaming, she argued.

'We need to recognise that connectivity is here to stay, and we need to develop the MLC regulatory framework for internet access standards and requirements, with growing pressure to make shipboard internet access mandatory,' Dr Swift concluded.


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