Article: Reinforcing the importance of Seafarer Wellbeing

News & Insights 22 December 2020


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Seafarer wellbeing has been a focal topic for the Standard Club's Loss Prevention team in recent years, the COVID-19 world pandemic only serves to reinforce the importance of the work that we do in this aspect.

Seafarer wellbeing has been a focal topic for the Standard Club's Loss Prevention team in recent years, the COVID-19 world pandemic only serves to reinforce the importance of the work that we do in this aspect.

When the Standard Club’s ‘people claims’ statistics indicated a clear upward trend of mental health related illnesses, it prompted the team to take a deep dive into researching the causes and what we can do to assist our members. Collaborating with experts and our members, we released our findings in 2018 in a special edition of Standard Safety ‘Seafarer Wellbeing’, available on the right. We concluded that seafarer wellbeing is a holistic concept that is a combination of physical, mental and social wellbeing. Many of us forget how these aspects are closely intertwined, for example if you do not feel good in your body, you are likely not going to be happy either.

Pushing on with the intentions of doing more for seafarers, 2019 saw the release of the Standard Club’s Seafarer Wellbeing Poster Campaign. We wanted simple, yet eye catching illustrations within close quarters of seafarers to remind them of the little things that they can do to better care for themselves. Eventually, four poster sets on topics considered to have the biggest impact on seafarer wellbeing – healthy eating, fitness, mental wellbeing, and socialisation – were created. With the purpose of gracing the walls of members’ ships, the posters build on specific tips and prompts, including QR codes for seafarers to read up on more guidance if they are interested.

We are heartened that our efforts have been acknowledged by Safety4Sea as the poster campaign received the Initiative Award 2020. This has proven to be a difficult year for all, and the Standard Club is glad to see many other international organisations embarking on campaigns - #ISupplyTheWorld #SeafarersDeliveringChristmas – to raise awareness on the important work that seafarers do.

With these articles, we wanted to highlight the work of some of these organisations. Ian Stokes, Head of Corporate Engagement and Partnerships at Stella Maris, describes in his article the great work done by the charity during these difficult times. It is heartwarming to see how small gestures can make seafarers happy again. In the second article, Nigel Griffiths, the club’s enhanced Pre-Employment Medical Examination (PEME) provider ‘Marine Advisory Medical Services’ provides his views on seafarer wellbeing during COVID-19.

As the international shipping community continues to put their weight behind issues that matter to support our seafarers and foster a safer shipping industry, it is important to highlight that ultimately, your health is in your hands. Seafarers should remain steadfast and committed to maintaining positive health and wellbeing. Always remember professional help is only a phone call away.

A big thank you to all our seafarers out there who continue their job under these tough conditions. Wishing a joyous festive season to all and let’s wish for a better 2021.

The Small Things Matter

By Ian Stokes – Head of Corporate Engagement and Partnerships at Stella Maris

Stella Maris is the largest ship-visiting charity in the world. It is a truly global network, with over 1,000 chaplains and volunteers in 328 ports across 56 countries providing practical assistance, welfare services, care and friendship. It helps seafarers and their families deal with issues ranging from assault and bullying to abandonment, piracy and bereavement.

In a normal year, this remarkable team makes 70,000 ship visits to vessels of all flags and nationalities, looking after the wellbeing and welfare of all seafarers irrespective of race, creed or faith. The pattern and regularity of ship visits plays an increasingly crucial role in improving the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers in a number of ways.

Simply knowing that they are appreciated and that someone is thinking about and caring for them is priceless, especially now in a Covid world where hundreds of thousands of seafarers cannot be repatriated and are on extended contracts with no end in sight. The ability to talk to and confide in an independent, trusted friend has taken on more and more significance.

The importance of the countless acts of individual kindness cannot be overstated – simple gifts to seafarers such as chocolate, warm clothing and toiletries are hugely appreciated. More substantial assistance goes further - helping seafarers communicate with home through the provision of top-up cards or MiFi units, taking them into ports for shopping and amenities, providing reading material or faith resources. The incremental impact of regular interventions on mental health is beyond measure.

With increasing frequency during the pandemic, Stella Maris is dealing with a range of more serious issues. Tragically it has had to support more bereaved crews and families than ever before. During the summer, two separate crews were deeply affected by the sudden death of a colleague. As their vessels had to depart the UK, Stella Maris ensured that chaplains in their next ports of call in the USA and in Germany were there ready to support the crews when they docked. It also contacted the family of one of the deceased seafarers in the Philippines to provide much-needed information and support. In the three months from March 2020, Stella Maris supported more crews where a suicide had occurred than in all of 2019, highlighting the true cost of the stress this pandemic is causing seafarers. 

Whether a Stella Maris intervention is considered to be big or small, the positive impact it can have on seafarers’ mental health is enormous. In the best of times, seafaring is dangerous, mentally and physically demanding and lonely. In 2020 seafarers have undoubtedly seen the worst of times, with extended periods of separation from families, lack of shore leave and worries over health serving to magnify the pressures of the job.  In such a stressful context, small things matter. The pressure valve of having a trusted friend in a foreign port can literally be a lifesaver.

Well-being in the age of Covid-19

By Nigel Griffiths – The Marine Advisory Medical Service

Unprecedented times and unprecedented circumstances, but what can we do to better protect seafarers from the extreme challenges they face? The COVID era has brought about job losses and uncertainty as well as an increase in psychological stress aboard ship. Seafarers who spend many months away from home working in challenging conditions, may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than the wider population, and even more so presently.

Welfare organisations have initiated studies on the ‘happiness factor’ in seafaring, but this is not to be confused with the concept of well-being. Well-being is defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy. However, it is important to realise that well-being is a much broader concept than moment to moment happiness. it also includes other things, such as how satisfied seafarers are with their lot as a whole, their sense of purpose and how ‘in control’ they feel in this respect. A life at sea is a life which is full of potential stress factors. By definition the ship is an institution - a place where seafarers work, rest and have recreation under the same roof in the company of those that they have not chosen to be with. With this in mind, well-being takes on an even more complicated dimension. In ‘normal’ times, seafarers go to sea with an ‘end date’ in sight. Now with the ‘new norm’ that ‘end date’ has become protracted enormously, for the following reasons:

  • Difficulty in changing crew
  • Lockdown in various countries so that crew cannot join ship
  • Additional restrictions by public health authorities in various countries
  • Significant drop in the number of commercial flights
  • Operational dilemmas in respect of safe manning where cases of   COVID have occurred onboard.

The diminishing clarity and elasticity of the ‘end date’ may well give rise to depression, anxiety, aggression and frustration.

In respect of sovereignty the World Health Organisation has allowed member nations full authority to set their own regulations, as they feel necessary. This of course has given license to some nations to overreact and some to underreact. On the 24 September 2020, the UN Secretary General recommended to all UN members to designate seafarers ‘key workers’.

Employment uncertainty adds to the dilemmas faced by crew members. None more so than perhaps the cruise industry that have been overly optimistic of a swift return to sailing.

We have defined well-being essentially as what makes someone’s life grow better. However, the consideration must contain the constraints of rationality and prudence. There is no single notion of well-being. Any action by a ship owner must be for the greater good of all the crew and not for the good of any particular crewmember. Freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, the real opportunities to do and to be what they have reason to value.

In pursuit of primary goods

According to the American political philosopher John Rawls, primary goods are those that individuals prefer to have ‘more’ rather than ‘less’ of, and include rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth. This is something the ship owner should strive to facilitate. With this in mind of course, the deckhand would very much like to be paid the salary of a master, but it is here that we apply the construct of rationality and prudence.

If a seafarer’s well-being is not optimised, he may well find difficulty in concentrating and in doing his job. He may feel anxiety and apprehension and this in turn will affect his concentration. One needs to look no further for examples of need for accuracy in seafaring than the Titanic, the Costa Concordia, or the Ramona.

The report of the Danish Maritime Accident Investigation Board on the Ramona makes for interesting reading and should feature as reading material for any nautical cadet. It demonstrates well the need for accuracy and fine-tuning in all operations aboard ship.

The social setting on the vessel is something which needs addressing. Seafarers who spend many months away from home working in challenging conditions, may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than the wider population. Their need to be able to communicate with their families is essential, but widespread and unlimited Wi-Fi connectivity aboard a vessel tends to lead the seafarer to social isolation in his cabin. Further, it exposes him to the woes from home. He retreats to his cabin and engages with his electronic devices to communicate and play. He gets insufficient rest and is subject to subsequent fatigue. Gone are the days when seafarers could meet in the ship’s bar and engage socially over a pint of beer. Those days are long over and with it the genial spirit of integration lost. Many ponder the wisdom of dry ships. Multicultural crews who are living in close quarters with colleagues with whom they may have nothing in common, can leave seafarers feeling isolated.

If well-being is not a key feature for seafarers, depression, self-harm and even the potential for suicide may arise whilst at sea. All seafarers must be alert and aware to perceive any suggestion of mental illness or suicidal tendencies expressed by fellow crew. Suicide is distressing to all crew aboard and the families and loved ones of those involved. One should always be ready to listen when seafarers speak out with intention of self-harm or suicide. Never close the door and always be ready to listen. Awareness of mental health will also help to greatly reduce stigma. If mental health is no longer considered a taboo, seafarers will be more comfortable seeking help and talking about their problems with their supervisor or a colleague. Stigma and myth must be dislodged.

There should be a focus on the on-board environment to make sure it is conducive to good mental health. Well-being is a very important component in life at sea and it should be maximised and enjoyed as much as possible by the crew who serve on our vessels.

Category: Loss Prevention

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