How to improve the mental health of seafarers

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How to improve the mental health of seafarers
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How to improve the mental health of seafarers

Seafarers working in today’s cargo industry are being physically and mentally challenged. Many seafarers make significant sacrifices to gain the qualifications and experience, in order to work at sea, and many enjoy their work on board, but they find themselves significantly less happy on board than when they are at home.

Seafarers | 03/01/20

Why are seafarers unhappy?

According to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), many times seafarers feel sad due to: isolation; loneliness; lack of shore leave; fear of criminalisation; fear of job loss; and separation from family.

In its research seafarers pointed to ship-specific factors like too much work, the inability to take shore leave and poor food as depressing. What is more, crew-related factors such as a bossy captain, discrimination, blame, poor relationships with superiors, fatigue and boredom, also play a crucial role.

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However, seafarers identified free unlimited internet access as crucial to their happiness, recognising also the benefits of social and recreational activities in addressing feelings of sadness and depression on board.

In fact, there is evidence that from 2011 to 2016 there was a surge in recent-onset anxiety and depression amongst serving seafarers. The facts also indicate that in some roles and departments seafarers may be especially prone to emotional exhaustion and burn-out.

According to Professor Sampson, Director of Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre, based in the School of Social Sciences, it is very easy for seafarers working out on the deep ocean to be invisible to those ashore. Their remoteness allows for abuse to go undetected. He explained that sometimes seafarers are subjected to bullying and harassment by superiors and colleagues on board. However many employers also mistreat seafarers by not providing decent and humane living conditions which promote good mental well-being.

From his perspective, Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH, highlighted that:

Organisations employing remote workers need to shift their approach to follow similar standards that are being implemented in other industries. Poor leadership and culture in the organisation, excessive pressure, bullying and harassment are factors that have the potential to negatively impact on workers’ mental health and wellbeing. It is crucial that these are seriously considered and given a proportionate approach

Nevertheless, despite these problems, there are solutions that seafarers can use to their advantage. More specifically, research by the Seafarers International Research Centre part of Cardiff University suggests seafarers can benefit from having on board access to the following:

Methods of strengthening relationships

  • Internet and satellite TV;
  • Video games;
  • Access to email;
  • Digital health (e.g mobile apps).

Activities promoting social interaction on board

  • Sports activities (basketball, squash, swimming, table tennis);
  • Leisure activities (darts, barbecues, karaoke, card and board games);
  • Social interaction with crew members;
  • Gym equipment.

Improvements in mental wellbeing

  • Varied, good quality food;
  • Comfortable facilities (e.g mattressess, furniture) to facilitate rest and sleep;
  • Strategies to increase mental resilience of workers.

Employment arrangements

  • Anti-bullying/harassment policies;
  • Policies on continuing to or returning to work after common mental disorders;
  • Shore leave for all ranks;
  • Employment contracts balancing work and leave;
  • Practices that restrict tour length to a maximum of six months.

Training and awareness

  • Self-help guidance on improving mental resilience;
  • Wellbeing training;
  • Training to create positive working environments;
  • Managers should be trained to discuss mental health and wellbeing with workers.

Organisational support

  • Advice on identifying work-related risk factors for health (including mental health);
  • Confidential counselling services;
  • Environments that promote respectful interactions with workers;
  • Comprehensive health insurances and services.

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