Workplace bullying is widespread problem for crew

Seafarer charity ISWAN believes that harassment is under reported in shipping. Credit: Getty Images
COVID-19 has impacted crew happiness levels. Credit: Getty Images

A study of more than 1,000 seafarers released earlier this year by Yale University in the United States and international maritime charity Sailors’ Society found that more than one-quarter of seafarers had suffered from depression over a two-week period. In comparison, while numbers vary, it is believed that on average about 4% of the global population suffer from depression.

High levels of depression experienced by personnel at sea is often explained by the stresses and strains of the role. Working long, hard hours, dealing with dangerous weather or piracy, poor diet, and spending months at a time away from family and friends would put a strain on the most resilient of individuals.

However, explaining it as a response to the everyday difficulties of the job can overlook deeper, systemic problems in the industry causing crew unhappiness. If crew depression, anxiety, and suicide are the visible tip of the iceberg alerting us to a problem, it is the deeper issues lurking beneath the surface such as bullying, isolation, and the need for an open culture that need to be dealt with.

Bullying at sea is little spoken about, but, according to crew and the charities hearing from them, it is more prevalent than the industry would care to admit. In 2017, seafarer charity ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp team dealt with 128 cases of abuse, bullying, harassment, and discrimination, involving a total of 420 seafarers. From 1 January to 31 July this year it has had 80 such cases, involving 283 seafarers.

Yasmine Zhao, ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp deputy team manager, told IHS Markit sister title Safety at Sea (SAS) that the charity believes this issue is underreported. “We only deal with crew who have managed to get enough courage to contact us,” he said. Zhao stressed that raising awareness of the problem among crew and the wider maritime industry would encourage more people to seek help and companies to act.

Reasons for crew being bullied are varied, Zhao said, with those contacting the SeafarerHelp team giving reasons as varied as their nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, age, or religion. “We had one case where an Indian seafarer who is Sikh was told to shave his beard despite it being against his religion. Others have reported being bullied by fellow crew for being homosexual. This is nothing new to us,” he said.

For those dealing with persistent bullying, ISWAN has found the effects include demoralisation, resentment, lack of crew cohesion, anxiety, stress, isolation, reduced performance at work, damaged self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, desire for early repatriation, and some seafarers leaving the industry altogether.

Many of these effects ring true for Dan Thompson, who left his role as a navigation officer after experiencing bullying and depression. Thompson, now a training pilot at the Port of London Authority, spoke about his experience at the Sailors’ Society Wellness at Sea conference in March 2018. He said, “I strongly believe bullying is an important factor in depression on board our vessels. It is not spoken about but bullying and harassment is such a large part of seafarers getting depressed. Sadly, what I’ve seen comes from senior ranks,” he said.

He added that for junior crew members, even if it is “mild” harassment or bullying, the fact that it is done repeatedly over weeks or months on a vessel with little room for escape “slowly chips away at your mental sanity”.

Working as a navigation officer for a well-known cruise company, Thompson’s depression began when he joined a new vessel and the lack of familiarity and instant job pressure took a toll. “I had the general signs of depression, isolation, loneliness, was very tired, and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Working on board a vessel with sometimes up to 5,000 people, I felt very lonely,” he said.

Thompson stressed that the illness “massively” affected his work, losing interest and not maintaining standards. This was of particular concern considering that Thompson was tasked with ensuring the safe navigation of a cruise ship. “In our industry, the safety aspect of our operation, particularly as a senior navigator and watchkeeper, has massive safety implications. I got to point where I didn’t care what happened,” he said.

For Thompson it was not just bullying, but also the isolation that came from working on a new vessel and sleep deprivation due to the company not ensuring crew were getting the required rest, that drove his anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until family members intervened that it “clicked” and he began to realise he was suffering from depression and sought help. “Sadly, [some] people don’t get to that stage: they have depression and get stuck. I experienced this firsthand. A colleague of mine took his own life as a result of depression on board a ship,” he said.

Unfortunately, crew suicide is not unusual. For the policy year to date, UK P&I Club told SAS it had seen a total of 12 mental health-related cases in its pre-employment medical exams, which consist of 9 mental illness-related cases (such as depression or anxiety), 2 suicides, and 1 attempted suicide.

Knowing a fellow colleague who committed suicide impelled Thompson to act. “It took me about six months to recover through medication and counselling. It is important to realise on a personal level [that] seafarers are human beings, not robots able to operate 24 hours a day. We need consideration,” he said.

Frustratingly, Zhao said crew were often not aware their company even has a policy or process for dealing with bullying, and for those who do use it, sometimes incidents are not taken seriously or ignored altogether.

Others, having gone through the appropriate channels, fear they will lose their job. This fear is not unfounded. Zhao reported calls from Filipino or Indian crew who had raised concerns, been labelled as troublemakers, and “very quickly” had their contracts terminated or were blacklisted by the shipping company.

Power dynamics

The rigid power structures on board, while in place to keep order, can end up becoming corrupted. ISWAN receives far more calls from lower-ranked crew who are being bullied by senior ranks than the other way around.

“Often the bully on board is not a first-time offender but has a name for bullying other seafarers, so people spread the word and try to avoid a certain captain,” Zhao said. While word might spread among crew and damage the company’s reputation, without clear reporting systems, the company itself can be left in the dark. Alternatively, the company may be aware of the problem, but if the bully is a high-ranking member of crew, it can be seen as “too expensive” to fire them and much easier and cheaper to repatriate the complaining crew member “and sweep the issue under the carpet”, Zhao said.

Both Thompson and Zhao stressed that some companies were taking steps to protect crew against bullying, although both also stressed it was still the exception rather than the rule. Zhao referenced shipping companies that had a designated person ashore (DPA) either in the HR office or the crew department who had been trained on the topic and had the knowledge to deal with such problems if crew came to them for support.

Having a company policy on bullying and harassment and a clear complaints procedure is a good place to start, but can all too easily be a tick-box exercise. Training new and existing crew on company policy, what constitutes harassment and bullying, as well as who to report to and how to get in touch with them raises Speaking to SAS, Captain Valentin Mavrinac, deputy DPA forquality, safety, health, and environment at Columbia Shipmanagment, said this was exactly the approach the company takes, educating crew before embarkation about the complaints procedure as well as giving each of them a written copy. The company has an anti-harassment policy of zero tolerance to any type of harassment in the workplace.

Crew are told they have a right to take their concerns to the master or DPA if necessary, said Mavrinac, and a culture of open dialogue is fostered to ensure crew feel able to come forward with concerns. However, for crew who still do not feel comfortable coming forward, the company has an ‘open reporting’ option. “Every employee can utilise the open reporting by using telephone, SMS, or email, with the option to either report directly to the company or to an independent third party, always retaining the option of full anonymity. In addition, a toll-free telephone number is provided for the crew to enable cost-free reporting.

Creating an open culture can be a challenge. Meanwhile, Zhao said that, all too often, crew members who did decide to go through official complains procedure saw little evidence that action was taken to resolve the problem.

Mavrinac said Columbia Shipmanagement met the challenge by showing crew top management support for an open culture and taking bullying seriously. The message is reinforced through videos, its in-house magazine, frequent senior officers’ conferences, and scheduled crew visits to the office, as well as visits on board from top managers. “However, the best example of nurturing a culture of open dialogue is seen through time and the absence of retaliatory actions against those who voice their concern or report harassment or abuse,” he said.

Sadly, ISWAN has yet to see the number of cases of bullying and harassment fall. Reports remain quite steady. Last year, nearly 4% of the cases it received were of bullying or harassment and this year so far it has stayed at about 3.5–4%.

If we are to tackle the high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide experienced by crew, it is important to tackle the root causes and remember the words of Thompson: “Seafarers are human beings, not robots. We need consideration.”