Happiness index reveals seafarers ‘overworked’ and ‘underappreciated’

Crew members of the US merchant ship Maersk Alabama. Credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Crew happiness is on the decline, with respondents to the latest Seafarer Happiness Index (SHI) stating that they feel isolated, overworked, and underappreciated.

Conducted by the Mission to Seafarers across websites and social media, the quarterly index uses responses to 10 standard questions to assess how seafarers feel about the current conditions of their work. About 2,000 seafarers responded in the first quarter of 2019.

The report noted that general happiness has decreased from 6.72 to 6.03 in 2018, with seafarers citing a lack of government support for the industry and other workplace factors such as isolation, high workloads, and a lack of appreciation for their efforts. A major factor in the overall drop in happiness stems from crew workload, with workload happiness down from 6.51 to 5.99. Crew continued to call attention to the 6-on-6-off watch system as unworkable and a violation of mandated hours of rest if properly logged. Others expressed frustration with paper maps still being used on board, as well as the stress of excessive checklists and paperwork, especially in cases of regular trade or spot cargo.

Isolation was highlighted as a key issue affecting crew’s well-being, with crew happiness regarding onboard interactions falling from 7.08 to 6.95 as crew felt isolated and found morale lowered by a lack of social activities and events on board.

Crew had vastly different happiness scores based on what vessel type they work on. Happiness was high on ro-ro ferries (6.93), offshore (6.47), and on bulk carriers (6.45), versus work on tankers (5.97) and container ships (5.59). Notably, cruise ships had a startlingly low happiness index of 4.2.

Meanwhile, satisfaction with food decreased from 6.73 to 6.47 with good provisions, consideration for different cultures, imagination, and a diversity of choices acting as major factors. Cooks who offered healthy and well-cooked meals for multinational crews were lauded while those who relied excessively on deep frying and sugary options were noted as affecting crew health and morale. Crew happiness with keeping fit on board reduced from 6.64 to 6.29, with crew noting a lack of time for exercise due to their workload, a lack of equipment and limited space, and older officers expressing displeasure at gym usage.

Wage happiness declined from 6.6 to 6.3 with crew responses ranging from an acknowledgement that the pay was not adequate to the task but that they were being paid more than they would receive in their home nations, to numerous crew members noting a repeated non-payment of wages and worrying whether they would be paid at all.

Shipboard connectivity remains a major issue, with happiness regarding contact from family members falling from 7.12 to 6.79. As with previous results, crew that work on vessels with good and effective connectivity provisions showed higher overall crew happiness. Where connectivity was felt to be poor or cost-effective, crew blamed the company for not prioritising their needs.

Crew happiness regarding availability for shore leave also fell from 6.54 to 6.16 as employers, a growing workload, and time constraints demanded additional work, while isolated port infrastructure and rapid turnarounds further decreased the time allotted. A respondent noted that shore leave was banned on his tanker during normal working hours, which goes against the MLC 2006. Others noted extended gaps of 4–6 months between shore leaves. This also led to jealousy among the crew if others got their shore leave while their own was rejected. The report highlighted a markedly higher happiness index in those who went ashore, suggesting that it remains a vital component to seafarer well-being. Given the lack of access to shore leave, the index markers for happiness with facilities onshore also went down from 6.36 to 5.53. While those that were allowed shore leave were largely positive about shoreside centres, they noted that those who finished their shifts at night (such as watchkeepers) had nowhere to go once they were off duty.

Training was the only data set to show marginal upward movement from 6.62 to 6.63; crew were optimistic about career development opportunities and attention from senior staff, although others were concerned regarding payment and basic training at institutes being subpar to the realities of life on board.

Majority of the respondents were male (93%, as compared with 5% female respondents and 2% unconfirmed), with gender unconfirmed respondents showing the highest level of happiness (7.2, followed by males at 6.6 and females at 5.08).