Prioritise crew wellness

Invest in crew training to tackle seafarer depression and isolation

Stuart Rivers, CEO, Sailors’ Society. Credit: Sailors’ Society

The year 2018 was a special year for Sailors’ Society, as we celebrated 200 years of supporting seafarers and their families. Needless to say, everyday working conditions and provision of welfare for those at sea have transformed beyond recognition since our early days.

Nevertheless, two centuries later, many of the issues faced by the seafarers our charity supported in its fledgling years are still the same. Our chaplains, now working in 30 countries around the world, are still there for those facing financial difficulties, isolation, dangerous working conditions, and separation from loved ones.

Industry awareness, support, and understanding of the importance of crew welfare and wellness has increased dramatically, indicated not least by support of Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea programme and conferences. Yet, investigations into disasters at sea still indicate that anxiety, depression, and fatigue are a sad reality for many seafarers and could take a terrible toll on the decision-making abilities of the crew.

Our recent health study of more than 1,000 seafarers, conducted in partnership with the Yale University, indicated that more than a quarter of seafarers show signs of depression. Nearly half of the seafarers who reported symptoms of depression said they had not asked anybody for help, and only 21% had spoken to a colleague despite spending months on a ship together. Participants said the quality and amount of food on board could have a big impact on their mental health, alongside isolation from their families and length of their contracts.

Similarly, we worked with Inmarsat and researchers from Royal Holloway, the University of London, to examine the effect on seafarers with limited or non-existent digital access.

The ‘Navigating Everyday Connectivities at Sea’ study revealed that a lack of connectivity significantly impacted on mental wellbeing, social cohesion on board, domestic relationships, as well as operational efficiency and safety, while highlighting its critical role in attracting new talent to the industry. It is clear that many seafarers remain under-prepared for some of the harsh realities that life at sea brings. Even everyday worries can be compounded by the distance from their loved ones.

Thus, we are looking to shipowners and the industry at large to prioritise crew wellness and invest in training – such as our own ‘Wellness at Sea’ coaching programme and e-learning site – to help our seafarers enjoy bright careers at sea. We want our seafarers to be empowered with the tools they need to be able to recognise and pre-empt signs of mental ill health, for themselves and their crew.

A healthy crew makes for a healthy ship, and, ultimately, a healthy balance sheet.

With the whole industry support, we firmly believe that we can bring further positive changes for those our 200-year-old charity continues to serve – the seafarers on whom we all depend.