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New research shows worrying levels of psychiatric problems amongst seafarers. To find out what's behind this, ANDREW LININGTON heard from a conference aimed at helping the industry identify and tackle the issues…
Shipping companies can't afford to continue neglecting the wellbeing of their crews – with high rates of depression and suicide showing the need for the industry to take better care of seafarers.
That was the message from speaker after speaker at the March 2018 Wellness at Sea conference, staged by the Sailors' Society in London as part of the charity’s programme to improve maritime mental health care.
Opening the event, Sailors' Society CEO Stuart Rivers said operators must do more for their seafarers. 'The result of not looking after crew is costly and will hit your bottom line at some point,' he pointed out. 'You have a duty of care to the seafarers you employ. There is a need to spread this message far and wide to equip seafarers for the challenges they might face at sea.'
The conference was presented with the results of research, supported by Nautilus, which showed the scale of the problems encountered by seafarers. Professor Rafael Lefkowitz, from Yale University’s occupational medicine programme, said a survey of more than 1,000 seafarers – 17% of whom were UK nationals – revealed that more than one-quarter had screened positive for signs of depression, and Sailors’ Society deputy CEO Sandra Welch said the figures were 'a wake-up call to the industry'.
Some 26% of seafarers said they had felt 'down, depressed or hopeless' on several days over the previous two weeks, and more than 20% said they had such feelings every day. Nearly half of the seafarers who reported symptoms of depression said they had not asked anybody for help. Around one-third said they had turned to family and/or friends – but only 21% said they had spoken to a colleague, despite spending months on a ship with them.
Prof Lefkowitz said key factors underlying these statistics included the quality and amount of food, isolation from friends and families, contract lengths, long hours and problems with sleeping.Noise and vibration are both commonly identified as major issues, he added.
Neil Ellis, from the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, said there is lot of evidence to show that seafarers suffer from higher than average rates of mental illness, including anxiety and depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, bipolar disorder, deliberate self-harm and suicide.
The UK P&I Club produced figures last year suggesting that 15% of seafarer deaths were most likely the result of suicide, but Mr Ellis said the true figure could be even higher, as many of the crew members who went missing at sea may have decided to take their own lives.
SIRC studies had shown that the proportion of seafarers showing signs of psychiatric disorder had risen from 28% in 2011 to 37% in 2016, compared with 12% of the general population, he added. Lying behind such statistics are long hours and lack of shore leave, stress, bullying, concerns over criminalisation and worries about not getting contracts renewed.
Lack of good wi-fi at sea, together with cultural differences among multinational crews, can increase the sense of social isolation, Mr Ellis noted, while long tours of duty and fatigue problems can hinder the ability to get proper rest and recovery.
However, Mr Ellis argued, it is relatively easy and cheap for owners to address some of the factors behind such problems, by putting in place decent connectivity, tackling bullying and harassment, improving accommodation and reducing stress with stable longterm contracts. 'Investment in mental health makes good business sense, with better work performance, increased safety, improved crew retention, less repatriation and less unhealthy seafarer behaviour,' he pointed out.
Paddy Rogers, CEO of the Belgium-based tanker company Euronav, supported this argument. He said the accident rate in the Euronav fleet had worsened significantly during the downturn, with the impact of poor freight rates affecting seafarers. 'Why?' he asked. 'Our budgets didn't come down and we didn't spend less money, but I think the hearts and minds of everyone ashore were on the market, and that could be felt at sea.'
26% of seafarers said they had felt ‘down, depressed or hopeless’ on several days over the previous two weeks, and more than 20% said they had such feelings every day.
Following a high number of minor incidents and a couple of near-misses in 2013, Euronav decided to change course, with management visiting vessels more often and seeking to take heed of the concerns raised by crew. The company has since almost halved the average number of observations per vessel vetting.
'Ships became more efficient and the company does better,' Mr Rogers said. 'Business has to understand that their interests are directly aligned to the seafarers. Wellness at sea is not something that is a bolt-on, another thing to annoy the captain with, it is absolutely central to running a good business in a quality environment.'
Sailors' Society project manager Johan Smith said the charity’s Wellness at Sea programme has been developed to address these problems and to empower seafarers with the skills and knowledge to handle some of the inherent difficulties of life at sea.
Several thousand seafarers have been trained through the Wellness at Sea programme, and the Society also offers an app to give crews practical support with physical and mental fitness.
One study showed that almost 10% of crew changes are related to conflict onboard, he pointed out, and it was evident from incident reports that seafarers need to be helped to deal with cultural and inter-personal issues.
Communication skills are all the more important when separation from friends and family has been identified as the biggest stress factor for seafarers, he added, and two-thirds say that they have worked with someone struggling with depression.
'We are at a junction, and it is in our hands to make a change in the industry that is lasting and will have a profound impact on the lives of seafarers,' Mr Smith told the meeting.
Sophia Bullard, from the UK P&I Club, suggested that technology could be used to monitor and analyse the wellbeing of crew in the same way that it is used to check the condition of equipment onboard. She said it would be hard to screen seafarers for mental health problems before they go to sea, but companies should have policies in place to highlight the dangers and recognise the symptoms at an early stage.
Christina DeSimone, from Future Care, also highlighted the financial case for action – pointing out that the costs of diverting ships or evacuating crew with medical conditions can range between US$35,000 to $250,000.
Around 10% of medical incidents are related to mental health, she added, and there could be a case for giving seafarers access to confidential video conference calls with experts ashore. 'The macho culture needs to give way to the fact that life onboard can be improved dramatically,' she argued.
Drew Brandy, from Inmarsat, said the shipping industry has to come into the 21st century and change its mindset on the provision of internet at sea. 'Connectivity is not a luxury item onboard,' he pointed out. 'It is time to stop talking about crew welfare. That implies providing a basic level of subsistence – this is about enabling your crew to do their job properly. Empowering,enabling and engaging enables crew to be more effective in their jobs.'
Dr Rikke Jensen, from the University of London,reinforced this point with the results of a pilot study looking at the way in which connectivity affects the wellbeing,security and cohesion of crews.
'Connectivity has not damaged social cohesion – small crews, ship architecture and less time in ports have done that,' she noted. The ability to contact home is seen as the most important aspect of crew welfare, she said, but the project identified problems such as uneven and unreliable connectivity, limited data allowances and access restrictions.
Researchers also found that fragmented connectivity is causing pressure and stress, and that some seafarers are disrupting their sleep patterns by staying awake or setting the alarm for times when they can get a mobile signal.
But Captain Kuba Szymanski – from the international ship managers' association, InterManager – said the industry also needs to remember the positive aspects of the maritime profession. He pointed to research showing that increasing numbers of seafarers are happy with their work, believe they are well paid, and have no plans to move ashore any time soon. Don’t forget the good things, he stressed.
- to find out more, visit www.sailors-society.org/wellness