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Health and safety

Work related stress spikes for seafarers during pandemic

21 October 2020

New research finds that seafarers are bearing the brunt of work-related stress during the pandemic with a rise in insomnia and depression. Andrew Linington reports

The Covid-19 crisis has created excessive levels of work-related stress among seafarers that require urgent remedial action to be taken by owners and managers, a new study has warned.

Research undertaken by medical experts in Italy, Spain and Denmark has revealed that 60% of seafarers believe that their health has not been properly protected at work in the pandemic and more than half feel unsafe doing their job.

The study, published in the latest edition of the International Maritime Health journal, claims to be one of the first scientific assessments of the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of seafarers.

While the Covid threat 'mainly affects the population on land, seafarers are expected to feel very safe in ships', the report notes. However, the preliminary results of the study indicate that seafarers have a 'considerable sense of concern' for their health.

Researchers found that 30% of seafarers were suffering insomnia to the point of being concerned and more than one-quarter were unhappy and depressed. Around three-quarters of seafarers said the pandemic had affected the way in which they perceived their health and wellbeing.

The results show the need for companies to alleviate the risks posed by increased levels of work-related stress caused by the Covid crisis. Employers should use a combination of person-focused and organisation-focused prevention to tackle the problems.

Work-related stress among seafarers is well known, and the researchers established the study to investigate how the pandemic is affecting the physical and mental wellbeing of seafarers, to analyse the ways in which additional stress is serving as a risk factor, and to gauge the effectiveness of the measures being taken to support ships' crews during the crisis.

Early reaction

The findings are based on feedback from seafarers serving on containerships visiting the Italian port of Trieste over a four-month period during the early stages of the pandemic. Just over half the seafarers were from Asian countries, 28% from Russia and eastern Europe, and 17% from European countries.

Overall, the feedback suggested more than half the seafarers had no significant wellbeing problems, but almost 40% were 'starting problems' and 1.3% had serious problems.

The survey showed that 47% of the seafarers were less happy than usual and 40% had been less able than usual to carve out free time for themselves. Almost one-third were less able to resolve problems than normal, and 25% less able than usual to concentrate on what they were doing.

Engineering personnel and seafarers from Russia and Asia had the highest levels of problems.

The researchers also sought to investigate the level of satisfaction among seafarers regarding the Covid-related measures implemented in ships and ports, as well as their subjective perceptions of risk and safety.

Almost two-thirds of the ratings and 55% of the officers did not consider that everything had been done to ensure their health at work during the pandemic. A further 54% of ratings and 52% of the officers did not feel safe doing their job during the epidemic.

54% of ratings and 52% of the officers did not feel safe doing their job in relation to the epidemic

Careful evaluation

The importance of careful evaluation of work-related stress is demonstrated by other studies of psychological problems, depression and suicide risk, the report warns. However, the difficulty of detecting and measuring psychological problems that can be exacerbated by work-related stress – particularly among those working at sea.

For comparison, the report points to another study of 350 seafarers in international shipping which showed that higher levels of resilience, longer seafaring experience and greater work support were significantly associated with lower levels of self-reported stress, but caution that more research is needed to objectively measure stress levels.

A combination of the significant number of seafarers showing signs of 'starting problems' and the fact that more than half did not feel happy with the precautions adopted by the shipping company in response to Covid 'indicates an urgent need to establish a care-taking programme for the seafarers on the personal level and the organisational level in the companies'.

A preventive programme would be as effective for those seafarers showing higher levels of personal resilience to stress factors during the pandemic as those showing signs of stress.

A combination of person-focused and organisation-focused approaches appear to be the most promising way of helping seafarers. 'On the personal level, guidelines of prevention for the crew onboard and the crew exchange, with test of infection before embarkation of new crew is recommended,' the report states.

Seafarers should be given 'extensive communication' during the pandemic, including the possibility to disembark their ships, flights home, and their economic situation.

Seafarers should have unlimited internet access to keep in touch with home and to get tele-medical advice. They should also have a chance of being tested onboard before disembarking their ship.

'In some cases, individual crisis consultations with the company psychologist and occupational doctor may be useful, but for the population at large there is no good evidence that programmes with individual consultations have any effect on the longer perspective.'

While the primary aim of the study was to evaluate the wellbeing of seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic, it could also form the basis for permanent monitoring of seafarers' health and wellbeing in an international perspective. Such research could serve as the scientific evidence base to assess the effects on seafarers flowing from the implementation of the Maritime Labour Convention.


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