Drilling into human data at sea

Steven Jones, the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, writes exclusively for Splash today, stressing the importance of bridging the divide between how crew actually feel, and how we would like them to feel.

At some point in every relationship it becomes important to understand whether the people within it are actually happy with how things make them feel. This is true in friendships, marriages, business deals and even between employers and employees.

In shipping we have long been good at blithely carrying on regardless of the sentiments involved, and where it has been important to gauge reaction it is usually been the black and white of the bottom line which is seen as the answer.

That may be fine when it comes to charterers or investors, but when we begin to consider the human side of shipping, then a different approach has been needed – which is why the Seafarers Happiness Index exists.

The index explores that most fundamental question of whether crews are happy with their lot at sea, and asks questions about happiness, covering aspects ranging from connectivity, relationships onboard, food, exercise, shoreleave, workload, access to welfare, wages and their general sense of wellbeing.

Understanding seafarers is vital, but it all too often overlooked or neglected. While shipping finds it easy to embrace economists or technologists, it seems to find psychologists less palatable. Trying to understand Chinese steel consumption, or the amount of NOx emerging from a funnel is easy compared to trying to appreciate what seafarers are thinking and feeling.

Thankfully times are changing and driven by a host of worthy initiatives by a range of seafarer welfare charities, then finally we are building a robust industry wide system to begin managing the issue of happiness, wellbeing and mental health at sea. However, this will count for nowt if we don’t start by actually understanding how seafarers feel.

It is vital that we are able to drill down into the basic raw idea of how humans feel when they are living and working onboard ships. So, the Seafarers Happiness Index focuses on the realities facing seafarers. It is about caring, empathising and ultimately about providing the data and answers that can help shipping companies to understand and act. It also provides the foundation levels of knowledge to inform other welfare initiatives.

None of us exist in a vacuum, and it is vital that we can bridge the divide between how seafarers actually feel, and how we would like them to feel. Asking the questions, encouraging seafarers to open up and share, and then being able to translate the responses into a usable, pragmatic and compelling story – that is what the Seafarers Happiness Index exists to do.

We are giving a positive voice and platform for those at sea, and the quarterly reports translate into quality feedback and insight from the frontline. This is about facilitating performance management at sea. Making it easier for shipowners, operators and managers to understand the impact of every day decisions and what it is to be at sea today. Ultimately to paint not just a picture of what seafarers’ face, but of how they feel about it…and more importantly what are options and opportunities to change and improve on these issues.

Since this initiative first started there have been real revelations which have emerged. There has been the fact that seafarers often dread port calls, not just whether they will have access to shore leave.

Some seafarers have seemingly given up on the whole concept of time alongside as being positive. The sheer scale and scope of the visits, inspections, and demands upon them mean that time in port is one of incessant work, not of rest and recuperation. That is incredibly important to understand, and needs addressing.

Other key issues have emerged. It has been equally fascinating and depressing to read of the real-life impacts of budgetary decisions on the lives of crews. The seafarers who are going hungry or eating poor quality food as feeding rates have been slashed. The engineers wrestling with poor quality spares, or no spares at all – as companies look to shave a few dollars off here and cut corners there.

To read of the reports from the seafarers who take their time to write is to hear a voice from the sea. Seafarers are sharing, so we need to start caring, and that is by understanding what we can do to improve things at sea.

The most recent report featured responses about sexual harassment at sea. It is traumatic to hear of the peaks and troughs of emotion that being a female seafarer entails, but we must listen and to learn. Women at sea are speaking out, they are telling us of the pride and happiness they feel as seafarers, but also of the crushing, soul destroying effects when they are made to feel vulnerable, abused or taunted because of gender.

As the survey returns from seafarers are stacking up for the upcoming quarter, there are already some fascinating insights into the effect of the living environments onboard. One quote which came in recently saw one seafarer feel like he was “living inside a hospital” for months on end. Bright, buzzing incandescent lighting, light blocked by stacks of containers, and shared spaces which are all hard edges and wipe clean surfaces are not necessarily conducive to long term living.

Insights such as these into the everyday lives of seafarers, show us how people at sea feel. The responses are invaluable and allow us to see the change that is needed and wanted at sea. Now we just need industry to appreciate and empathise, and to find the necessary fixes.

Each quarter the Seafarers Happiness Index releases its latest reports, and so this is an ongoing initiative. We encourage seafarers to complete the very short survey each trip or each few months – so we can build the big picture. While we need shipowners to read, reflect and find the means to respond. This is the chance to hear of the changes that people want to make them happier. That is an incredible opportunity to have. We also need more and more seafarers to help us to make the data more complete and to keep telling us their views.

The data is building, seafarers are finding their voices and increasingly the industry seems to be waking to the importance of this issue. So, take a look at the latest report, and while shipping loves data we would urge you to come for the numbers, but stay for the stories.

Find out more by clicking here.


  1. While the pilot in command has ultimate responsibility for safety in flight, no aircraft pilot or flight crew ( except for frontier work) would dream of having to cope with masses of paperwork and regulatory compliance which are expected of ships’ crew. Most airlines manage to turn a profit while still hiring the ground operational staff so aircraft crew are free to navigate. Some years will elapse (if ever) before ship operation is fully automated. In the meantime, bring back the on board purser and give him or her the delegated legal authority to deal with qurantine, port state control, charterers’ vetting, etc., etc, etc.

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