Five stages of crew relief grief

Steven Jones, founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, on how those stuck at sea are reacting to the coronavirus.

Every quarter the Seafarers Happiness Index plots the satisfaction of crews working globally, across all vessel types. We are just about due to start crunching the next set of numbers, seeing what seafarers are thinking and gauging what the big issues affecting them are. Splash asked us to take an early peek, just to get a sense of how seafarers are feeling at this most difficult of times, and at the moment it seems to be rather mixed.

As is perhaps predictable, even a glance through the responses shows the slow dawning realisation that things are changing for the worst and changing fast. Starting with the data from January leading through this latest quarter, one can almost sense a growing feeling of confusion, and of responses changing as the landscape has shifted around them.

There are perhaps no set of workers more exposed to a pandemic than seafarers. Whether from their actual health, through to the terrible unfolding truth that nations are very quick to shut the door on the people, even if they still want the cargo, goods and fuel.

Crew changes are being delayed for long periods, there are moves to quarantine crews and a massive sense of real uncertainty, worry and even fear. Reading through the past couple of months of returns from seafarers, it is akin to hearing someone dealing with the stages of grief.

As you may know, there are supposedly five stages of grief, first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Perhaps surprisingly these do seem to be mirrored in the shock that seafarers are experiencing. The theory about the five stages of grief and loss states that initially there is denial and isolation; this then becomes anger; before bargaining; then depression; before finally there is acceptance.

To be at sea in times of crisis is perhaps one of the most difficult for seafarers to cope with, and the written responses in early January definitely capture a sense of “surely not”, and that there is no way things can be as serious as they were beginning to look.

Slowly though, as February arrived it was increasingly obvious that something very real was gripping the world and shipping was very much in the crosshairs. Seafarers suddenly began to speak of their growing sense of isolation, and of concerns about families at home, while also having even more trouble accessing shore leave, or of even getting to access places such as seafarers’ centres.

Responses toward late February, seemed to turn to anger. There was frustration about company responses, about certain flag States letting their vessels down, and of annoyance about draconian immigration rules which were starting to appear.

Then, as things began to turn very much worse around the start of March – that is when we began to receive a different tone from the respondents. The seafarer returns began to paint a picture of resignation to the problems, but of just being concerned and wanting to get home…however that could be made possible.

In reading the most recent responses, it seems there are different seafarers caught in the different levels of ‘grief’ about their whether they will get a relief. There are certainly more who are talking in quite depressed tones, that they are losing hope and there is real concern about what the next few months might hold.

For others, there is indeed a sense of (albeit reluctant) acceptance. With companies increasingly stating that crew changes are suspended, then at least that provides some certainty, if no succour. Though of course, not much solace to the poor seafarers stuck onboard, one can debate whether terrible certainty is easier to deal with than doubtful hope.

So, times are bad, the mood is dark, but seafarers are working through their feelings. Various kinds of vessels are experiencing things rather differently, so there isn’t any one size kind of response currently. However, there is also an overwhelming sense of pride that seafarers and shipping can make a difference.

Crews are reading of supermarket shelves being empty, of panic buying and the like, and are proud that seafarers around the world are doing everything they can to help keep the shelves full and society supplied the important items needed. Let’s hope their sacrifices and dedication are remembered in better times.

You can find out more about the Seafarers Happiness Index at


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.
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