The pursuit of seafarer happiness

Happiness has become quite a topic of conversation lately – there has been the International Day of Happiness, and the United Nations recently released its global happiness report. For all the focus on happiness, the view has always been of those ashore. At last we are building a picture of what it means to be happy at sea, as the Mission to Seafarers has relaunched the Seafarers Happiness Index. Steven Jones reports.

The importance of knowing how crews feel about the things which affect them at sea has huge significance, and the Seafarers Happiness Index is a means of reaching out, engaging with crews and asking that most fundamental of questions, “how happy are you?”

The questions in the Happiness Index cover the aspects that affect seafarers most, and ask how happy they feel generally, how happy about the contact they have with home, about their food and diet, about shoreleave, wages, training and workload.

The levels are then marked out of ten. The latest index showed a seafarer happiness result of 6.25 in 2017, a figure averaged across the key areas of seafarers’ work lives. This shows a downward trend from earlier incarnations of the index – and so we see that seafarer happiness is on the slide.

Workload and access to onshore facilities presented the largest setbacks, while on-board interactions and friendships were seen as the best part of the job. The most divisive issue was connectivity with family and home. On ships where internet access was available, happiness was marked very highly, but without it connectivity was a significant source of real discontent.

A nation at sea

The Seafarers Happiness Index also gives an opportunity to compare how people at sea feel compared to those in nations ashore. If seafarers were a population of their own nation, how would that rank against the UN World Happiness Report?

Well, the seafarers of the world would creep into the Top 40…coming in at number 38, sandwiched between Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago. Not a great result really, and there is much room for improvement. Something the Mission to Seafarers hopes will come with this means of measuring and managing positive change.

The UN Happiness Report also rates satisfaction against a scale called the Cantril Ladder (or to give its full title, the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale) – this asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. The ladder then places the numbers in three areas, suffering, struggling or thriving.

The Seafarers Happiness Index result of 6.25 would place crews in the ‘struggling’ zone. On this scale it means that well-being is moderate or inconsistent, with moderate views of their present life and future. They are either struggling in the present or expect to struggle in the future. In the struggling zone, people report more daily stress and worry about money more than the ‘thriving’ respondents. In the struggling zone, the UN reports that people are prone to more than double the amount of sick days, are more likely to smoke and less likely to eat healthy.

Pursuit of happiness

It may seem trite, perhaps a little too ‘snowflakey’ to talk about happiness, but there is a lot of science proving that happy people perform better. Research constantly indicates that happy people work harder, achieve more and create an environment of constant improvement.

Alas most of this management science is based on businesses and institutions ashore, there isn’t a great body of work which relates to seafarers. However, the importance of knowing how happy people are about the things which affect them at sea is a hugely effective means of checking the levels of performance on a ship and within a shipping company.

What do we mean by ‘happiness’ though? Well, happiness is a universally understood concept, transcending cultures and religions. Humans, whatever race, creed, religion or nationality have a generally agreed sense of what it is to be happy. Humans tend to assess how much they like their life, and the conditions for happiness appear to be quite similar across the world.

So, even with multi-national crews, the concept stacks up well as an important metric for shipping. Humans prefer a happy life to an unhappy one, and we develop ideas of what we want from life and compare these aspirations with the realities of their life. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s classic notion of happiness was, “the sum of pleasures and pains”. Which rather neatly appears to capture the lot of a seafarer today, there are pleasures and there are pains – and this is our chance to shape which wins out onboard ships.  

Moving forward

 To ignore or downplay the value of happiness in seafarers is to trample on the concept of these very human constructs. Seafarers prefer a happy life to an unhappy one, hopefully we can all agree on that much, and we need to be able to make life as happy as possible, within the realities of what it is to be a seafarer.

This is not about developing some kind of cult of the happy seafarer, with rictus grins that have to be surgically removed. It is not, either, about pretending that there is black and white when it comes to satisfaction. Things are not usually all bad or all good.

The Seafarers Happiness Index exists to see through that grey fog in the middle. To explore the reasons people working at sea are either feeling positive or negative, and of suggesting the ways that improvements can be brought, or lessons applied elsewhere.

Happiness is often overlooked but is key to developing maritime careers. Happy, satisfied, well fed, fit and engaged seafarers are less likely to have accidents, they are less likely to become disaffected, and will stick around – something that is incredibly important as we look at maritime recruitment and retention.

Sharing and caring

The data produced by the Seafarers Happiness Index provides a blueprint to the improvements needed, but the numbers only tell part of the story. It is the narrative woven through seafarers’ modern lives onboard ship, which compellingly capture the challenges of being at sea today.

Recognising that happiness is the foundation for good employment is key. Appreciating that happy people are more loyal, and work better, that they embrace challenges, they look to excel, and they share with others. These are key assumptions that can help shape future performance at sea.

Happiness matters, so does talking, and the whole shipping industry has the opportunity to listen, to learn and to fix the everyday factors and issues which can bring massive results. Positively impacting the quality of life for seafarers and improving the results for shipping companies. Making sure people are happy at sea is a real win-win situation.

If you are a seafarer, The Mission needs you to complete the survey and encourage all your colleagues to do so to. If you are an employer, then please encourage the same. The report from the most recent data can be found online at the Mission to Seafarers website and makes for fascinating reading. You can also access the latest ongoing survey to have your say by clicking here.


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