Seafarer happiness: The role for management and design

Steven Jones, the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, identifies why crew are less cheery about life at sea and how companies need to install a designated person ashore to focus on seafarer wellbeing.

The most recent results from the Seafarers Happiness Index have revealed that crew are feeling a little less cheery about life at sea. The latest scores show an overall drop, slipping down to 6.56/10.

Now, of course, the numbers don’t really mean much without some context. While the data shows signs of dropping, seafarers thankfully took the time to talk about the pressures, issues and concerns they experience while at sea.

Across the various Seafarers Happiness Index reports there have been key issues which have remained problematic. Difficulties surrounding isolation, loneliness, fatigue and stress, time and again came to the fore. While from an operational perspective, inspections, heavy work load, and unsupportive management onboard and ashore, are negatively affecting happiness.

The issue of those ashore was a key feature of these latest results. Respondents aimed both veiled and direct criticisms at managers and office workers, and there is a worrying sense of a ship-shore divide developing.

There were concerns that a high level of staff churn ashore can mean problems with relationships between ship and offices. Seafarers were also concerned that a lack of experience or knowledge ashore can mean that already hard-pressed seafarers are being asked to do more.

Crew reported being asked more and more questions by managers ashore, and of being pushed to respond – without any thought of different time zones or watch patterns. Also, there was a sense that all too often recommendations from shipboard staff are not listened too when it comes to improving management systems.

With the attitudes, experience and conduct of management ashore called into question, there is a troubling growing sense of tension between offices ashore and vessels. Something which is seemingly adding to the stresses of those onboard.

There are concerns as seafarers feel a lack of managerial “ownership” about seafarer happiness, wellness or mental health. It was noted that responsibilities for so many aspects of operations are clearly laid out, but not so the satisfaction or wellbeing of the crew.

Despite seafarer happiness, wellness and mental health coming to the fore, it was felt there needs to be someone named in the shipping company as having clear responsibility for not simply human resource management, but of the human responses to being at sea. There can be reams of paperwork and checklists about the welfare of those onboard, but in increasingly busy times the softer side of looking after and looking out for seafarers seems to be falling away.

Who in a company oversees whether people onboard a ship are feeling contented? No-one is the answer. While issues of happiness and satisfaction are obviously troublingly subjective, someone, somewhere ashore needs to be thinking about these matters. It is not enough to simply have seafarers fending for themselves, nor indeed to rely on welfare organisations to fill the void when it comes to keeping people happy at sea.

It seems clear, there is a need for empathy and understanding in the management ashore. Increasingly roles are filled by people who haven’t been to sea, and that can cause problems and friction in relationships. This is especially heightened when companies do not have the management resources in place to focus on the pastoral needs of their crews. There are clear calls for a Designated Person responsible for the wellbeing and mental health of seafarers.

Some of the comments from seafarers were also about modern and new ships. Despite often being well equipped and compliant with the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, some felt the designs and finishes of ship interiors are too often very sterile and unwelcoming.

Areas which are intended for social use are often finished in the same manner as every other part of the ship. The same panelling, furnishings and detailing are often used, and long gone are the cosy, friendly spaces which encouraged interaction. A number of crew commented that these areas onboard, “do not feel like somewhere you want to be”.

This is seemingly yet another reason that seafarers do not feel enticed to leave their cabins, as social spaces are not seemingly being designed with social interaction and comfort in mind.

The Seafarers Happiness Index is to give seafarers a collective voice, and thereby enable the maritime industry to review and address the issues that are raised. The Happiness Index is designed to monitor and benchmark seafarer satisfaction levels via 10 key questions and serves as an important barometer of seafarer satisfaction with life at sea.

The Mission to Seafarers has long been a champion for the wellbeing, welfare and human rights of those at sea, and the Index gives the industry a space in which to discuss the vitally important issues surrounding seafarers. The Index is an ongoing barometer of what life at sea is truly like, and through it we are able to challenge the industry to think more creatively about how it supports the men and women who work at sea, and this is a start of that vital conversation.

We don’t want to merely stress the negatives. On the upside, there is an overwhelming sense of professional pride at being a seafarer. Seafarers who responded to the latest survey, spoke in positive terms about their fellow shipmates, talking of friendships, professionalism and support. There is a definite sense that camaraderie is still strong and important at sea, where it is fostered and supported.

You can find out more and read the latest report by clicking here.

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