Seafarer mental health management: We don’t talk about that

Could seafarers’ experiences of mental health management be adding to the problem? Carolyn Graham investigates.

Would talking about health in committee meetings on ships contribute to improving seafarers’ health and safety? While concerns for seafarers’ mental health is not new, there appears to be mounting concerns from all quarters. What has struck me is the individualisation of solutions, similar to the route taken in land-based work situations. Seafarers are encouraged to manage their mental health thorough individual wellbeing practices. While I contend that this is very important, the apparent neglect in addressing the work environment and the wider structures that impact seafarers’ wellbeing should also be of concern. For example, manning levels are obviously a problem, but the international policy makers seem averse to this discussion.

Space does not allow much elaboration, but I want to raise the issue of health and safety committee meetings, and the simple practice of collectively talking about health and safety on ships in a structured and systematic manner. This may help to reinforce the importance of health and increase seafarers’ awareness of their vulnerabilities to occupational illnesses and diseases and so provide another way in which mental health issues at sea may be addressed.

In my research, I discovered that mental health issues are not discussed in health and safety committee meetings. While the number of seafarers interviewed were small and therefore restricts generalisation, the results do raise questions to generate some discussion. From seafarers’ accounts, health and safety committee meetings are dominated by safety matters as directed by the safety management system (SMS) developed to satisfy the ISM Code.

When the ISM was developed, the accompanying narrative espouses the importance of the ‘human element’ and the need for systematic management of health and safety (more safety than health) towards the development of a safety culture in the hearts and minds, and therefore the actions, of all those responsible. Research has shown however, that the bureaucratisation of the ISM and poor handling of the development and implementation of SMSs, have led to a disconnect between the spirit in which the ISM was developed and the practices on board. In short, the ISM in many respects, failed to achieve the envisaged purpose.

One key criticism of the ISM is that it does not provide for seafarers’ autonomous participation. Health and safety management is heavily controlled by shore-based managers who place much emphasis on the procedures, while seafarers find their skills and experiences are more relevant in ensuring the safety of the ship. Ironically, the ISM Code seemed to have introduced a mechanism where blame and mistrust underpin its practices and therefore undermines effective health and safety management. Also, the code is a safety system and not a health and safety system. It is a managerialist standard, rather than a labour standard, and its focus is the technical and operational aspects of safety, which of course contribute to health protection, but this is not its main focus.

Back to my study then, the results showed a neglect of health issues that do not relate directly and immediately to the safety of the ship. In seafarers’ accounts, “we don’t talk about that”. This was the general response when asked about topics discussed in health and safety meetings, and whether, for example, they talked about depression or isolation and workplace policies on bullying, which contribute to poor mental health.

These are not discussed in health and safety meetings, nor are they discussed as part of any systematic management programme. The system under which seafarers work does not facilitate these discussions. Seafarers deal with such matters individually. They rely on camaraderie and the small size of their numbers to identify whether any of their mates may be suffering from any mental health issues. The seafarers’ interviewed seemed to also lack an understanding of occupational illnesses and how these develop. Some have bought into the ‘healthy worker effect’ by explaining that they undergo extensive medical before joining a ship and so they are healthy. They readily relate health to medical issues having to do with the more traditional and physical aspects of health and safety, such as slips, trips and falls and are less aware of psychosocial illnesses from a collective perspective. These are taken as individual concerns to be addressed at that level. This is perhaps unsurprising when the traditions of shipping are examined or indeed the wider approach to labour issues which have always taken a back seat to commercial operations, regardless of the industry.

Mental health holds stigma and its individualisation is counterproductive as this removes any collective approach that is important in finding solutions. What I mean is that openly speaking about mental health on ships and making it an important agenda item in health and safety committee meetings, may serve to raise its profile and create awareness of its dangers. More concrete efforts are needed to demonstrate to seafarers that their mental health is important. Implementing the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) provisions on health and safety as intended is one possible step. The MLC requires training in health and safety management, this as I’m aware, is more labour focus and is different from the technical focus of the ISM. Unfortunately, the seafarers had no experience of such type of training. The MLC is side-lined in many respects. The bottom line, however, is that seafarers’ health profile should be raised to the level of safety so when the industry speaks of health and safety, it is indeed so.


  1. Completely agree – the focus on individual responsibility for managing mental health is an industry cop out – there is a wilful blindness to the obvious connection with minimum safe manning, fatigue and stress. And how many people would admit to mental health problems if they don’t have a permanent contract and want to remain employed…

    1. Yes Katie, so true. I had to try keep this short. But indeed. Fatigue is singled out because of its immediate role in accidents, but no connection, no holistic approach. And the job insecurity issue also prevents seafarers from speaking out and from engaging fully in health and safety management. The creed is keep your head down and don’t appear to be a trouble maker.

  2. Thank you for this timely article. One key issue is for seafarers to be supported when they present with mental health issues. It is important for companies to adopt and implement policies and guidelines on the mental wellbeing of their seafarers. A good place to start are the guidelines drawn up by the UK Chamber of Shipping, RMT, and Nautilus International.

  3. As many commented, the fatigue from smaller manning begs the question who fills in when someone is sick or hurt. Overtime hours gives way to the potential for that overworked person making a small or large mistake. Sickness due to numerous persons boarding passing viruses etc or crew exposing others upon boarding or reboarding is large. Crew need to be protected. Yes I have non toxic biodegradable product that will eliminate these exposures – Envirocleanse.. Keeping crew healthy is as important as keeping them fed.
    OWE Group.

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