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Seafarers survey highlights growing mental health crisis at sea

The latest Seafarers Happiness Index, published yesterday by The Mission to Seafarers, has revealed the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on the welfare of international seafarers and their families.

The report makes it clear that the seafarer community is in the midst of a mental health crisis.

The report shows the continuing decline of happiness at sea, largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home. Heavy workloads, virus fears and a perceived lack of Covid-19 precautions onboard vessels are exacerbating the decline in satisfaction. Without immediate action, there are significant risks for the mental and physical wellbeing of crew and a growing risk to safety, the report suggests.

No bonus or extra pay can resolve the anguish, mental stress and problems being faced by the crew today

The latest survey, undertaken in association with the Shipowners’ Club and Wallem Group, analyses the experiences of seafarers across the global maritime industry between April and June this year. Overall, seafarer happiness has dropped from 6.30 in Q1 2020 to 6.18 in Q2 2020.

The latest report shows vessels are sailing with fewer crew, increased sickness onboard and a pressure to keep hygiene standards at almost hospital-like levels. The demands of meeting these standards while also maintaining social distancing are relentless and seafarers are struggling to adhere to new guidance.

This level of workload has been relentless since the outbreak of Covid-19 and is clearly taking its toll. Seafarers have reported feeling unsupported and stressed, and without respite, which is impacting work standards as well as the welfare of seafarers. Combined with the challenge of accessing medical services, the risk of an increase in incidents of self-harm and in the number of accidents is very real as stress impacts work, compromising safety at all levels.

Andrew Wright, secretary general of The Mission to Seafarers, commented: “We are in the midst of a welfare crisis. While Q1 showed us how seafarers suffered as Covid-19 struck home and provided insight into the support that was needed, the Q2 report highlights the cost of inaction and the need for immediate solutions. It is paramount that we see progress with crew changeovers, onboard PPE and improved communication between shore and sea, to defuse this ticking time-bomb. Protecting seafarers is a priority and governments must now come together and work with industry before it is too late.”

Louise Hall, director of loss prevention at the Shipowners’ Club, commented: “Among other issues, this report highlights the toll that social distancing has taken on relationships and connectivity on board. Reports of additional safety measures, such as separating tables and limiting the capacity of mess rooms at meal times, has made even the most habitual social interactions difficult. This, coupled with extended periods of time at sea, raises serious concerns for seafarers’ mental wellbeing as feelings of loneliness and isolation intensify.”

Frank Coles, CEO of the Wallem Group, said: “Never has the statement money doesn’t buy happiness had more meaning than in the crew crisis. No bonus or extra pay can resolve the anguish, mental stress and problems being faced by the crew today.”

The report also reaffirms the importance of communication to seafarers. With many seafarers unable to leave their vessels or contact their family due to the crisis, online access is now regarded as fundamental to their wellbeing. Without the connection to home and restricted support from ship visitors and port chaplains, seafarers are on the edge of serious mental distress. It is reported that many companies are not communicating well with their seafarers and little support is on offer. With little or no communication, seafarers are trapped on vessels, imagining the worst.

The survey also shows clear disappointment that seafarers are not recognised as key workers. The challenges being reported are reaching intolerable levels, due to contracts being disregarded and growing reports of sexism, racism and bullying and drunkenness onboard.

It is paramount that we see progress with crew changeovers, onboard PPE and improved communication between shore and sea, to defuse this ticking time-bomb

“Seafarers are at a tipping point and it is essential that faster progress is made to protect seafarers and stop the industry from falling into a deeper crisis,” the report noted, adding: “The message is clear: crew changes are needed, and those who can make them happen must do so, now. Only once seafarers can return home to their families and those serving at sea feel safe can we avert the both the immediate and the long-term impact of a mental health crisis among our seafarers.”

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Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.

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