What it takes mentally to ably steer a ship from point A to point B

Turloch Mooney reports from Hong Kong’s Wah Kwong headquarters on the results of a pilot training program to address mental wellbeing among crews.

A newly developed training program for senior seafarers to promote awareness and understanding of mental wellbeing among crews has been trialled in Hong Kong by shipowner Wah Kwong.

The goal of the program is to reduce the risk of mental health issues and their consequences on vessels.

“Long hours, limited social interaction and separation from shore-based family and friends can lead to stress and the risk of mental health problems such as adjustment disorder and depression” said psychiatrist Dr Wong Chung Hin Willy, who developed the content of the program.

Wah Kwong operates a fleet of 27 dry bulk vessels, tankers and LPG carriers, which it plans to expand to 40 by 2017. The firm set up a seafarer training school in Qingdao, Shandong province, training 100 seafarers per year.

“The primary goal of the program is to increase the awareness and understanding of themselves,” said Dr Wong.

Several factors in modern crew life are thought to potentially contribute to mental health issues while at sea. With crew numbers on vessels becoming smaller, limited opportunity for social interaction is one of the most important.

“In the old days we used to play cards, mess together, and so on. There was a lot of contact between crew. There is less contact nowadays because people tend to go directly to their cabins when not working,” said one senior Wah Kwong officer who took part in a recent pilot for the training program at the Hong Kong headquarters of Wah Kwong.

It is thought that social isolation on vessels could be on the rise as shipowners provide more internet access to seafarers. There are also some concerns over the effect of increased access to social media on vessels, which potentially allows seafarers to discover upsetting news from families and friends while at sea while leaving them powerless to take any action.

“It really is a double-edged sword,” said Tim Huxley, CEO of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport on a recent RTHK Peaks and Troughs radio program. “Whilst connectivity and being in touch with loved ones and friends sounds a great thing, if you do have family problem and you learn about it while you’re at sea there is not a lot you can do about it aside from worry”.

In one recent tragic incident it was revealed that a crewmember on another shipping company’s vessel committed suicide after an extended argument on Facebook.

Besides the human cost of mental health issues, there is also a significant financial cost in terms of disruption to vessel schedules and seafarers abandoning their careers.

The program has several distinct modules including the introduction of the concept of mental wellness to senior officers; examination of common issues with a particular focus on crews in Asia and China; and ‘psychological first aid’ to equip senior offices with enough basic knowledge to deal with emergency issues when there is no easy access to medical facilities or advice. A number of case studies have been developed to demonstrate how to deal with specific situations.

“The captain needs to be able to assess the gravity of different situations and decide the best course of action,” said Dr Wong.

Following positive feedback from participants in the pilot training session, the program is being rolled out to Wah Kwong senior officers through the company’s regular senior officer conferences .

The Wah Kwong program comes at a time of rising awareness of the need to address work place health in the shipping industry. Most notable has been the ‘Wellness at Sea’ initiative by the Sailors’ Society which grew out of a roundtable discussion chaired by the Sailors’ Society in Hong Kong at which several key shipping industry figures shared concerns over crew attrition rates and the problem of maintaining wellness on board.

“Problems such as loneliness and separation from friends and family lead to many seafarers abandoning a seagoing career,” said Huxley. “If we can identify these problems early and empower masters and senior officers to deal with them as they arise, we have a much better chance of solving this problem.

“Wellness at Sea is not looking to add the role of the parish priest to the established skill sets of our captains, but instead to support crew retention and show commitment to our colleagues at sea on whom we depend for so much.”

Wellness at Sea global project manager Johan Smith said the program is much needed. “Historically, training of seafarers has been focused on occupational skills, while welfare services have mostly been reactive, coming into play only once a problem arises. Wellness at Sea seeks to proactively train seafarers in areas that have been traditionally overlooked. It introduces a philosophy which argues that, to ably steer a ship from point A to point B, you also need cultural competence, emotional intelligence, social skills and spiritual well-being to name just a few.”

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