By Roger Harris, Executive Director, ISWAN
There is growing awareness around the world, and in the maritime industry, of the importance of good mental health. Seafarers may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than the wider population because of the structural conditions affecting their lives at sea.
Seafarers go months without seeing their families and friends while often lacking the means to contact them as much as they’d like. Fast turnaround times in port and long working hours can mean there is a little opportunity for adequate rest and time to take part in leisure activities, which are essential for good wellbeing. Multicultural crews and living in close quarters with colleagues who may not have anything in common can leave seafarers feeling isolated. Working at sea can be dangerous and anxiety about risk of piracy and other crises can take a toll on seafarers.
However, there are measures that can be taken to mitigate the impact of these factors on a seafarer’s mental wellbeing.
Effective training in mental health awareness for seafarers and shore based maritime professionals working with seafarers can have a very positive impact on seafarers’ mental wellbeing. It also help the seafarers to be well prepared for some of the challenges presented above. Training which increases understanding of mental health will also help to greatly reduce stigma. If mental health is no longer considered a taboo, seafarers will be more comfortable seeking help and/or talking about their problems with their supervisor or a colleague. Training can also successfully teach participants about the importance of self-care and looking after your own mental health during a voyage. It also provides some guidance on looking out for and supporting fellow crew members who are having difficulty with their mental wellbeing.
Seafarers can acquire tools and learn techniques that help cope with the stresses and strain of a life at sea. ISWAN produce a series of self-help guides aimed at seafarers. These resources help seafarers manage and cope with low mood, stress and fatigue, and maximise their overall psychological wellbeing. They are available for free at https://www.seafarerswelfare.org/seafarer-health- information-programme/good-mental-health.
Counselling and emotional support services should also be available to seafarers; these services can be the difference between life and death for a seafarer experiencing suicidal thoughts. They can also help seafarers find ways to cope with life onboard which may not have been possible without accessible support; and that can mean the difference between a happy, productive worker and a complex repatriation. Access to port based welfare services providing face to face support is also essential.
The same is true for their office colleagues who are experiencing similar, if less severe, feelings of isolation since global lockdown measures have forced many office-based teams to work remotely at home. While it is not on the same scale as our seaborne colleagues endure, there has been a rise in mental health issues amongst normally office based staff.
The key here is to have a regular virtual departmental and company-wide meetings to ensure individuals remain engaged and feeling part of a team.
Ideally, while working remotely at home it is good practise to have, where possible, a set area for working. This will help to demarcate work from home life – an important consideration as time with family and friends helps to relax the mind and assuage the stresses of work.
Taking regular breaks during the working day is also important for mental and physical well-being especially when it comes to lunch times as skipping meals will only have a detrimental effect on decision making as the body becomes tired due to lack of energy.
Equally important is making time to do some form of exercise even if it is just going for a walk, run or cycle as it is amazing what being in the fresh air can do for positive mental well-being as well as keeping the body in shape. Online exercise classes have been very popular too as gyms in many countries remain closed.
Making time for colleagues to catch up with them and find out how they are doing is also a good idea. Many companies promote conference calls during lunch breaks where colleagues can stay in touch and socialise. This is so important for people’s mental health and some even use digital platforms to run games and quizzes for staff which can help promote a great team spirit as well as exercising the brain cells.
So, thankfully there is now a recognition of the need for all of us, as employers, unions, welfare organisations, and individuals to do more to protect the mental wellbeing of seafarers and their office colleagues around the world.