At sea with mental health

Monday, 18 November, 2019

At sea with mental health

New research into the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers concludes that employers need to take a more proactive approach to addressing the challenges that come with working at sea.

Welsh researchers from Cardiff University have turned their sights to the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers, a sector of the working community that is predisposed to mental illness as a result of the isolating conditions of their work. The research was conducted by Helen Sampson and Neil Ellis from Cardiff University’s Seafarers International Research Centre and had a focus on those working in the international cargo shipping industry. Sampson and Ellis had set out in search of what the causes are of poor mental health among those in this sector, as well as what can be done to improve it.

Seafarers — like military personnel and construction workers — often spend extended periods apart from friends and family. Additionally, these workers often face workplace situations without close contact with other colleagues or supervisors and are prone to being overworked. This isolation — especially for lone workers — is compounded by often poor access to amenities such as the internet, which together with poor accommodation and low-quality food were key concerns for the 1500 workers and employers surveyed as part of the study. A key finding of the study was that employers were not doing enough to safeguard their workers from mental illness, with more than half of respondents indicating that they had not introduced any mental health-related policies or practices for a decade. What this shows is that more support and action is needed for this workforce, who are faced with the challenging situation of working away from loved ones and support networks for extended periods.

In addition to survey research conducted via questionnaires, the researchers also analysed secondary data supplied by insurance companies and conducted semi-structured interviews with interviewer-administered questionnaires. The interviews provided further insight into the quantitative findings, and a more complete view of the mental strain that comes with working at sea. “Three months on land is nothing,” one participant in the study said. “You can’t see your kids grow up, you can’t see anything. You are just like an uncle coming and going.” While for another, the importance of communication technology for an isolated workforce was emphasised: “I believe internet goes a long way in keeping you sane… [without it] you are totally excluded from the rest of the world.”

Based on their findings, the researchers argue in their final report that while the mental health of seafarers “is of considerable concern to maritime charities, employer associations and trade unions”, it is “regarded as a less pressing problem by employers”. Resultant of this, and drawing from a preference expressed through the research by seafarers and some employers, the researchers recommend that “proactive measures” rather than the current “reactive … and self-help strategies” would be “more effective in improving happiness and mental health and wellbeing on board”. Examples of proactive measures include improving shipboard communications infrastructure and the onboard recreational facilities available. Examples of reactive and self-help strategies could include the provision of counselling and targeted mental health messaging.

This research, titled ‘Seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing’, was funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). On the importance of this topic, and the work that needs to be done in the area, Duncan Spencer, IOSH’s Head of Advice and Practice, said: “Organisations employing lone workers or small crews operating in remote areas need to shift their approach to follow similar standards that are being implemented in other industries. Poor leadership and culture in the organisation, excessive pressure, bullying and harassment are factors that clearly have the potential to negatively impact on workers’ mental health and wellbeing. It is crucial that these are seriously considered and given a proportionate approach.”

The full report, together with a research summary, is available online.

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