When discussing seafarer wellness, don’t overlook the critical factor: seafarers are human. They have the same wants and needs as humans everywhere. However, because of the unique nature of the shipping industry, seafarers often can’t meet those needs in the same way as people ashore.
So, what do humans need? In 1943, Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs: basic physiological needs and safety at the bottom, followed by psychological and social needs, and self-actualisation is at the top.
Although it’s essential to ensure that seafarers have food, water and shelter, in the modern world it’s not enough. Humans have other needs, including social support and interaction, rest, and physical and mental health care. This is where wellness comes in.
Wellness is a broad term that could mean almost anything. The World Health Organization defines health as “…a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This is a useful working definition of wellness.
Why should shipping companies worry about wellness?
From a pragmatic standpoint, a content, well-rested crew is more efficient, has fewer accidents, is happier, and is therefore more likely to stay with or return to the ship.
It takes time for new personnel to learn a ship and company procedures. While they’re learning, everything takes more time and there’s a higher chance of mistakes. Even without considering the time, effort and cost involved in recruiting crew, reduced crew turnover leads to a smoother operation and fewer misunderstandings.
People who aren’t fatigued or anxious can focus on their jobs. Workers who are surrounded by colleagues they know and can trust, and who find their work interesting are likely to do a better job with fewer mistakes and accidents. Health, wellness, distraction, fatigue, crew retention and accident rates are interlinked. The International Chamber of Shipping forecasts an ongoing shortage of officers over the next ten years, so anything that increases personnel retention can only be a sensible business choice.
How can technology help with seafarer wellness?
Wellness is a human problem, not a technical one. Technology alone can’t “fix” wellness, but it can facilitate human solutions. The challenge is finding a balance between data, privacy, and personal freedom. Technological solutions require data, and getting people’s data requires trust. Your crew need to trust that you won’t use their data against them and that you’re capable of safeguarding their data.
While recent safety campaigns have highlighted the importance of speaking up about safety issues on board, seafarer wellness is another matter. It’s far easier to justify contacting head office about a safety problem on board than writing an email to complain about poor internet or low morale.
While Scoutbase focuses on facilitating anonymous reporting of safety issues by seafarers, it could just as easily be used to focus on welfare and wellness. Many seafarers believe companies don’t care about them. In reality, many companies do care but either don’t know there’s a problem, or there’s a mismatch between the company’s solution and what the crew needs. Anonymous reporting could help to bridge the gulf of distance, language, rank and understanding.
Social interaction and recreation
Everyone wants to relax and unwind at the end of a stressful day at work. However, unlike workers ashore, seafarers can’t go home at the end of the day. This leaves two options: make work less stressful, or provide seafarers with ways to relax.
Research by welfare charity ISWAN discovered a link between social isolation and mental health issues for seafarers. While their Social Interaction Matters study is ongoing, their survey shows the main barriers to socialising on board are increased workloads, cultural or language differences, tiredness, and lack of time.
Conversely, the main drivers of social interaction are onboard culture, someone on board organising events, the availability of recreation facilities on board, and stable crewing (ie. crew returning to the same ship). It’s notable that, according to the ISWAN research, none of the drivers of social interaction relies on technology.
Given that seafarers are human, it’s unsurprising that they don’t all like the same things. While some like to go to the gym, others prefer to read a book, watch a movie, or play games. When it comes to recreation, the best use of technology would be to either facilitate social interaction or to survey the crew to find out what they actually want.
A TV, DVD player and a DVD library, multi-player console games such as Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation are affordable technological aids to social interaction. Some games even encourage friendly competition and physical activity, which have obvious benefits.
Bullying and harassment
In-person bullying and harassment are problems that don’t lend themselves to technological solutions. Despite that, technology can facilitate support and evidence gathering.
ISWAN’s Seafarer Help is a free, confidential, multilingual helpline for seafarers and their families. It’s accessible online, by phone, and via several popular social media platforms. As well as providing access to help and support, they provide resources and information for seafarers and companies to address common problems.
While not dedicated to the maritime industry, Talk to Spot is an online service to help with recording bullying and harassment if seafarers don’t want to talk to a person. Spot is an AI bot that makes it easier to record the details of bullying, harassment or discrimination. Spot asks questions, then compiles the answers into a report. The victim can choose to submit the report electronically to participating organisations or download it as a contemporary record of the event.
Physical health care at sea
A survey by Martek Marine and Nautilus International in 2017 found that 68% of seafarers had been on a ship that was forced to divert for medical reasons, at an average cost of around $US180,000.
On ships with fewer than a hundred people on board or at sea for less than three days, medical care is left to the deck officers. Telehealth services can mitigate the gap in health care by linking ships with professional healthcare providers ashore.
The European e-healthy ship project intends to equip ships with an IT-supported online and offline health platform. The project aims to improve health care for workers on the high seas, develop onboard health promotion, and facilitate the implementation of health and safety regulations. It’s due to finish in 2021.
Marlink, Martek Marine, Future Care, and ShipMedCare all have telemedicine platforms; however, all telemedicine depends on reliable communication systems. Because of this, Vikand has partnered with Inmarsat to provide medical services via video calls over a dedicated bandwidth APN on Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress service.
Medassist Online’s solution takes a low-to-no bandwidth approach. A 12 lead, hospital quality ECG, a heart app and a skills app work together to improve health care at sea. The skills app has step-by-step instructions in 45 languages to explain how to carry out basic procedures.
Mental health care at sea
A 2019 study by Seafarers’ Trust found isolation from family, trouble sleeping, contract length, supervisor demands, food quality and money worries were the main factors contributing to depression among depressed seafarers. Worryingly, almost 45% of non-depressed seafarers said they had no-one to turn to for help.
Big White Wall is an anonymous, clinically managed mental health support community. It provides peer-to-peer support and self-education resources. Thanks to the Seafarers’ Hospital Society, seafarers, fishers and their families can access the Big White Wall platform for free – if they have an internet connection.
Simplify and reduce administration
Seafarers spend a startling amount of time on routine administration tasks, both on board and on leave. If we could automate these tasks, it would reduce workload and stress. Fortunately, several companies are working on the problem.
Pingle’s CredentialMate platform, currently in beta, is a software as a service (SaaS) solution that simplifies credential management for seafarers and training providers. Seafarers can upload their paper certificates to store and share them with potential employers; the platform reminds users when the certificates are due to expire, and allows them to book refresher courses through the app.
On the other hand, Navozyme’s blockchain technology enables training providers to issue digital certificates. When seafarers share these with other organisations, the organisations can instantly verify the certificates.
Document management startup C-Log takes the idea further. Their decentralized platform handles digital crew ID, documentation, and certificates in a digital document wallet. The system makes it simple to integrate certificates with ship management systems and automate compliance checks.
When it comes to hours of work and rest, manual tracking is a time-consuming headache. ISF Watchkeeper simplifies the process, making it easy to set standard work schedules, enter hours of rest, and plan ahead to avoid regulatory breaches. Workrest is similar, but also allows the crew to log their hours on a smartphone app, saving time and effort. Both programs automatically check compliance with relevant regulations, alert senior officers of non-compliance, and generate and print reports on-demand.
Connectivity and communication
A discussion of seafarer wellness wouldn’t be complete without mentioning connectivity and communication with friends and family.
The Q2 2020 edition of the Seafarers Happiness Index explains, “Access to communication is absolutely pivotal to the state of mind of crews. Those who have access…are far happier than those who do not. This pattern has remained, but the gap between the ‘haves’, ‘have intermittently’ and the ‘have nots’ becomes even more marked.”
The days of receiving personal letters in port every few months are long past, pushed aside by innovations like email, instant messaging, and video chat. While younger seafarers used to be the only users of these technologies, they’re now overwhelmingly mainstream. Unfortunately, like so many modern technological solutions, they depend on an internet connection.
When you consider technical solutions to improving seafarer wellness, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that most solutions rely on a stable, affordable internet connection on board.
According to the 2018 Crew Connectivity Report, 61% of seafarers have internet access “all or most of the time” and 75% say that the availability of internet access influences their choice of company or ship.
Think about how you use the internet. An internet connection facilitates communication with support networks, friends and family. It gives access to shore-based services like medical advice. It allows seafarers to study, to manage their finances and personal affairs. Briefly, it lets them enjoy many of the rights that land-based workers take for granted.
What would you want?
Seafarer wellness may not be easy, but it can be simple.
If you’ve never been to sea, just imagine that you have to spend months at a time away from home. All of your main decisions including food choices, daily routine, ability to communicate with your family, access to health care and support services are out of your control.
What would you want? What would make it more bearable? What would make you feel like you had some control over your life?
That’s probably a good place to start thinking about seafarer wellness.
Nic Gardner is a Maritime Technology Analyst at Thetius. She is a master mariner who holds an unlimited UK CoC and has seagoing experience on capesize bulk carriers, ro-pax ferries, sail training ships, hospital ships, general cargo tramp ships, container ships and fisheries protection boats. When she is not at sea, Nic writes about a range of topics including technology and the maritime industry. Nic is also the author of “Merchant Navy Survival Guide: Survive & thrive on your first ship”, a book to give aspiring seafarers the knowledge and tools they need to make a success of their first trip to sea.