COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on the lives of seafarers. A quarterly survey helps bring to light the challenges they face.
The shipping industry often talks about seafarers and the problems facing them, but it can be difficult to generate data about how those at sea feel about their jobs and lives. In seeking insight from ships the question of whether seafarers are happy is often overlooked.
That is a problem, as measuring seafarer happiness is vital in understanding the building blocks of a productive job, fulfilling career and the demands of those at sea. Happiness levels provide a blueprint to the improvements needed and build a picture of where employers and seafarers are winning and losing.
Happiness is a vital foundation for any job, but perhaps even more so if you happen to live in your workplace for months on end. Evidence shows that happy people stick around, work well, and embrace challenges, they look to excel, and they share with others. Satisfied, well-fed, fit and engaged seafarers are less likely to have accidents, less likely to become disaffected and they reflect the clean, safe, secure efficient industry which so many ashore profess to build.
From mental and physical health, diet, rest, workload, connectivity, training, access to shore leave, relationships at home and onboard, there are vital questions that need to be asked. The Seafarer Happiness Index, from the Mission to Seafarers, delves into these and the ongoing levels of satisfaction are marked out of 10. This is a vital barometer of the impact on crew of the fundamental aspects of life onboard.
Image: Mission to Seafarers
Our most recent reports reflect extremely trying times for seafarers. There can be few events in living memory which have affected shipping and crews like COVID-19. This is reflected in the responses throughout 2020, particularly a growing realisation that crew changes would be impacted, and a growing feeling of stress, frustration and confusion.
The reality of the virus has meant that nations have been closing their borders, and crew changes have been delayed for long periods, perhaps indefinitely. While shore leave has become a remnant of a different age. With ports locked down, and seafarers not allowed to leave their vessels even if they wanted to. There is often no respite or rest from life onboard the ship.
The 2020 data and responses up to July showed that seafarers were feeling trapped, concerned for their own health, while also struggling to comprehend what is happening in their home countries. With nations going into lockdown, many seafarers reported feeling helpless.
This led to a massive sense of uncertainty, worry and even fear. To be at sea in times of crisis is perhaps one of the most difficult for seafarers, and a growing sense of isolation pervaded the responses. Those early responses contained frustration about company reactions, about certain flag States, and of annoyance about draconian immigration rules. Towards the close of the second quarter, seafarers were increasingly concerned whether they would get home at all.
Many were losing hope and sadly, all too many are still onboard today. It was to this backdrop that we expected a similar downward trend in the responses to Quarter 3 but were surprised that the general happiness index had actually edged higher.
On drilling down into the data, we found the rise was fuelled by a surge in optimism and hope in July and early August. With COVID rates dropping, there was hope the worst could be over and that seafarers would be going back home. Sadly, it has not played out that way.
We saw data rises stall around mid-August and then crash away into September. Opportunities to travel were seemingly potentially gone, as a second wave of the virus closed borders and limited movement once more. So, while the average SHI results showed happiness levels of seafarers at 6.35/10 up from 6.18 in Q2, the true picture was of dashed hopes and crushed optimism, rather than a real improvement.
Seafarers spoke on many issues, not only the frustration about crew changes but also about tiredness, stress and fatigue. The current situation is punishing. Tolerance is being stretched and working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for sustained periods is taking its toll.
Image: Mission to Seafarers
We also heard that training is a major concern for many, with respondents feeling that “life is on hold” when it comes to learning and career progression. While it was felt that where training was being delivered onboard, that this was having a negative impact on rest time.
Boredom is setting in as crews have been working for so long. Mundane realities such as the same meals, and difficulties of accessing exercise may be small considerations, but every day the feeling pervades the impact grows. There are also problems with interaction onboard, with social distancing and the wearing of masks making it harder to engage and for any sense of community to be developed.
This problem appears especially prevalent at mealtimes, where seafarers spoke of having to sit alone to eat or far removed from others. In addition, important bonding opportunities such as sports and social activities have been stopped. People feel alone at the times when they most need to feel connected.
Thankfully there does appear to be some progress when it comes to connectivity, and seafarers stressed time and time again how important it is to speak to family or to be able to engage with those at home. This was especially important where crew were worried about the health of loved ones as the pandemic gripped.
The focus of the Index is very much about being at sea, but we have also received messages from seafarers stuck at home. Many reported facing financial ruin and even having to potentially shift careers to keep money coming into their households. There was a sense this could be a long tail problem ahead as recruitment and retention are both affected long into the future.
We would urge all seafarers to share their views and encourage companies to act on the message that crews are sending loudly about their lives at sea. See www.happyatsea.org for full details.