Adrift but connected

The pandemic shone a light into corners of society that had long been neglected, among them the working conditions and mental health of seafarers. Now, new digital tools are being deployed to help improve life at sea.

The disruption and dislocation of Covid-19 restrictions exacerbated the pressures on the world’s seafarers, some of whom found themselves stuck at sea for more than a year. This global crisis was the touchpaper to the mental health timebomb that had been ticking for decades, and it increased the pressure on ship owners to take action. 

Hard data about the extent of the problem is limited, particularly as there remains a stigma when it comes to talking about mental health, but research suggests it’s a major issue for individuals and the industry at large. Dr Marissa Baker at the University of Washington found in 2021 that more than half of the USCG-credited mariners she surveyed had a high score for at least one of five mental health outcomes including major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, suicidal ideation, elevated stress and PTSD. 

This epidemic of poor mental health has a cost. Seafarers who are struggling are likely to leave a company within six months of the onset of poor mental health and are unlikely to perform at their best while employed, leading to poor decision-making and potentially dangerous mistakes. 

Image 6 Incident diagram

Credit: Shutterstock

In response, some companies have boosted ship connectivity to ensure crew are digitally hooked-up to their social networks and e-learning opportunities, as well as putting psychologists on the payroll to provide digital and face-to-face specialist support. These investments make a difference: one of the issues noted by the Happiness Index, which has been tracking seafarer wellbeing since 2015, is the growing wellness gap between companies that provide health and wellbeing programs for seafarers and those that do not. 

The good news is that this gap can be partly bridged using new digital tools to deliver rapid support at scale for relatively low cost. Last year the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, for example, launched a new digital tool called Wellbeing at Sea, aimed at providing mental health support and helping maritime employers monitor crew wellbeing. When using the Wellbeing at Sea tool, seafarers are asked to take a digital survey, which is then used to compile personalised advice. The data captured is anonymised and sent to managers within the company to help them better understand the priorities for improvement.

Meanwhile, Seably – an online maritime training marketplace – has teamed up with e-learning platform Learning Seaman, to provide modules on self-care and wellness, emotional resilience, nutrition, fitness and yoga, as well as short courses designed to spark wonder on topics ranging from art and movies to board games and music.  

For some individuals, the anonymity of digital support can be a more attractive channel. It can also be highly effective at engaging Gen Z workers, for whom it’s sometimes more natural to interact with a chatbot than pick up the phone and speak to a counsellor. 

Yet digital tools are not a silver bullet. As Captain Panos Stavrakakis, FIMarEST and sector manager at HSE Science & Research Centre, points out, too often the issues that truly impact mental health at sea – such as unsafe working conditions, financial insecurity, long shift patterns, poor food and sleep hygiene – are systemic, yet the solutions are aimed at the individual. 

“It’s very common for solutions to support the individual, rather than to address the deep causes of mental health and occupational stress,” says Captain Stavrakakis. “There are organisational factors that need to be looked into, and companies need to analyse and design organisational interventions.”

Fortunately, there are now digital tools to help with this. Scoutbase, for example, solicits direct feedback from seafarers on their personal devices, collecting some 400 data points per vessel per month, with the data analysed and visualised on a dashboard for shoreside care teams to act upon. Care4C uses wristband sensors to monitor sleep patterns and heart rates to assist with fatigue management at sea, while Sensing Feeling uses CCTV and visual analytics to observe and analyse behavioural patterns, generating hourly stress and fatigue indices for individuals and monitoring their performance in high-risk scenarios such as bridge procedures during watch handovers. 

The hope is these innovations will help companies better understand and target resources towards those who need support, and ultimately change seafaring life for the better. 

Are you passionate about this topic, or keen to become more involved in advocating for change? Join the IMarEST Seafarer Mental Health and Wellbeing SIG


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter  @AmyMcLellan2