The world’s first global conference on seafarer mental health and wellbeing brought together a range of stakeholders to discuss interventions and strategies, explain co-chairs Captain Panos Stavrakakis and Stephanie McLay of Lloyd’s Register.
The pandemic continues to have a devastating effect on lives, livelihoods and wellbeing on a global scale, but if there is to be one silver lining it might be that it has highlighted issues that were otherwise in the shadows.
One such issue is the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers, hundreds of thousands of whom found themselves trapped at sea in 2020 when countries closed borders and flights were cancelled. While the scale of the crisis attracted press attention, many industry insiders stressed that mental health issues were already endemic.
Now, with Covid-19 still rampant in many parts of the world, and the crew change crisis still ongoing, maritime stakeholders are coming together to highlight seafarer mental health and wellbeing and proactively discuss practical solutions.
The IMarEST is at the forefront of this movement and on 25-26 May hosted the 1st Global Conference for Seafarer Mental Health & Wellbeing, made possible by Gold Sponsor Lloyd’s Register, with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and Maritime UK.
“This really is a milestone event,” said Captain Panos Stavrakakis FIMarEST, IMarEST Seafarer’s Mental Health and Wellbeing champion and co-chair. “It’s vital we bring all the stakeholders together, from international bodies, unions, employers, academics, NGOs. The pandemic highlighted the issues, and now we need to keep the momentum going.”
We need to talk about mental health
Co-chair Stephanie McLay of Lloyd’s Register, a Senior Human Factors Consultant, agreed. “The first step in creating the conditions where seafarers can talk openly about their mental health and wellbeing, is to get our industry talking,” she said, stressing that this is an issue that needs high level international support.
She also agreed wholly with David Hammond’s, Human Rights at Sea, position that “there is an urgent and ongoing global need for recognition of the challenges faced by our seafarers and for increased transparency, flag state accountability and a greater degree of deterrent effect to be forthcoming to better protect seafarer’s health, security and wellbeing.”
There is no doubt the pandemic exacerbated existing strains across the maritime industry. Research by Lloyd’s Register, The Mission to Seafarers and the UK Chamber of Shipping in 2020 produced a number of important findings, including that 62% of seafarers perceived imbalance between the prioritisation of health and safety and operational demands. Ship staff were more negative about their situation across the board, with workload and fatigue, quality and variety of food, and lack of exercise all areas of concern.
Many felt there was little support provided by their companies in helping to manage stress. Indeed, half the seafarers surveyed said that neither a counsellor nor a welfare officer was available to provide professional advice and support, and among those that did have access to mental health support, seafarers reported a low uptake due to perceived stigmatisation of mental health and fears of losing their jobs.
McLay pointed out this is not just about the doing the right thing for employees; it’s also vital to safeguard vessel safety.
“Maritime is a safety-critical industry in which seafarers play an integral role in maintaining the safety of ship operations, which means to ensure safety we need to look after our seafarers,” she said. There are several human related risk factors which may adversely affect performance and increase risk e.g. impact on seafarer wellbeing and human performance due to lengthy contracts and the inability to change crew may contribute to disruption, to essential maintenance taking place and potential reduced detection of faulty equipment on board and the potential for impaired emergency response.
A little can go a long way…
It is encouraging to see some companies already investing to support crew members’ wellbeing, encouraging social interactions, improving connectivity so seafarers can stay in touch with family and friends back home, as well as providing mental health awareness training and engaging with support lines and access to external professionals and other appropriate services. Research shows, however, that it doesn’t necessarily take large investment to improve morale and wellbeing on board.
“What has resonated with me, has been that a little really does go a long way meaning that it doesn’t take big gestures and large investments necessarily to really improve someone’s wellbeing,” concluded Stephanie McLay.
New Mental Health SIG launched
Such is the intense interest in this area – and the conference – that the IMarEST has set up a new Seafarer Mental Health & Wellbeing Special Interest Group. Members can join and keep up to date with the latest developments in seafarer mental health, collaborating towards further improvements; and discuss the latest developments in mental health on Nexus.
Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter @AmyMcLellan2