Seafarer mental health crisis at a tipping point due to COVID-19 impact

 The seafarer community is in the midst of a mental health crisis due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the seafarers’ welfare and that of their families, the latest edition of the Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) published by the Mission to Seafarers shows.

Illustration; Image by Navingo

The SHI is a barometer of the key issues facing those at sea today, and the latest report for the second quarter of 2020 reflects the responses from crew members globally against the backdrop of a global crew change crisis precipitated by COVID-19.

The report said the continuing decline of happiness at sea, was largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home. Heavy workloads, virus fears and a perceived lack of COVID-19 precautions on board vessels are exacerbating the decline in satisfaction.

“Without immediate action, there are significant risks for the mental and physical wellbeing of crew and a growing risk to safety,” the report warns.

The latest survey, undertaken in association with the Shipowners’ Club and Wallem Group, analyses the experiences of seafarers across the global maritime industry between April and June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, seafarer happiness has dropped from 6.30 in Q1 2020 to 6.18 in Q2 2020.

The survey unveils the harsh reality of crews not being able to get home, worries about the safety of family and friends, and frustration at extended contracts and even fears about entire careers, not just jobs.

Crew members are tired, fed up, lonely, homesick, sometimes even suffering illness and pain, and they desperately want to get back home.

Furthermore, the report shows vessels are sailing with fewer crew members, increased sickness onboard, and pressure to keep hygiene standards at almost hospital-like levels. The demands of meeting these standards while also maintaining social distancing are relentless and seafarers are struggling to adhere to new guidance.

Seafarers have reported feeling unsupported and stressed, and without respite, which is impacting work standards as well as the welfare of seafarers.  Combined with the challenge of accessing medical services, the risk of an increase in incidents of self-harm and in the number of accidents is very real as stress impacts work, compromising safety at all levels.

“We are in the midst of a welfare crisis. While Q1 showed us how seafarers suffered as COVID-19 struck home and provided insight into the support that was needed, the Q2 report highlights the cost of inaction and the need for immediate solutions,” Andrew Wright, Secretary-General of The Mission to Seafarers, commented.

“It is paramount that we see progress with crew changeovers, onboard PPE and improved communication between shore and sea, to defuse this ticking time-bomb. Protecting seafarers is a priority and governments must now come together and work with industry before it is too late.”

As explained by Louise Hall, Director – Loss Prevention at the Shipowners’ Club, social distancing has taken a great toll on relationships and connectivity on board.

“Reports of additional safety measures, such as separating tables and limiting the capacity of mess rooms at meal times, has made even the most habitual social interactions difficult. This, coupled with extended periods of time at sea, raises serious concerns for seafarers’ mental wellbeing as feelings of loneliness and isolation intensify.”

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“Never has the statement ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ had more meaning than in the crew crisis.  No bonus or extra pay can resolve the anguish, mental stress and problems being faced by the crew today,” Frank Coles, Chief Executive Officer, Wallem Group, added.

The report also reaffirms the importance of communication to seafarers. With many seafarers unable to leave their vessels or contact their family due to the crisis, online access is fundamental to their wellbeing.

Without the connection to home and restricted support from ship visitors and port chaplains, seafarers are on the edge of serious mental distress. It is reported that many companies are not communicating well with their seafarers and little support is on offer. With little or no communication, seafarers are trapped on vessels, imagining the worst.

The Q1 2020 Seafarers Happiness Index identified the pride that seafarers feel in their work and their hope that the industry would protect them.

Today, this is clearly tempered with disappointment that seafarers are not recognised as key workers. The challenges being reported are reaching intolerable levels, due to contracts being disregarded and growing reports of sexism, racism and bullying and drunkenness onboard. Seafarers are at a tipping point and it is essential that faster progress is made to protect seafarers and stop the industry from falling into a deeper crisis.

The message of the report is clear: crew changes are needed, and those who can make them happen must do so, now. Only once seafarers can return home to their families and those serving at sea feel safe can we avert the both the immediate and the long-term impact of a mental health crisis among our seafarers.