All at sea? How can research on the mental health of seafarers help us cope better with 'lockdown'?

Blog posts

30 Apr 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

Living and working in lockdown has heightened concerns about both the short and long-term impact on the mental health of the workforce. Our own IES survey of homeworker wellbeing has already found an increase in irregular working patterns, long working hours for some, poor sleep, feelings of isolation, an unsettled work-life balance and more worries about money and job security.  

Now seems a good time to look at sectors and occupations where many of these characteristics are ‘par for the course’, to see what lessons others might learn about how to promote positive wellbeing. IES recently published new research in conjunction with Shell, looking at the wellbeing of seafarers in commercial shipping. The findings have a timely resonance during lockdown and might help employers and workers in other sectors to ‘tune’ their own policies and practices.

Seafaring is widely known to be a hazardous occupation. It is both physically and mentally demanding and takes place in one of the most dangerous natural environments. It is a sector with a laser-like focus on health and safety protocols aimed at preventing major safety incidents, to improve and elevate safety performance on-board ships and to weave safety ‘culture’ into the fabric of the way that ships are run each day. In this, and other, safety-critical environments the concept of ‘weak signals’ is used to detect the earliest signs of a chain of events which – though innocuous at first sight – might escalate into a major incident.  One of our research questions focused on whether similar principles might be used to identify ‘weak signals’ in the prevention and early detection of seafarer mental health problems, to improve seafarer wellbeing. 

A recent survey of seafarer mental wellbeing identified high levels of mental illnesses such as depression and the UK Chamber of Shipping reported that suicide rates among seafarers have tripled since 2014, with the rate of suicide for international seafarers three times that of shore workers. The wellbeing of seafarers not only has a direct impact on their work and experience at sea but can also have consequences for health and safety performance.  It was for this reason that Shell commissioned IES to conduct research to gain a better understanding of the factors that affect the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers.

Having undertaken a rapid evidence review of the seafaring and wellbeing literature, and interviews with 28 industry and wellbeing experts globally, we identified a range of interlinked factors that can impact on the wellbeing of seafarers. Overall, we found that five key themes were prominent in helping to explain why wellbeing problems emerge:

Fatigue was a major determinant, not only as a health and wellbeing issue, but in relation to concerns about the safety of working practices, especially if individuals are working in a state of fatigue.  Seafaring work patterns are dominated by shifts, and overtime can be common, leading to disrupted ‘rest-times’ and irregular sleep patterns. “I’d be on rest, but you couldn’t physically sleep, you’d be so busy and active that it takes a couple of actions to actually wind down”.  Fatigue was associated with reduced concentration, forgetfulness, difficulties in processing information and individuals being more prone to distractions – all representing elevated wellbeing and safety risk hazards. 

Nature of the work environment was important, as seafarers can struggle to create a healthy boundary between their work and home life.  Issues such as heat and noise also disrupted sleep, on-board restrictions in relation to gym accessibility and diet were also felt to have implications for physical and mental health. A change in planned deployment duration often resulted in distress, resulting from the uncertainty this caused about when they would ‘get home’.  “The longer the deployment the bigger the impact this can have on family relations and mental health…this causes frustration and stress.”

Nature of the role was discussed in relation to levels of task variety and job demands. Both ‘task overload’ and ‘task underload’ were highlighted to have mental health effects.  “Roles can be incredibly repetitive and boring…I think cognitive underload can really be a risk factor for poor mental health”. The level of crew engagement was thought to be related to performance and safety outcomes.

Communication of safety critical messages and the creation of a safety culture was considered vital in the seafaring environment. The research highlighted how some roles could be socially isolating, and the mix of nationalities on board was reported to be a risk to ship camaraderie.  “When there is a mix of culture, communication becomes a bigger problem, and some cultures mix very easily with some nationalities, and some may not…this is a cause of stress among seafarers”.  The introduction of the internet was a double-edged sword – enabling communication with family, but limiting social interaction on-board.

Leadership and management support was often discussed as critical for ensuring effective communication on-board ships, and for the development of safety cultures – where staff were correctly following processes and procedures, developing teamwork and maintaining safety. “The right sort of leadership is critical…you need team leadership but you also need hierarchical leadership when something goes wrong and someone [needs] to make decisions…”.  As well as managing ‘functional’ aspects of crew leadership, ‘active’ and ‘social leadership’ were phrases often used to indicate that socialising and listening to crews, and showing that they are valued, were just as important.

The findings have highlighted the complexity involved in attempting to understand the range of factors (and their interactions) that can have an impact on the health and wellbeing of seafarers. What is clear is that individual responses to these factors also determine how they will affect their overall health and wellbeing, and their behavioural responses to ‘stressors’.  

Developing an improved understanding of which combination of ‘weak signals’ are at work, relating to the mental health of seafarers and in other safety-critical industries, could be of huge benefit. Too often this ‘early warning’ approach is not used in the context of mental wellbeing, partly because the collection of wellbeing data is rarely given the priority or resources of traditional safety metrics.   

With the health and wellbeing of employees increasingly viewed as an important driver of operational effectiveness, now more than ever (pandemic or not) this is the time to ramp up our understanding of how isolation, fatigue and leadership in extreme or uncomfortable environments can affect mental health. In a post Covid-19 employer landscape, organisations need to develop timely, preventative and evidence-based mental health interventions to help employees as soon as they need them.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.