Spotting weak signals: New IES research examines the drivers of physical and mental health in safety-critical work environments

Press Releases

16 Apr 2020

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) is pleased to announce the launch of a new research report exploring factors that influence physical and psychological health in safety-critical industries.

The Journey from Health and Safety to Healthy and Safe is supported by Shell Shipping and Maritime and focuses primarily on seafarers, based on evidence that the suicide rate for international seafarers is three times that of shore workers; attributable, in part, to an increase in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

The purpose of the research is to increase understanding of the factors affecting psychological and physical health in the seafaring community and use the information to identify data and interventions that could bring about improvements in safety at sea.

In recent research worrying levels of psychiatric problems amongst seafarers were reported.  For example:

  • In a survey of more than 1,000 seafarers (17% were UK nationals), it was revealed that more than one-quarter had screened positive for signs of depression.
  • 26% of seafarers reported feeling ‘down, depressed or hopeless’ on several days over the previous two weeks.
  • More than 20% reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless’ every day.

The research also highlighted that there may still be a culture of stigma regarding the reporting of mental health and wellbeing as:

  • Nearly half of the seafarers reporting symptoms of depression said they had not asked anyone for help.
  • Although one-third said they had spoken to family/friends, only 21% said they had spoken to another colleague on-board ship, despite sometimes spending months at a time on ship.

IES reviewed 50 peer-reviewed academic papers in addition to over 60 ‘grey’ publications produced by industry, sector bodies and organisations operating in safety-critical industries. IES also interviewed 28 experts from the maritime industry, including: Shell executives, experts in human factors, psychology and wellbeing; and those from other safety critical industries (e.g. rail, aviation, military, construction and nuclear).

Four key questions shaped the research:

  1. What factors influence psychological and physical health in seafaring and other safety-critical industries?
  2. How and in what ways do/can psychological and physical health influence adverse incidents?
  3. What existing data could be collected on health-related factors that could impact on safety?
  4. What interventions are there in seafaring, and other safety-critical industries, that could be implemented in order to bring about a positive impact on the psychological and physical health of seafarers?

As the data was analysed, five main themes emerged where the evidence was strongest:

  1. Fatigue: long working hours; changes in working hours, shift-work and overtime.
  2. Nature of the work environment: heat; noise; vibrations; ship movement; access to facilities; length of deployment and separation from family.
  3. Nature of the role: autonomy; task; skill variety; workload and job satisfaction.
  4. Socialisation: social interaction; communication; social isolation; cross-cultural awareness and transient nature of the crew.
  5. Leadership and management support: setting the tone/culture on board; support, social interaction and line management.

One explanation that may clarify why these five themes emerged most strongly is the SCARF model. SCARF identifies Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness as key dimensions in our perceptions of threat and reward and which ultimately determines our ability to collaborate, make decisions and solve problems.

However, there were a number of factors related to the work environment that, as the IES research has identified, can also have an impact on employee behaviour and performance outcomes that do not necessarily fit into the SCARF model. These include nutrition, level of noise, vibrations, on-board facilities etc. 

Thus, for safety critical industries a ‘SCARF+’ model may be useful to develop when looking at wellbeing outcomes. Additionally, there is also a need to understand the role of the individual and the choices that they make that can have an impact on their health and behaviours.

Lead author, Dr Zofia Bajorek, said: “Seafarers face multiple risks to their health and wellbeing which can affect both safety and performance, as well as the damage that can be done to individual lives and livelihoods.

“Being able to predict weak signals in the working environment and to know which factors in which set of circumstances are likely to be most important is invaluable to protect and enhance the health and wellbeing of staff.

“Our work, with the support of Shell, has enabled us to develop an evidence-based model that lays the foundation for predicting where to intervene to enhance the health and lived experience of seafarers. There is real potential for predictive, evidence-based models to support health and wellbeing, and ultimately safety and performance, in industry more widely.”

Brian Horsburgh, General Manager HSSE, Shell Shipping & Maritime, said: “We commissioned this report as part of our work on supporting the mental and physical health of seafarers and are using its insights to help us build practical wellbeing programmes for use on ships.

Reducing accidents at sea is critical and to achieve this we must support seafarers to be both ‘Healthy and Safe’ by maintaining the focus on promoting good mental and physical wellbeing.”

The research is available here: