22 June 2021

Lessons learned: How Mission to Seafarers is working to improve seafarer wellbeing 

In this best practice and lessons learned article, RightShip speaks to Mission to Seafarers about the importance of understanding seafarer wellbeing, and the programs designed to measure and improve mental health and wellbeing outcomes at sea. 

Among the many initiatives that the Mission to Seafarers has rolled out during the pandemic, a key priority has been speaking with seafarers to get a clear sense of their concerns and challenges. In its Seafarers Happiness Index during the first quarter of 2021, the Mission spoke to crews around the globe to hear about the experiences of those who are still experiencing the impact of Covid-19.  

Seafarer wellbeing has been an ongoing consideration for the industry for several years, and the Mission is working to gain clearer insight into the issues, while also implementing solutions, both now and in the long-term.  

  

The issue 

In its 2021 first quarter Seafarer Happiness Index report, the level of contentment was an average of 6.46 out of ten, up from 6.37 in the final quarter of 2021. While the Mission pointed out that the slight shift up was positive, they are yet to see any significant improvements.  

“We think this is down to the small, but important, rise in the number of seafarers being repatriated at the end of their contracts. However, it’s worth noting that such optimism is nowhere to be found in the current data being collected due to the slowing of repatriations in the last couple of months,” says Ben Bailey, the Mission’s Director of Advocacy and Regional Engagement 

"Seafarers still have schedules to maintain but transiting from port to port has been made this more difficult. Couple this with the stress of worrying about family at home and whether they will be vaccinated, all adds to a pressure cooker of concerns for crews,” he adds. 

The Mission has explained that although the average appeared to be reasonable, the spread of responses was extreme. With some reporting a 10 out of 10 experience, but many recording just one out of 10. This is concerning and highlights many problematic environments, in which those seafarers indicated several problems with life on vessels, particularly when they would get home, with some worrying that they wouldn’t get home at all.  

Although we have seen improvements since the first wave in March 2020, crew change management remains an ongoing issue, particularly in countries that are still seeing dangerous infection rates, which in turn impacts crew repatriation.  

Unfortunately, the Mission has reported a trend in inter-personal tension, with an increase in seafarers detailing cases of bullying and harassment, xenophobia and racism on board.  

Additional concerns included the quality of food on their voyages. While some reported a good standard of provisions, this was not always the case.  

In positive news, there were indications that there were some improved processes in place to protect health and mental wellbeing on board, with some companies offering gyms, table tennis, video gaming and improved wi-fi services.  

Worryingly, however, there were many reports of unreasonable workloads, with several respondents reporting that their rest hours were non-compliant, and in some cases, there was pressure to sign off on work hours that weren’t accurate, to create a sense that their operations were compliant.  

  

Why seafarer wellbeing matters  

According to the Mission, improved seafarer wellbeing is essential to best practice operations. The team believes that poor wellbeing is closely linked to safety issues. When crews are unhappy or distracted by financial or home-based pressures, they may be unable to perform their duties to the best of their ability, which leads to potential accidents.  

But safety aside, our seafarers deserve to work under harmonious, respectful conditions. They are the lifeblood of our industry, and we must support them to feel safe, protected and valued.  

  

Solution one: The Mission to Seafarers WeCare program  

Mission to Seafarers has developed a wellbeing training program called WeCare. It offers dual educational support in financial wellbeing and social wellbeing.  

According to Thomas  O’Hare, Project Manager at the Mission to Seafarers., social wellbeing means feeling comfortable, healthy or happy within your social networks. It’s about being in control of how you choose to socialise and being confident in maintaining your expectations and boundaries. 

By contrast, financial wellbeing involves having a sense of security and feeling as though you have enough money to meet your needs. It’s about being in control of your day-to-day finances and having the financial freedom to make choices that allow you to enjoy life. 

The courses have been produced by qualified psychologists, financial specialists, and leading training providers and are designed specifically for seafarers. Research undertaken by Mission to Seafarers shows that managing income to support their families, and challenges with social communications in a diverse crew can cause enormous physical and mental health challenges.  

As can the access to social media, which has communication benefits for families, but exposure to these communications can also be harmful, particularly when seafarers are unable to be with their loved ones. When these issues are widespread in a crew, it can have a significant flow-on impact on safety, vessel operations and cargo.  

Similarly, managing money when so far from home can cause anxiety, according to the Mission.  

The WeCare project has the capacity to address these two crucial issues. The Mission to Seafarers has offered these two courses on a face-to-face basis to 6,000 seafarers and their families up until February 2020 when the world was impacted so dramatically by COVID-19.  

During 2020 the Mission embraced the challenge and developed an e-learning program – making these vital courses available to more seafarers at any given time.  

“In 2020 our workshops ceased due to Covid-19, so e-learning was the primary delivery channel,” explains Thomas.  

The advantage of bolstering their e-learning capabilities was access to more people. “We’ve been working with a number of larger shipping companies which will allow us to reach thousands of seafarers,” he adds. 

In addition, the team has worked to educate chaplains and volunteers, so that they’re well placed to talk about the lessons in the programs.  

 

The courses at a glance:  

Financial wellbeing  

Take for example a typical Filipino seafarer. This person could be supporting between 15-20 extended family members. As a result, financial pressure can be significant because a culture of dependency becomes established, and the seafarer’s family is expected to help a wider family circle. Therefore, modules have been developed to help seafarers understand how to manage their income and say ‘no’ where required.  

Subject areas include:

  1. Identifying the links between mental health and money. 
  2. Organising your money. Taking stock of financial status and creating budgets.
  3. Taking control. Living within your means and managing debt.
  4. Securing your future. Maintaining budgets, savings, and learning to say ‘no’ (and still be friends). 
     

Social wellbeing 

According to the Mission to Seafarers, port chaplains and welfare teams have reported that often seafarers' mental health is affected by pressures from home. The availability of internet onboard ships and access to social media means there are greater expectations for communication from families.  

This pressure has resulted in several cases of depression and seafarers’ suicides because long-distance relationships may break down, and seafarers seeing no way out.  

Subject areas include: 

  1. Identifying the links between mental health, social media, and long-distance relationships.
  2. Know Before you Go. Exploring how our social media usage evolves on board, setting expectations with loved ones, and establishing a communication plan. 
  3. At Sea. Managing communication on board, applying communication plans, and maintaining wellness methods like ‘Think like a STAR’ (Stop, think, assess and respond)
  4. Securing your future: Reflecting on how we define and own our mental health and wellbeing and owning our self-care plan.

  

The courses are loaded on the Oceans Technology Group platform or can be provided as files to support an operator’s training capabilities. You can learn more about We Care here. 

 

Solution two: Global Day of Action (GDA) 

The Mission also encourages ship owners and operators to consider a Global Day of Action (GDA). There are several support services provided by the Mission to those who seek to roll out a day of fundraising activities to support welfare initiatives within an organisation.  

“It is part fundraiser and part day of celebration that acknowledges the work and sacrifice made by the Global Community of Seafarers. It can run over one specific day or a longer period to suit different global locations,” says Maurizio Borgatti, the Mission’s Head of Corporate Partnerships. 

Shipping companies are encouraged to choose any day that is suitable and can get help with planning, right through to the fundraising day itself.   

“Different offices and locations are encouraged to work across one particular theme such as the accumulation of miles to journey between virtual points. Offices then create their own challenges and events, which can include walks, runs, swims, cycles, indoor rowing or even bake sales,” Maurizio says. 

He adds that the allocation of funds can be part of the conversation at the planning stage, and where possible can be allocated to local port initiatives, or major projects and campaigns. “Unrestrictive donations can be directed quickly to where they are needed most, but funds designed to support specific projects are equally of value. The Mission can offer a range of projects and campaigns for consideration, and allocation will always be by agreement,” Maurizio concludes.  

Holman Fenwick Willan was the first organisation to create a GDA in 2019 and they raised a remarkable £25,000. In 2020 and 2021, the number of participating organisations continues to grow, and the mission is pleased to see companies across the globe rally together to increase their funds for seafarer wellbeing.  

  

For more details on organising your own Global Day of Action or participating in the WeCare program, please contact Maurizio Borgatti, Head of Corporate Partnerships at the Mission to Seafarers, at maurizio.borgatti@missiontoseafarers.org 

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