Relationships are an important part of our wellbeing, but seafarers face a number of barriers on board which can make socialising with crewmates difficult. The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is running a project which aims to help shipping and ship management companies tackle these challenges using programmes developed through research.
According to a 2016 Mental Health Foundation report1, people who are more socially connected to family, friends or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, and have fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. Having close, positive relationships can give us a purpose and sense of belonging, and spending time supporting someone who is going through a difficult time can help to build strong bonds. Developing good workplace relationships can also have a positive impact on job satisfaction, workplace morale and quality of life2.
At the other end of the spectrum, loneliness has been found to be associated with a number of health problems – higher blood pressure, poor sleep, lower immunity, a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and poorer mental health3.
For seafarers, who spend long periods away from loved ones with sometimes limited communication, connecting with those around them can be a powerful way to boost their wellbeing. The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of crew cohesion on a global scale. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers around the world have been forced to spend longer on board due to travel restrictions and crew change delays, with serious knock-on effects on their mental health.
Stronger relationships and crew cohesion on board can improve seafarers’ happiness, but there are also a number of benefits to shipping and ship management companies. There is strong evidence that addressing wellbeing in the workplace ashore can increase productivity by as much as 12%4, and this is likely to be the case for seafarers and their work on board. Similarly, diverse crews which include different age groups, genders and cultural backgrounds may have the potential to be more creative and productive, so facilitating crew cohesion and ensuring seafarers do not feel isolated is a worthwhile investment.
Evidence that a company works to ensure the best possible onboard culture will help attract and retain highly skilled seafarers. Moreover, senior officers showing that health and wellbeing is a priority, demonstrates its importance as a workplace issue and ensures that it is a shared priority across the business5.
So what can companies do to facilitate social interaction on board? With some relatively straightforward changes, companies can make a big difference to the happiness of their seafarers and ISWAN aims to pave the way with its Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project.
Launched earlier this year, the SIM Project, sponsored by the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Red Ensign Group (REG), aims to help shipping and ship management companies to positively impact the wellbeing of their seafarers by improving social interaction on board. In Phase One of the project, ISWAN conducted research, led by Dr Kate Pike, to investigate the barriers and drivers of social interaction on board. This included a survey of over 900 participants from the maritime industry and a number of in-depth telephone interviews alongside a review of the existing literature. A webinar was held in July to discuss some of the findings of the research and the full report will be published in January 2021. Among the key findings were perceptions about the barriers to social interaction on board including: increased workloads, cultural/national differences, fatigue, lack of time and smaller crews. Respondents also cited WiFi in cabins, no bars or alcohol, poor leadership on board, poor shore management and lack of communal space. However, it was interesting to note that WiFi was more likely to be seen as a barrier to social interaction if the respondent worked shoreside.
Respondents of the survey stated that the main drivers to social interaction were (in order of priority): the onboard culture, organisation of events, recreational facilities, stable crewing, encouragement from shore management, mentoring and WiFi access. It is clear that shipping and ship management companies have an important role to play and establishing the right onboard culture (set by senior officers) can help provide an environment conducive to social interaction. With fatigue making it hard for seafarers to find the energy to socialise, leadership and innovative solutions are needed.
Over the past few months, ISWAN has been busy planning for Phase Two with a number of shipping companies interested in strengthening crew cohesion on their vessels to trial social engagement initiatives on board. Considering crew makeup (such as nationality, age and interests), the companies will select one free or low-cost initiative to trial on board every few weeks for a minimum of three months to a maximum of six. The initiatives are divided into four categories originating from the findings of Phase One: entertainment, sporting, culinary and social media.
The project is very fortunate to be working with 16 vessels so far across companies including Amoretti Armatori Group, BSM, MF Shipping Group, Northern Marine, Scorpio Ship Management, Seaspan, V.Ships and ITM, with a number of other interested companies on the waiting list. Some trials have begun are expected to be complete by Spring of 2021.
The valuable data and feedback generated from the trials will later be used in Phase Three of the project to develop guidance for shipping companies in the form of a toolkit to be disseminated widely across the industry. This will document proven successes, recommendations and ways to overcome challenges to social interaction on board, all with the end goal of happier, healthier, safer and more engaged seafarers.
To find out more about ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project, please contact Caitlin Vaughan: firstname.lastname@example.org. ISWAN launched a two-week digital campaign in June 2020 themed around ‘Connecting Crew’, which provided information and ideas for both shipping companies and seafarers to help improve social interaction and strengthen relationships on board. A summary of the campaign and its resources can be found at seafarerswelfare.org/news/2020/connecting-crew-to-boost-wellbeing.
1 Mental Health Foundation (May 2016). Relationships in the 21st Century. London: Mental Health Foundation.
2 Schermuly, C.C. & Meyer, B. (2015). Good relationships at work: The effects of Leader-Member Exchange and Team-Member Exchange on psychological empowerment, emotional exhaustion, and depression. Journal of Organisational Behavior, DOI:10.1002/job.2060.
3 Cacioppo, J.T., Fowler, J.H. & Christakis, N.A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (6), 977–991.
4 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-support-mental-health-work (accessed 28 September 2020).
5 https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/news/cbi-front-of-mind/ (accessed 28 September 2020).