The recent webinar hosted by ISWAN presented initial findings from the Social Interaction Matters (SIM) survey which was distributed to maritime professionals throughout April and May. The survey forms a central part of the research phase of the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Red Ensign Group (REG)-sponsored SIM Project which is being conducted to help support evidence-based information for improving social interaction on board. Phase two of the project will focus on trialling and evaluating initiatives that bring people together on board.
The webinar was attended by 63 people with lots of lively discussion following the presentation of findings by Dr Kate Pike. We have summarised some of the conversations below, which went ahead during the webinar. This can be viewed here or at the end of this article.
Q: Very low percentage of Filipino respondents as compared to the percentage of Filipino seafarers globally?
It is surprising that the number of Filipino respondents is not representative of the number of Filipino seafarers globally (almost half the respondents were Indian whereas only 5% were Filipino). However, a number of respondents were from the Philippines as were some of the telephone interviewees. It is most likely we have enough data to make assertions about any links between nationality and other variables, but there will also be other opportunities to address any gaps in the data during the future phases of the project.
Q: Were the surveys translated into different languages and were they available offline?
No, the surveys weren’t translated or available offline due to time and budget restrictions as well as some of the additional challenges caused by the pandemic. We were lucky to receive such a large number of responses to our online survey and we have been conducting in-depth telephone interviews to supplement the findings in the survey.
Q: Are you thinking about developing some toolkits for culture development or on-board activities?
In phase 3 of the project we will be documenting our findings about what drives social interaction and presenting them in comprehensive ways – such as toolkits – so that shipping companies can take them forward.
Q: Data about the gym – is this solitary or social?
This question wasn’t specifically asked but people often referred to ‘working out’ with other crew members in the gym. However, it is also clear that some respondents will be using the gym on their own.
The impact of COVID-19
‘COVID-19 has shown us all how difficult isolation is. The increase and reliance on technology is reported to have been huge’
Webinar participants held some discussion about the way the public on shore has adapted to lockdown; for example, children keeping in touch with their friends via online chat and gaming despite never experiencing social isolation in this way before. Some of this points to our reliance on technology and how essential it has been to keep in touch with family and friends. It’s given people ashore a small sense of what life can be like for seafarers on board for many months and it’s now important to ensure seafarers have that access to communications. One participant added:
‘Isolation is a normal existence for seafarers therefore the same emphasis to facilitate communication, on board and otherwise, should be a priority’
We know that the pandemic has put various strains on crews who haven’t been able to sign off vessels as expected as well as those who have become stranded far from home or found themselves unemployed and in unforeseen financial difficulty. A strong social life on board as well as the facilities to stay in touch with home will have been a lifeline to some of the seafarers still working on board during this time.
Access to WiFi on board
Q: Does the data on WiFi tell us anything about a split in views according to age?
Our findings do show a split between age groups where – perhaps unsurprisingly – younger generations who have grown up with the internet felt more in favour of unrestricted internet access than some representatives from older generations.
Interestingly, there was also a split in views between shore-based personnel, who were less in favour of unrestricted connectivity, and seafarers who were much more positive about it.
Q: Did you break down this WiFi barrier in more detail on the 45% shore side?
Some more work will be conducted on the age demographics of the shore-side participants, but it is felt that a large percentage are likely to be in an older demographic. They maybe leaders in their own right with a likely reliance on Masters and Officers to feed back issues on board. The Masters and Officers are also likely to be in a demographic who have not grown up with WiFi thus swaying the results. Changes in society also leave a reliance on communication with home and with current extended contracts. This is more important, not less.
Webinar participants added many views on the subject – here are some of them:
‘Bandwidth can be a major problem. It is so frustrating trying to interact with family/friends ashore when you have big time delays in getting through and the wifi can be notoriously unreliable.’
‘[the] benefits of WiFi also important for access to support, helplines, education and recreational activities eg meditation, training etc’
‘I think you can never have a prejudgement on how important it is for someone to call their family in time of need. I think it’s important for people to take their own responsibility on wifi-use on board. But is has to be made available’
‘society generally uses the internet more frequently than it did 10 or 20 years ago. it makes sense that we will see the same trend change on board ships as well. we must remember that they are still members of our society. I think that providing wifi for seafarers coupled with encouraging social interaction and highlighting the benefits of this, would be the right approach’
‘I’ve heard of people rejecting jobs because of poor internet on board’
Space to socialise on board and facilities
Q: The 28% who have enough space [to socialise] – presume this was before social distancing on board. Guess this figure would now have plummeted even further?
We didn’t ask specifically about the impact of COVID-19 on social spaces on board and the survey was distributed soon after the pandemic was declared so there is a good chance that this number could be lower as a direct consequence of social distancing measures on board. The findings did show that how social spaces are used are very important as well as the space size. Seafarers being in the same space together isn’t enough to guarantee they are socialising with each other. Some survey respondents gave great examples about how best to use communal spaces and the importance of paying attention to layout. For instance, dividing communal spaces to fit with different styles of activities can be a good way to get people to socialise according to their interests.
‘I feel one of the biggest barriers is getting people to use the facilities on board, you can have gyms, karaoke nights bbq etc but I found it’s getting the people to actually get involved’
Q: Did you connect information about perception of being in a good atmosphere on board and access to good facilities and internet?
We are looking at different connections between the questions we’ve asked and feel that further analysis will show up interesting findings. There are limitations to the number and length of questions we can ask in a survey but the telephone interviews we’ve conducted have helped us looks at some of these variables in more depth. All of these further findings will be included in the full research report.
The impact of alcohol on board
A lot of webinar discussion centred around the advantages and disadvantages of allowing alcohol on board and the impact of social interaction. Many participants noted the benefits of allowing alcohol with clear restrictions on times and amount, noting that limiting alcohol rather than enforcing outright bans could be the best way forward.
‘dry ships have the risk of leading to secret drinking’
‘in an interview I did with a chief officer on an offshore vessel, the officer told me that when they allowed 0% beer onboard, the crew started to sit together in the bar and talk "like in the old days". The beer bottle became a sort of mediating object to gather around’
In contrast, some participants added concerns about safety when alcohol is freely available having noticed a number of major accidents on these vessels; some agreed it would be good to see statistics on links with safety and alcohol, as well as links to mental health statistics. It was also noted that vessel type needs to be considered when looking into the positive/negative impacts of alcohol on board.
‘to be honest the biggest change I’ve seen in 39 years at sea is alcohol policies and ships going dry and how that has changed social Interaction onboard, I think it’s getting a balance of alcohol (if it’s allowed on board that is) and safety and getting people to socialise more when not drinking…’
The effects of fatigue were mentioned during the webinar discussion alongside an observation that it can have very similar safety implications as someone under the influence of alcohol.
Fatigue was raised as a main barrier to social interaction in the survey. The short turnaround times in ports and work demands can mean that downtime isn’t possible or that seafarers are too exhausted to socialise. We know from studies such as MARTHA that the longer a voyage, the more likely a seafarer is to feel exhausted at the end of a shift; enforcing social interaction under these circumstances is probably not wise. There is an important balancing act for senior management to encourage social interaction without burdening already exhausted crew.
Q: Is there any evidence about the impact of leadership on social interaction on board?
The survey findings and telephone interviews have really demonstrated how important leadership is to crew wellbeing. It’s clear that if senior management really fosters interaction, there are many benefits to productivity and performance as well as the contentedness of crew.
Q: What is meant by encouragement by shore management – how does this directly impact?
Encouragement from shore management may mean a guaranteed welfare fund each voyage. However, what really seems to help is the office’s support, understanding and encouragement for the senior officer team on board to help them establish a good onboard culture that actively helps people to engage and interact with each other. Sometime this may mean allowing more autonomy for the senior officers to arrange activities on board or in port as they see fit.
‘some on board leaders perhaps need more training on good management. Often they have been promoted because of their technical skills and not much focus has been put on their leadership and people management skills. This can be resolved with mentoring and coaching from Shoreside management’
Q: Did findings show any efforts to introduce initiatives across entire fleets?
There is evidence of some efforts to introduce initiatives across fleets – particularly within small companies. It will be interesting to see if we can learn more about similar initiatives in phase two.
‘Very important that on board senior Top 4 actively encourage and provide the open and teamwork orientated culture to allow social interaction - this is part of leadership’
‘The leadership comment is absolutely true. I tried organising one quiz night and it ended up being a weekly thing; it became much more than a quiz night’
SIM Project Next Steps
Q: How have the results influenced phase 2 and what recommendations do we have?
The research report which will complete phase one of the project will be ready in September, these findings will inform the direction of phase two which is in the very early stages of planning. Planning for this phase will also include conversations with the shipping companies about how we begin to implement some of the findings from the first phase of the project.
For any further information, please contact Caitlin Vaughan.