SIM Project and ISWAN 2022 Seminar – Wrapped up for Christmas…

December 21, 2022
ISWAN staff group photo 4 cropped
The ISWAN team and Dr. Kate Pike (centre, left) at the ISWAN 2022 Seminar

With the ISWAN 2022 Seminar bringing phase three of ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project to a close, Project Research Lead Dr. Kate Pike reviews the learnings from the seminar and identifies areas which will help to shape the future of the project.

On November 16th, following their AGM on board the ss Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) hosted their annual seminar. This prestigious and eventful day focused on the findings of the Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project and discussed the implementation of its guidance and recommendations and future development into other maritime sectors such as the cruise and superyacht industries.

A striking, but not unsurprising, aspect of the seminar was the high proportion of the audience with maritime welfare roles, including port chaplains, charities, NGOs, crew managers and ship owners, who were joined by seafarers (current and past) and others. This rich mix of interested parties contributed their wealth of experience to a day of engaging presentations, a panel discussion and an interactive workshop where participants were encouraged to share their views and ideas.

In this article, I review some of the notable learnings from the collective seminar activities and highlight how the ISWAN 2022 Seminar outcomes contribute to and validate the SIM Project findings. I have also identified areas which will specifically help inform new research and the further development of the project in 2023 and beyond.

Development of the Social Ambassador’s role

The appointment of a Social Ambassador on board every vessel was a key recommendation of the SIM Project. During the seminar panel discussion, Charles Boyle, Director of Legal Services at Nautilus International, identified that to achieve success in this role, the Social Ambassador must be empowered with the necessary resources and consistent encouragement from their company. This, accompanied by good organisation and proactive effort from the relevant shipping company, was also deemed necessary alongside training for the role of the Social Ambassador. It was also suggested that the ISWAN and relevant shipping company websites were used for spreading news about the role of the Social Ambassador and the SIM guidance, making the benefits of the role clear to all those involved, including the charters.

The Social Ambassador should be the person who is most suitable for the role, regardless of their rank, although a more junior seafarer would need support and encouragement from the senior management to make the role a success. Part of their role should include ensuring they understand how to engage the crew, encouraging all on board to contribute their ideas and preferences about social activities, and making sure that they listen and respond to this. Regular anonymous crew surveys were suggested to assist the Social Ambassadors in how best they can engage the crew and keep morale high on board. It was also suggested that cultural training may be helpful to the Social Ambassador depending on the crew mix on board.

Development and considerations for the SIM guidance

Feedback at the seminar helped to validate that the SIM guidance should be an adaptable framework which should be regularly updated as best practices are identified. It was also identified that shipping companies and shore-based managers will need guidance and possibly training to help them implement the SIM guidance.

In terms of ideas for social activities, fleet-wide competitions and competitions run by ISWAN with accompanying prizes were suggested at the seminar. This idea was trialled during the SIM Project and proved popular, although the types of competitions run could be further developed depending on the feedback from different crews. It was suggested that winners of the ISWAN competitions are advertised in a monthly newsletter which is circulated on board and on shore. Additionally, evidence-based case studies highlighting best practice could also be published in a newsletter.

Guests at the ISWAN 2022 Seminar

Raising awareness of the SIM guidance and recommendations and the Social Ambassador’s role

Since completion of phase two of the SIM Project, it is now necessary to educate the crews and ship management about the project’s findings and how social interaction can help positive mood. Promotion of the project and adoption of the guidance will depend on clear messaging around the benefits for both parties, including the improvements to mental health and crew retention. Seminar discussion suggested that social interaction guidance must be backed by the shipping companies. Suggestions to achieve this included posters in mess rooms and other communal places to help ensure good communication.

Reinforcing the above points, Captain Steve Oertel, Social Ambassador during the SIM trials for MF Shipping Group, said:

’We need to pass on the importance of crew welfare, social interaction and mental health to crews. We need to teach vessel staff the importance of social interaction. We can’t give them a directive about what to do.’

Policy development

In line with ISWAN’s strategic objective to influence policy, it was encouraging that some of the workshop participants felt it should be possible to develop the SIM guidance for social interaction on board vessels and cross-reference this within the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), recommending that every vessel should have a dedicated Social Ambassador – supporting the project’s own recommendations.

Additionally, a representative for the International Chamber of Shipping representative at the seminar saw the merit in having discussions with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) about social interaction. They viewed it as a potentially timely moment to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to consider social interaction in 2023 as part of the conversations they are having in the area of harassment and bullying.

Finally, it is useful to mention the following considerations of social interaction and mental health which the seminar speakers drew attention to:

Mental health must be a priority on board

Promoting mental health through social interaction will remain a central focus of the SIM Project and its future development.

Dr Pennie Blackburn, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, mentioned in her presentation that:

’Creating social interaction that leads to social connection has a very positive impact on mental health’

Companies should be looking beyond the individual as to what predicts good mental health

As the SIM Project verified, there are many external factors that influence health. One aspect of this was identified by Dr Mhairi Bowe, Herriot Watt University, in relation the social cure theory. She said:

’Good health and wellbeing is determined as much by collective advantage and disadvantage, than by individual factors’

Companies should also be defining a vision for mental health and wellbeing and establishing key organisational objectives in order to achieve this

Other maritime sectors such as the Royal Navy (UK) have their own dedicated welfare officers to support crew on board their fleet. The SIM Project recommends a comparable approach through the proposed Social Ambassador role.

Surgeon Commodore Fleur Marshall, Head of the Royal Navy Medical Service, said:

’Social interaction plays an enormous role in building ethos and camaraderie among the ship’s company’

The ISWAN 2022 Seminar helped to reinforce the importance of social interaction and the investment in seafarers’ welfare, particularly in terms of increasing job satisfaction, retention, and promoting a strong, efficient organisation.

Julie Carlton, Safety and Health Manager from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (one of the project funders), further emphasised the significance of the SIM Project, saying:

’The [SIM] research demonstrates the value of social interaction in promoting teamwork and thereby strengthening safety culture’

The positive feedback and informative outputs from the ISWAN 2022 Seminar reinforced the value of hosting such face-to-face events, allowing people to connect and share their thoughts. Thanks to all involved on the day for helping to bring new ideas and approaches to the table and driving action and change to further the development of the SIM Project going forward into the New Year and beyond.

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