As part of the ISWAN 2022 Seminar last month, we held a panel discussion with industry experts which explored how the maritime industry can implement the guidance and recommendations from ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project from a practical point of view.
Capt. Steve Oertel, a Master at MF Shipping Group, held the role of Social Ambassador on board one of the SIM Project’s 21 trial vessels. He was voluntarily recruited to observe and record any social interaction activities, and any factors which influenced the mood on board, and to act as the main contact with the ISWAN SIM team. Capt. Oertel was originally scheduled to feature on the panel but was unable to make it in person due to unforeseen circumstances. However, he shares his thoughts and feedback here, offering a unique insight into a seafarer’s experience of the importance of social interaction for seafarer wellbeing.
ISWAN: One of the key recommendations of the SIM Project is to install a voluntary Social Ambassador on board every vessel to help engage crew in social activities. How could this role be implemented to reach its full potential and what do you see as the Ambassador’s main role?
Capt. Steve: My vessel was designated to take part in the SIM Project trials. After familiarizing myself with the topic and details, I was wondering: ‘Why is there a need for a Social Ambassador?’ In my opinion, it is part of my responsibility and duty as Captain of my ship, is it not? So, I declared myself Social Ambassador, since I saw it as part of my job already.
During the trial and the process of the SIM Project, I noticed my responsibilities and duties were not only lying as ‘Captain’ but also as Social Ambassador as well. I had spoken and asked the crew more about themselves, their likes and hobbies, as well as how they spend their leisure time on board or what kind of activities sportive or entertainment they prefer.
With this knowledge, as well as my resources as Captain, I could arrange and organize things in good relation to the working and sailing schedule of the vessel and crew – time for barbeque, swimming pool on deck, purchasing or overhauling sport equipment or organizing a shopping trip for the off-duty crew in the next convenient port, etc.
In my opinion, the main role and duty for the Social Ambassador is to listen and speak to the crew and to reflect and re-check the present ship’s atmosphere in terms of social interaction and how to improve. Furthermore, the Social Ambassador has to arrange or organize the related or needed things for activities and to coordinate these with the senior management level of the ship. I also would call the Social Ambassador the ‘INITIATOR’ (whose role is to get the things rolling).
As I am serving on a small vessel with nine to 12 crew members, I always like to call us a ‘family’. And to create this family atmosphere within the crew on board is the duty of the Social Ambassador, as well as partly that of every crew member on board as well.
ISWAN: Capt. Steve’s interpretation of the role and responsibilities of Social Ambassador is spot on. The SIM Project demonstrated that without supportive and visible leadership on board, which provides permission for social interaction to take place, crews will not feel able to engage.
Capt. Steve also interprets the role as being synonymous with that of the captain – he refers to it as his ‘duty’. Although we did find that most of the Social Ambassador posts on board were held by captains or those in high-ranking roles, the SIM Project stresses that the most important thing is for any Social Ambassador to be recruited voluntarily and because they are suitable for the associated responsibilities. Rather than forcing the role onto any already over-burdened captains, in some cases it may be beneficial for morale to install a more junior crew member who can successfully bring their peers together and organise activities. Either way, the buy-in of the captain – whether directly or through showing support for the Social Ambassador – is essential for the success of this role.
ISWAN: The SIM Project showed that crew mood on board is highly susceptible to external influences. Positive changes to mood on board are linked to supportive leadership, social activities, competitions, sufficient rest time, reliable and adequate access to Wi-Fi, good food, celebration of special occasions, and a diverse and inclusive environment. What can be done to foster these influences and are there any more you would add to the list?
Capt. Steve: I absolutely agree that the mood of the crew on board is highly influenced by external factors. It is highly important to keep the mood and spirit elevated and positive on board. The SIM guidance offers a very wide range of possibilities to do so, and implementing these things would set a basis.
One of the highest value points for me on board is to take the daily meals together. On board it is hard to meet all crew at the same time. To have eating times together offers an opportunity to speak with each other or to suggest a movie evening, karaoke sessions or a chess game, so people are meeting each other and not ‘hiding’ in their cabins, lonely.
ISWAN: Throughout the SIM Project trials we witnessed time and again how important food and meals are for bringing crew together, even under the most demanding of schedules. Capt. Steve’s suggestion for using mealtimes to not only socially interact, but also to generate collaborative discussions and plan future activities, also supports one of the project’s other recommendations – that planning ahead both ensures all crew are given the opportunity to have their social preferences heard and provides them with something to look forward to during tough periods.
ISWAN: Separation of work and leisure or personal time on board is important and these boundaries should be clearly established and maintained because of the detrimental impact to seafarer wellbeing if they are not. What steps can be taken to promote good leisure time, especially when workloads are heavy (in port, for example)?
Capt. Steve: As I am serving on a cement taxi vessel in the short sea service; we are always busy and do have a high workload, so it is paramount to me to be very careful concerning the work/rest balance for the crew.
In times when we are under very high and intense workload and time pressure, I always communicate to the crew: ‘Now, for the moment it is very busy and stressful for all crew. But ASAP we will find the counterbalance with either more relaxation after duty and/or light work duties.’
In which way a crewmember can switch off his body and mind is very individual and has to be tested by everyone himself. Publishing the SIM guidance on board, for example in the mess room, and for the crewmember to test all methods himself, can help to find his personal best ways to ‘switch off’.
I personally prefer sports at daytime or readying a book during night times.
ISWAN: Throughout the SIM trials and more broadly across ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp and Yacht Crew Help helplines, the theme of open and transparent communication is regularly raised. Seafarers, just like anyone else, need to feel trusted and supported to feel in control of their own wellbeing.
Capt. Steve hits the nail on the head here when he says that self-care and coping mechanisms which encourage positive wellbeing are ‘very individual’. During the recent ISWAN 2022 Seminar, a few contributors raised concerns about social interaction activities being made mandatory on board and the associated risk of ‘forced fun’. The SIM Project absolutely does not recommend forcing any crew member to socially interact when they do not want to. Rather, the project aims to help shipping and ship management companies facilitate an on-board atmosphere and culture which provides individuals with a supportive environment to meet their own wellbeing needs.
ISWAN: More generally the project recommends that: Shipping companies, charterers and crew managers should actively and visibly support their seafarers to relax and interact with each other during their rest time. How can this be effectively achieved?
Capt. Steve: Any supportive measures and help from shore are always welcome on the ship. I do believe it already starts with focusing the awareness of people on board as well as ashore about that topic.
Ships are no robots (at least not yet), so in treating the crew on board well, they will support the vessel and operation to their best. And at the end of the day everyone will have a smile on his face, no matter the day.
At MF Shipping Group we have a company magazine called ‘Fleetlog’ offering a communication platform. There, crewmembers can find articles from the office as well as from crew to stay in touch with each other.
Also, ‘Company Days’ offer a good opportunity for the office as well as the ship’s crew to meet and socially interact with each other.
ISWAN: Capt. Steve makes a valuable point here that any implementation of the SIM Project recommendations will not achieve long-term success without a full understanding of why such initiatives are important. Those in decision-making roles need to take a 360° approach to developing and improving company cultures around mental health and wellbeing. This means introducing initiatives such as those recommended by the SIM Project not in silo, but alongside other commitments to education, welfare support, and company policies which foster a supportive and inclusive environment for all.
ISWAN: Do you have any final thoughts?
Capt. Steve: The SIM Project focused on a matter I was aware of but not in the detail of how important and in how many different ways the crew atmosphere is influenced and can be improved.
Furthermore, the SIM guidance offers and provides a wide and very good range of activities as well as methods and help for crews on board.
I highly appreciate the opportunity to take part in the SIM Project trials, which showed me the whole picture and interaction of the social aspects on board a ship.
ISWAN: Many times throughout the SIM trials, contributors spoke about how although the importance of social interaction for wellbeing is not a particularly new or radical concept, it is one that is often forgotten or unappreciated due to more pressing ‘work’ concerns. This non-working side of seafaring life is very rarely given the attention it deserves, sometimes due to concerns that relaxing or having fun on board is at odds with the crew’s professional responsibilities.
It is however vital that more attention be paid to ensuring seafarers are provided with the right opportunities and conditions to properly relax and reset when they are off-duty, to ensure a complete picture of health, safety, productivity and satisfaction on board. It is fantastic to have this recognised and applauded by Capt. Steve and we hope to continue to reach many more seafarers with this awareness in the future.