In the third of a series of articles exploring the key themes, guidance and recommendations in ISWAN’s recently released Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project Phase Two Report, the project Research Lead Dr. Kate Pike takes a look at the link between social interaction and crew mental health following World Mental Health Day earlier this month.
Social interaction is important for mental health. The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project (2022) showed that regular engagement with colleagues through shared activities and socialising together promotes crew familiarity and encourages them to get to know one another and to feel valued. It also provides a much-needed outlet to life on board besides work and an opportunity to reset and relax.
The World Health Organization (WHO) adopts a definition of health as:
‘physical, mental, and social well-being’
This acknowledges the value of social relationships and networks in protecting mental health and promoting the healthy development of people. Physical and mental health are intrinsically linked with some suggesting that the two should simply be termed as ‘health’.
‘Positive human interaction helps to develop the healthy relationships which are vital for well-being and mental health’
Mental health affects everyone, which means that we are impacted by our own mental health as well as those around us. Getting to know one another is important for supporting mental health and promoting safer working practices on board, and allows crewmates get to know one another outside of a purely working relationship. As well as improving teamworking and helping to identify individual strengths and weaknesses, it helps to build familiarity and respect between crew and increases the likelihood of noticing when someone is struggling. Social interaction facilitates and strengthens this ability to connect.
‘We are increasingly aware that life onboard can take a toll on the health and wellbeing of seafarers, which in turn can have an impact on the health of the organisation through reduced productivity and more accidents. We know from a wealth of experience that wellbeing is a critical and an often overlooked part of safety’
There are many variables that can impact on a seafarer’s mental health and wellbeing. The SIM Project identified some of the conditions that can impact both positively and negatively on mental health on board. The research emphasises how quickly the overall mood can change on board – for example, a kind gesture from a port pilot bringing small gifts to the ship, or praise from the shore office for a job well-done, can raise spirits enormously. Conversely, bad weather and a rolling, vibrating ship, or a challenging port call where the crew experience poor treatment from authorities, can rapidly change the mood for the worse. The SIM Project found, however, that social interaction consistently helps to raise the mood on board, having a positive impact on morale, even when work schedules are very heavy. Considering this, it is encouraging to see that the recent Seafarers Happiness Index in Q1 reported that:
‘There has been a focus on social events that boost morale – including weekly gatherings, quizzes, karaoke, sports, barbecues and movie nights, with increased backing and the support of leadership’
Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to help to reduce stress and anxiety and prevent the development of mental health illnesses (Department of Health, 2010). Physical activities that can promote good mental health include sports, exercise (activities specifically designed to improve physical health or fitness) and unstructured activities just for enjoyment. On board, even where space is limited, physical activities can be carried out, and most vessels will have a gym or some exercise equipment for the crew’s use. For some on board, engaging in exercise and physical activities is very important, as the log entries below from the SIM trials demonstrate:
‘Many people on the ship are using the gymnasium which is very good to see. This is both officers and crew. I am a firm believer that physical activity aids in mental wellbeing, and this certainly seems to be bearing fruit’
‘People enjoyed their evening time at the pool and playing basketball after the drills. People seemed happy and relaxed while engaging themselves in these activities’
‘Crew seems much [happier] after activity’
Good leadership, both from the shore and at sea, is essential in creating an onboard culture that encourages social interaction through various activities, and can help the crew to feel valued. The behaviours and attitudes of senior officers, particularly the master, greatly influence crew cohesion and are important for promoting an inclusive environment that supports the wellbeing of all.
Most references to crew happiness and enjoyment during the SIM Project were recorded as a result of social interaction. For example, playing sports, chatting together, and socialising around food, as this quote from the project suggests:
‘These kinds of activities made crew happy and relax[ed] and they do not feel so distance[d] from home’
The SIM research concluded that taking care of crew mental health and wellbeing through the promotion of interaction and social engagement will help to build stronger relationships. This leads to a happier environment and strong safety culture where productivity is likely to be increased and crew care what happens to each other. Ensuring that clear boundaries between work and leisure time on board is also necessary to allow for good recuperation and reset following work hours.
Despite the most recent Seafarers Happiness Index report noting that seafarers’ happiness levels are starting to recover after a record low in Q1, 2022, there is no room for complacency (Safety4Sea, 2022). With life at sea becoming ever more pressured and COVID-19 still prevalent, focus on seafarers’ mental wellbeing to realise the benefits of fostering healthy interactions on board is needed now more than ever.
The full SIM Phase Two Report can be downloaded here: https://www.seafarerswelfare.org/resources/publications/social-interaction-matters-sim-project-report-phase-two
Executive summary: https://www.seafarerswelfare.org/resources/publications/social-interaction-matters-sim-project-report-phase-two-executive-summary
Guidance and recommendations: https://www.seafarerswelfare.org/resources/publications/social-interaction-matters-sim-project-report-phase-two-guidance-and-recommendations
Department of Health, 2010. Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England. London: The Stationery Office. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads /system/uploads/attachment_data/file/216096/dh_127424.pdf [Accessed: January 5th, 2022]
SAFETY4SEA, 2022. Seafarers happiness index, quarter 2, 2022 [online]. Available: https://safety4sea.com/seafarers-happiness-index-quarter-2-2022/ [Accessed: October 17th 2022]
World Health Organisation (WHO) 2005. Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice: report of the World Health Organization, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in collaboration with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and the University of Melbourne. [online]. Available: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/MH_Promotion_Book.pdf [Accessed: October 2nd 2020]