Navigating stress: A holistic approach for seafarer well-being

November 30, 2023
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Following International Stress Awareness Week earlier this month, Miko Legaspi, founder of MPowered Life Coaching, shares how five key pillars can be used to understand the challenges seafarers face due to stress and to implement effective strategies for support.

Miko Legaspi, who founded MPowered Life Coaching in 2018, embarked on a mission to empower individuals by complementing traditional education and training with Life Coaching. With six years of experience in academia and seven years in scholarship management, Miko developed innovative curricula in collaboration with psychologists, maritime officers, and the life coaching community. These curricula are designed to offer science-based, cost-free behavioral interventions to help officers and crew master the challenges of shipboard and shore-based stress. Furthermore, MPowered Life Coaching equips individuals with essential skills, such as antifragility training, conflict resolution, and effective management and leadership techniques.

In the maritime industry, we understand that the life of a seafarer is unique, filled with challenges and demands that most cannot fathom. While they spend extended periods at sea, their mental and physical well-being are often at risk. Stress, often associated with the isolation and demanding work onboard, can lead to chronic health issues and mental health struggles. In this article, we explore the complexities faced by seafarers and offer science-based interventions, applying the TERMS framework, tailored to their distinct needs. These interventions are just a fraction of what we can do to enhance seafarer well-being.

Mastering stress with the TERMS framework

To address the stressors inherent in a seafarer's life, we've developed the TERMS framework. This comprehensive approach covers: Think Well, Eat Well, Rest Well, Move Well, and Socialize Well. These five pillars serve as a guide to understand the challenges seafarers face and to implement effective strategies for support. It's crucial to recognize the potential impact of these interventions on seafarer well-being.

Cognitive clarity: Managing information overload

Within the ‘Think Well’ aspect of the TERMS framework, we focus on the mental well-being of seafarers. One way is to check how the ubiquity of the internet and social media can create a unique form of stress for seafarers. They are constantly exposed to news from their family and community back home, which can trigger anxiety and impact their overall stress levels.

Understanding these dynamics is vital, and seafarers must learn develop strategies to balance getting inspiration from news versus getting triggered by it. Other thought-processing worksheets like the ABC Model by Albert Ellis or Fear-Setting by Tim Ferriss are also good skills to develop.

© Albert Garayev

Nutrition matters: Promoting a healthy diet

In the ‘Eat Well’ dimension of TERMS, we delve into the significance of nutrition for seafarers. A startling survey by SAFETY4SEA revealed that only 50% of seafarers have access to a healthy diet while at sea. Many cooks are skilled in preparing delicious meals but may lack knowledge of nutritional psychiatry, which explores the impact of food on mental health.

There is mounting evidence of how a specific type of Omega-3 (from seafood) and fermented food can support mental health. Even the humble chamomile tea is known to neutralize the stress hormone cortisol. Ship’s cooks, as well as all seafarers, may benefit in familiarizing with food that can impact their stress levels.

Recharge and rejuvenate: The challenge of quality rest

The ‘Rest Well’ aspect of TERMS unveils a sobering reality. Just over half of seafarers reported waking up refreshed and fully rested in a recent survey. An objective study tracked seafarer sleep patterns, revealing they get an average of only five hours of rest, even less for navigating officers.

In this digital era, seafarers may inadvertently undermine their well-being through excessive screen time. These modern devices offer connectivity and entertainment, but they can also disrupt restful sleep.

Making sleep-enhancing arrangements in the surrounding environment, like adjusting lighting and temperature, will help nudge seafarers towards better sleep. Coupled with knowledge on breathing exercises and/or nutritional support, this will increase the necessary sleep quality.

Staying active onboard: Rethinking exercise

In the ‘Move Well’ dimension, we face the challenge of integrating exercise into seafarers' demanding routines. Traditional exercise may be impractical given their workloads. However, a recent study reveals that deck ratings already expend substantial energy, around 801 kcal, due to their work, compared to only 568 kcal for navigating officers. This finding suggests an opportunity to design customized fitness programs tailored to the needs of both officers and crew; a shift from traditional gym models that may not be feasible at sea.

Sunlight exposure is often overlooked but holds great potential for supporting mental health. Unfortunately, few seafarers intentionally integrate it into their routines. This is a double jeopardy to navigating officers who have less physical workout and less sunlight exposure.

Closing the social gap: Fostering interpersonal connections

In today's digital age, seafarers are increasingly connected to the world but often disconnected from their crew members beyond work-related activities. This lack of social interaction can hinder the expression of personal problems and the receipt of essential support, vital to mental well-being. Isolation further decreases their social skills and might even shift their personality to introversion.

Leaders onboard — Captains, Chief Engineers, etc. – must cultivate and foster meaningful interpersonal connections among the crew for the ‘Socialize Well’ element of the TERMS framework.

Support from shipping companies: A collective effort

We are heartened to see an increasing commitment among shipping companies to support their seafarers' well-being. Our organization, for instance, collaborates with over seven manning agencies to train seafarers to enhance their resilience to stress. Furthermore, we equip their in-house trainers who can pass on these essential skills to their crew members. This collaborative effort signifies a growing dedication within the industry to provide seafarers with the resources and knowledge to navigate their unique challenges.

In conclusion, seafarers are the lifeblood of the maritime industry, and their well-being is paramount. By embracing the TERMS framework, everyone can play a role in improving seafarer health and mental resilience. These interventions are not only science-based, often zero-cost, but practical steps we integrate to a life at sea.

Share this article so everyone can steer the course towards a brighter, less stressful future for all seafarers and the maritime industry as a whole.

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