Crew welfare and crew mental health have risen in importance in the last two years, just as we see a rise in dissonant technologies focused on vessel performance.
Trade media and conferences focus heavily on the economic realities of ship operations – digital solutions to enhance performance and regulatory compliance, or rather the cost of compliance.
But it is only now, as we seen rising asset prices and a strong focus on performance that mental health and crew welfare have been looked at by more than a few charities whose voices were lost in the wind of technology hyberbole. Why care about the crew when we will have unmanned ships in a few years?
The fact is that ships crews are not going to disappear soon. But if they are ignored and not treated well, they will suffer. Perhaps it is they that will disappear as morale drops and school leavers fail to see the industry as attractive compared to the options ashore.
Which owner wants their multi-billion-pound asset operated by a lean but unhappy, potentially depressed or suicidal crew?
That is why leaders like Shell’s vice president of shipping and maritime Grahaeme Henderson have recognised that safety (and the business costs of safety) and crew welfare (keeping the shipboard crew engaged and connected) are two entwined issues.
“We all know that talking about mental health can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it is important,” he said during a welfare and technology conference hosted by four maritime charities at Inmarsat’s headquarters last week.
Shell has a well-known track record with safety, and has been working with partners across its fleet to reduce incidents and near misses with the HiLo Maritime Risk Management platform. The aim, according to Henderson, is a zero incident society, but he recognises the journey will be hard; shipping still has a poor safety record.
The industry’s safety record is, said Henderson, 20 times worse than the average shore industry and five times worse than the construction industry. Crew welfare and mental wellbeing are key parts of the equation.
Shell is now pushing forward with its safety agenda by bringing in welfare into the HiLo platform and Henderson put forward research data that suggests that 6% of deaths at sea are suicides.
It is one thing to identify the cause of a near miss or an accident, but the other questions that ship owners’ staff have failed to ask is why did it happen?
Fatigue and depression lead to accidents and worse, and this is why it is becoming an important issue. With these are issues such as job satisfaction, and support. How many seafarers have a network of support around them with which to raise sensitive issues?
How many seafarers have the courage and empathy to notice that another seafarer may have an issue and ask “Are you OK?” and do more than just nod at the answer?
There were accounts, retold during this crew welfare event, of crew members that had committed suicide, and their fellow shipmates had either not realised there was a problem, or not known what to do. There was even one young cadet that took his life.
There are efforts to change that, ship managers are launching help lines for crews to call, including having psychiatric help to offer advice to a depressed crew member or a crew member who thinks a colleague is at risk.
But a crew member who is away from home will no doubt suffer after a lengthy period away. The charities, such as the four that organised this event – Seafarers UK, The Mission to Seafarers, Apostleship of the Sea and Sailors’ Society, have been doing the best they can, but they clearly need more support.
The pressure is always on the crew ember or officer to perform, and the stories of suicides and mental health issues suggest that it is not being taken seriously enough yet.
This is an era of change. Shipping has more digital tools at its disposal and has a potentially growing fleet as the world population grows to 11 bn people.
We need more ships and therefore we need more seafarers, but what we need also is a new kind of seafarer.
The old seafaring traditions are now vanishing. We need young women and men to become the next generation of e-farers. But to encourage them to do that we need to give them the tools for the job and demonstrate that their mental well-being and physical health and careers are important.