How can we continue to evolve our approach to mental health in shipping?

Today is world mental health day – a day when we recognise and discuss the importance of mental health. This year’s theme is an important one – the issue of suicide prevention. Unfortunately, this is particularly pertinent for the shipping industry.

While it’s difficult to get accurate data, it seems as though mental health issues are on the rise in the industry. In 2017, according to figures from the UK P&I Club’s internal claims system, suicide rates among seafarers suffering from poor mental health had more than tripled since 2014. Another source – Yves Vandenborn, Director of Loss Prevention at Charles Taylor Mutual Management (Asia), managers of The Standard Club Asia Ltd, said that “our statistics show an increase in mental health related claims since 2015. This includes suicides, attempted suicides, but also depression, anxiety etc.”

Seafarers work in challenging environments, which can see them confronted by psychological, mental and physical stressors on a daily basis. Stress frequently affects those who work at sea, however due to the nature of their work, it is not always possible for seafarers to achieve the same level of professional support afforded to those who work in on-shore positions. Seafarers often find themselves faced with challenges which can seem overwhelming. This is due to disconnection with their friends and families and the high tempo of work they conduct on a daily basis. Even with increased connectivity through onboard wi-fi etc., poor communication can lead to stress (e.g. from misinterpreting a text etc.), meaning that increased connectivity does not always equate to improved mental health.

In response to these findings, and as the global conversation around mental health has developed and stigmas around it are gradually being broken down, mental health is becoming an increasingly important topic in the maritime industry. Indeed, it featured heavily on many crewing panels in recent events such as London International Shipping Week.

There is no easy, quick fix to improving mental health at sea. However, through training, and a range of other health, wellbeing, and safety initiatives, we are working hard to ensure that our seafarers are well supported and equipped to take care of their mental health.

One powerful tool in this regard is e-learning. Our training business, Marlins, has developed the Resilience e-learning package, together with the UK P&I club. This programme provides ten modules of short courses, which are designed to provide seafarers with the tools to cope with stresses they may be faced with. The main aim of the ‘Resilience’ programme is to equip seafarers with strategies for dealing with work and life pressures. Each course explores a different natural capacity to deal with life’s challenges – both in and outside of work.

We have also developed new courses on: physical health, social isolation, stress management, dignity at work and post-traumatic stress disorder. These courses are as important for our hotel crew working on cruise ships as for our seafarers working on cargo and offshore vessels. We also offer these courses to cadets entering our programme to develop their awareness of the challenges of working at sea and to help train our future senior officers in our company culture.

With a variety of nationalities working onboard and onshore, cultural awareness training allows both seafarers and shore teams to gain an understanding of their colleagues’ cultures, creating a unified V.Group safety culture that also embodies our company values. We aim to build stronger relationships between seafarers and our superintendents and crew managers, which is a vital part of communication, health and safety. Our V.Crew Connect app also streamlines the process of changing jobs, maximising the amount of time seafarers spend with their families while ashore.

Mental health is closely linked to physical health. One of our main focuses in this regard is to ensure that we can provide a healthy, balanced diet. The V.Group company Oceanic Catering, one of the world’s largest specialist marine catering companies, provides crew with well-balanced, healthy meals every day. Further support can be provided by a certified nutritionist who can also provide specific dietary advice for each individual if needed. Additionally, Marlins and Oceanic Training collaborate to provide blended learning for ships’ cooks and messmen on a wide range of regional and national dishes, recognising that good food with a local flavour on board plays a critical part in seafarers’ wellbeing.

Training, good food, and best safety practices go hand in hand, and are linked together by our culture and values:

  • We care
  • We challenge
  • We commit and deliver
  • We collaborate
  • We are consistent

Our values are embedded in everything we do – how we recruit, how we evaluate, and how we conduct our business. Our values play an important part in fostering a ‘just’ culture onboard ships that aims to remove the stigma surrounding speaking up about unsafe practices, risks, or other problems on board (backed up by best practice and a raft of collaborations to continually improve onboard safety).

It’s imperative that we – and the industry at large, continually evolve our best practices on mental health and ensure that we are supporting seafarers to the best of our ability, and learning from real onboard experiences. Days like today are a useful chance to highlight how far we’ve come, but also the importance of collaborating and challenging ourselves to keep aiming for better.