How can we look after the mental and physical well-being of seafarers?

SeafarersWorking conditionsMental health

The maritime industry recognizes the daily challenges of seafarers. However, organizations can't cover all eventualities. Ship-visiting charities support seafarers providing material help along with friendly warmth.

Toughest job in the world?

Would you take a job that requires you to be away from home for 9-12 months at a time? Imagine being absent for the birth of your children, their first day at school, their first wobbly tooth. You might be 10,000 miles from home when your partner has to deal with a broken-down boiler, a flat tyre, your children’s algebra homework. On top of the long separation from your loved ones your job can also be dangerous, mentally and physically demanding, and lonely. Serious accidents, fatalities and suicides are more common in your industry than most others, as are abandonment and piracy.

This is the job that is done 365 days of the year by hundreds of thousands of seafarers. They plough across cold and inhospitable oceans in order to deliver 90% of world trade. Without these men and women our lives would be stripped bare of most of the things we take for granted – from oil to oranges, iPhones to bananas, t-shirts to car parts, nearly everything comes to us via the sea. Additional factors put modern day seafarers under more pressure. With modern technology and the approach of fully automated ships, crew numbers are decreasing which can lead to more cases of isolation and loneliness. Turnaround time in ports is shortening to save on costs, so valuable shore leave is at a premium. Social media and the internet provide a great many positives but can also reduce the sense of team and community on board many vessels and make access to bad news almost instantaneous.

Crisis at sea?

Maritime organisations recognise these issues and are increasingly diligent in looking after the physical and mental well-being of their personnel. However, due to the global nature of the industry few, if any, organisations have the necessary resources, the reach or the skillsets to cover all eventualities. A vessel managed in Singapore may have a seafarer who needs hospitalisation whilst in Aberdeen. Who would visit the seafarer on a daily basis, take him/her clothes and toiletries, source an interpreter if s/he doesn’t speak English? A Hamburg container ship might suffer a fatality whilst in Durban. Who would counsel the traumatised crew, provide a blessing or memorial service, and then be able to continue support in the next port of call?

Local help on a global scale

Stella Maris has been providing these services and many more, in the UK and all around the world, for 100 years. Dealing with serious incidents is an increasing part of our work, but the regular day-to-day aspect of ship-visiting is just as vital. Stella Maris now provides a global network of over 1,000 Chaplains and volunteers in 334 ports spread across 59 countries. Each year this remarkable team conducts around 70,000 ship visits to provide welfare services, advice, friendship, practical and pastoral care to all seafarers, regardless of nationality, belief or race. It is the largest international ship-visiting charity in the world.

De-stressing, not distressing

The assistance we provide takes many forms – warm clothing in winter, reading materials, port transportation to help maximise shore leave, faith materials and services, gifts at Christmas, and the provision of top-up cards and Wi-Fi are just some of the many small ways in which we assist seafarers. Most importantly, however, Stella Maris provides a friendly face in a foreign land, someone the seafarer can trust, speak to and confide in. Seafarers may have health issues, family worries or money concerns that they’ve been keeping to themselves and don’t feel comfortable discussing with other crew members. The simple, cathartic act of talking to one of our chaplains or volunteer ship visitors not only helps to release pent up emotions and pressure but can lead to resolution of complex issues. In this way, the pattern and regularity of ship visits play a crucial role in boosting seafarers’ morale, well-being and mental health.

Nothing happened today

Seafarers who are motivated, appreciated, happy and well-rested will work better, motivate those around them and have fewer accidents. We will never be able to measure how many incidents or accidents our daily interventions help to prevent, but no news is indeed good news from our point of view. We also know how much the individual seafarer values and benefits from the help we provide, the friendship we bring, and the opportunity to smile and talk and feel that the job they do is hugely valued.