Mental Health & Inclusion: Prioritizing the Need for Awareness & Training

SeafarersDiversity, equity, and inclusionTalentWorking conditionsSafetyMental health

Apurva Chaubal, the winner of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, addresses seafarers' concerns on long work hours, low pay, loneliness, and mental health.  In her essay she discusses how seafaring can be restored as one of the most prestigious careers worldwide.

Seafaring has been one of the most prestigious careers in modern times. In an international industry with over 1.9 million seafarers currently serving, every year educational institutions around the world train new officers and ratings to enter the job market. Yet, the industry reports an acute shortfall of 16,500 trained officers onboard vessels and offshore units. This shortfall of seafarers can be on account of institutions being unable to inspire the youth to take up seafaring as a choice of career and the inability of maritime companies to retain good talent on board. But why is this noble career experiencing difficulty in attracting talent?

The Seafarer Happiness Index of Q1 2022 sheds a light on the prime reasons why seafarers decide to quit sailing. It includes health, safety, training, and onboard politics amongst others. To make the lives of these honorable workers at sea sustainable, and to present seafaring as a virtuous career, we need to address these concerns and create programs to improve their working conditions and job satisfaction.

A Healthy Ship is a Safe Ship

With the advancement of autonomous ships, we are less dependent on human intervention for each task, yet, about 85% of accidents on ships originate from human error. Humans make more mistakes when they are physically or mentally unfit. A tired, depressed, and distracted sailor will have a bigger chance of performing poorly at the job than a physically and mentally fit one. With the number of crew being decreased on ships, more seafarers are reportedly overworked and this leads to a heap of physical and mental health issues.

Long working hours, burnouts, loneliness, and poor wages are just the tip of the iceberg of reasons why seafarers might face mental health challenges. If we were to ask a relatively new crew member about the skills they learned in their pre-sea education, the probable response would include everything but mental health awareness and management, which is still an uncovered topic at the early stages of education.

A significant population of seafarers, often from developing countries, are deceived into the role by dreams of an adventurous life of hefty pay and are ambivalent to these obstacles. They are met with the dark reality of being disconnected from their loved ones, physically taxing jobs, unsafe working conditions, poor food, discrimination, etc., and they lack the necessary skills to manage these extreme pressures.

Seafarers are the backbone of maritime trade, and it is our responsibility as an industry to equip them with the required skillset and training. Pre-sea training courses should include topics such as stress management, anxiety, dealing with trauma or crisis, and suicide intervention and prevention.

Apart from this, there needs to be a Global Mental Health Hotline provided for each ship by the owner companies. The feeling of being neglected and not cared for by their employers causes distress amongst seafarers and lead to a mental health crisis. Emergencies should be identified and escalated immediately, and protocols need to be set in place for the prevention of suicides.

Seafarers are humans employed in a difficult job; We need to remove the stigma around mental health on board to support them as an industry, and to help them deliver well at their work.

Becoming Inclusive Before We Become Diverse

The seafaring population is made up of 98.8% male seafarers while females make up for the remaining 1.2% and other minorities such as the LGBTQ+ group are unaccounted for.

Women, being half of the world population, are a huge talent pool that has been left untouched by the maritime industry for a long time. In this male-dominated workforce, it is difficult for women to gain entry and succeed as they often face a plethora of challenges like discrimination, harassment, prejudice, and stereotypes, having to prove their competency, lower acceptance rates by companies, unconscious bias by senior officers, etc.

This results in a growing sense of frustration amongst women due to a lack of adequate support from the company and fellow crew members. In addition to the gender imbalance, there are also cases of intercultural differences resulting in friction between the crew. Considering the recent geopolitical conflicts, the cases of racism on board have become notoriously high.

There is a need for raising awareness amongst the entire seafaring community about the importance of unity and being inclusive toward different people. We first need to train the community to become inclusive and accepting of others by highlighting the benefits of a diverse workplace.

Inclusivity helps in retaining diversity and without a sense of belonging, any effort to become diverse will only result in momentary accomplishments. There should be a targeted awareness campaign associated with precise training for all crew about addressing their unconscious bias onboard and treating everyone with dignity and respect.

These campaigns and training are the need of the hour for improving mental health and positivity on board any vessel.

To answer the question, how do we make the life of our seafarers more sustainable, I firmly believe that education, training, and awareness amongst seafarers play a crucial role in shaping the future of the community.

  • There should be specially designed programs in the pre-sea education to address mental health challenges, how to identify them, and their management.

  • A Global Mental Health Hotline to be set up by owner companies to support seafarers going through a crisis onboard and a plan of action to be sketched out for emergencies.

  • Small training on the importance of diversity, intercultural relationships, unconscious bias, and change management to be introduced amongst seafarers to inculcate a sense of inclusivity before the introduction of diverse talent.

By the year 2030, we would have a whole new generation of sailors with at least 20% of the people on board starting their careers after 2022. We need to ensure that the life of our industry, our sailors, are competent, satisfied, and safe. Only then can we truly achieve sustainability of human life at sea.

Apurva Chaubal, a 24-year-old Associate Voyage Manager with Maersk Tankers from Mumbai, India.