Just grin and bear it?
First the good news. The Seafarers Happiness Index, published by the Mission to Seafarers, took a move upward in the second quarter of this year as a range of efforts to improve crew welfare bore fruit.
The Christian seafarers’ charity said overall happiness increased to 7.21 on a scale of 10, from 5.85 in the previous quarter. The rise in the index, which is put together with the support of insurer Standard Club and vessel inspections firm Idwal, showed that home-grown solutions were beginning to help seafarers after almost three years of lockdowns and supply chain crises.
The Mission to Seafarers said that vessel crews are starting to see light at the end of the COVID tunnel, with some port and crew change restrictions easing, even though it is unclear whether the post-pandemic world is fully open to them.
The Mission’s secretary general Andrew Wright told Tradewinds he was pleased to see some optimism returning, a situation largely down to the hard work the industry has done to make life better and raise spirits on board. But he said “there are still areas that can be improved upon, which is why it’s so critical for organisations to continue taking meaningful steps to boost seafarer happiness and crew welfare”.
The charity said the index’s rise was seen across a range of categories with more social events contributing to better morale. Shipboard workers expressed greater satisfaction with connectivity, food, shore leave and the growing number of seafarer centres.
But the Mission said there was still much to be done to improve seafarer welfare and warned that any recovery in happiness “can easily be lost”. A quarterly improvement might be cause for optimism but there are as many negatives as positives, it added. Hours of work and rest continue to be in conflict, and the individual instances quoted in the report indicate that this issue needs more focus.
Despite the positive vibes, SHI founder Steven Jones, writing for industry website Splash247 was rather more honest in his appraisal of the steps taken by the industry to improve morale. His view is that morale-boosting might work in the short-term, but the bigger changes required will need a deeper shift in attitude and practice.
Jones too, is pleased by the jump in the index this quarter, as crew changes began to improve, COVID rules relaxed and revisions to the Maritime Labour Convention regarding internet access became public. He says that among the responses to its survey, the compilers spotted a worrying trend suggesting a strong divergence between superficial attempts to raise morale and more fundamental needs.
The survey heard from seafarers whose ships had received new gym or audio-visual equipment, with new roles sometimes allocated for promoting wellness onboard and renovated spaces designed to bring people together. But this is not job done says Jones. Looking past the numbers, the written insights from seafarers tell a different and more problematic story.
For all the good intentions, there are simply too many seafarers who do not feel that they have either the time or energy to do anything but work, eat and sleep, Jones says. The new kit, ideas, spaces and roles will be wasted if there is no opportunity to actually relax or enjoy them.
In this way Jones suggests, some operators are able to give the impression that what they provide for seafarers is more fun, uplifting or useful than it actually is; improvements that tick boxes and look good on an audit but which may stand idle because seafarers are too exhausted to use them.
Having these resources onboard but with no time to make use of them in a working/rest hours schedule could result in declining happiness and worse mental health. Having people to turn to and talk to and some flexibility in the unrelenting work schedule would probably have more value, he adds.
Jones says the feedback he hears from seafarers is that there is simply too much work to do and not enough time to do it to include an element of relaxation. The hard truth is that too many seafarers feel their work to be all consuming with little appetite or energy left for leisure.
What seafarers need, he concludes is soft skills not more hardware. “What we actually need is a deeper dive into the real problems. We need to see the whole, not some airbrushed hope. This is not fixed by chucking in some budget line for new gym equipment on the ship. There is a need to step out of the vacuum, because seafarers exist in the whole not just the part,” says Jones.
Real change is about understanding the genuine barriers to progress, he adds, which is too few people having to do too much. There are too many seafarers feeling tired, stressed, unsupported, irritated, frustrated and without the support they need to get the job done. Not only will this result in sadness rather than happiness, it poses safety risks over which ultimately they may have very little control.
Find out more about the Seafarers Happiness Index and take the survey here: https://www.happyatsea.org/