Mental health in the maritime sector: The impact of COVID-19

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As well as having devastating physical health and economic impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant mental distress for people across the country. Widespread uncertainty, fear for the health of loved ones and financial stress are just some of the reasons that cases of depression in UK adults have, according to ONS data, doubled since the start of lockdown.

Employees of the maritime sector are arguably more vulnerable than most, even outside of a global health crisis. In a 2019 study published by IOSH, researchers from Cardiff University found that, while it’s “difficult to establish the extent of mental ill health among seafarers relative to comparable populations”, there is evidence of increases in certain forms of anxiety and depression among serving seafarers. They also found that maritime workers in some roles might be particularly prone to emotional exhaustion and ‘burnout’.

So if this was the case before the virus outbreak, how are maritime workers doing now? Have certain issues been exacerbated by the disruption, and if so, how should employers react?

The main issues

According to All At Sea, a self-described advocacy hub for seafarers, the pandemic has been an extremely stressful time for many maritime workers. “There has been a massive amount of uncertainty across the industry,” a spokesperson says. “Particularly around travel between countries, which has led to many workers not being able to join or leave ships.”

“When the pandemic started to spread, a reported 300,000 seafarers were left stranded at sea as their contracts overran the legislated 11-month maximum duration period. These workers have been having to manage these circumstances whilst away from their families, on top of dealing with the usual issues that can affect your mental health whilst working at sea.”

First-hand experiences

To get an authentic picture of what life in maritime looks like during a pandemic, we spoke to a cross section of the sector’s employees about their own experiences.

Perhaps understandably, the results were mixed.

For some – and this is perhaps true for parts of the non-maritime workforce, too – lockdown has had a positive impact. One respondent said: “Personally it hasn’t affected me negatively at all. If anything, my mental health has improved as there have been fewer tasks at work, and therefore less stress.”

Another, who said they’d been locked down in three different countries since March, also spoke positively about their recent situation: “The pandemic didn’t affect my mental health. To me, working from ‘home’ has just required new organisation in order to adjust to a new environment.”  But they then added: “I don’t believe my experience is representative of the industry. I know that many people have been badly affected by the pandemic, both at sea and on shore.”

And sure enough, some of our responses support that, suggesting that in areas of maritime where workload has increased, stress has followed. One employee said their mental health had been heavily affected in a negative way: “Workload has increased, and I feel more inclined to work longer hours than I did before.”

How can employers help?

In the IOSH report, Cardiff University’s researchers claim that while maritime charities, P&I clubs and stakeholder organisations see mental health and welfare as important issues, most employers’ views don’t match up. In fact, just over half of employer respondents said their companies had not introduced any policies or practices aimed at addressing issues of seafarers’ mental health in the last ten years, despite evidence suggesting a need for such measures.

These conclusions are based on data gathered before the COVID-19 pandemic, though. And encouragingly, the consensus among our own respondents is that employers have generally handled 2020’s disruption well. And by looking at the areas highlighted below, perhaps other companies can better support their own workers.

Employee safety

When asked what wellbeing adjustments they’d seen being introduced, one employee focused on the measures taken to help workers feel safe: “I have noticed quite a few changes starting to unfold in the workplace, including reduced capacity on board to ensure social distancing is followed by employees; new systems to help passengers social distance; cashless transactions to reduce contamination; new sign-in processes for staff arriving into work and the issuing of PPE to staff, with clear guidance on how and where to use it.”

Work-life balance

Other respondents spoke about work-life balance. One said: “The company has become more flexible when it comes to working remotely, especially for those with young children at home and commuters,” while another revealed their employer had helped by introducing a new holiday policy: “HR has been very supportive during the pandemic, and has now implemented a forced holidays scheme – so only a maximum five days of holidays earned in 2020 can be carried over into 2021, forcing workers to disconnect, take holidays and relax before the end of the year.”

Communication

Uncertainty is one of the key drivers for stress and anxiety, so it’s vital that employers provide regular updates on what’s happening inside and outside of their organisations. One respondent explained the steps their company had taken: “IT have made sure we all have Zoom and Teams [video conferencing tech] set up for regular meetings, and management sends out a COVID-19 update and plan to all of our offices, orchards, farms and cotton gins twice a week.”

Another worker suggested employers invest more time in two-way communication: “It could be a short phone call just to see how employees are coping, or just regular email updates to all employees with important information about what is happening within the business, and any advice that could help individuals who may be struggling more than others.”

 

This article was produced with help from the team at All At Sea, which was formed to provide an advocacy hub for seafarers. Visit www.all-at-sea.co.uk to find out more.