Falling sentiment must be addressed

A record decline needs to be reversed to keep crews motivated

By Steven Jones

There have been constant periods of peaks and troughs across the years of the Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI). Never though, until now, have we seen a full year of falling sentiment.

Down, down, down, and down – that was the troubling trajectory of 2023. The latest decline for the fourth consecutive quarter saw satisfaction ratings fall to 6.36 on our 10-point scale, down from 6.6.

A sustained downward spiral once more highlights growing discontent among crews worldwide. So, what is driving this downward curve and such a consistent sense of dissatisfaction?

At the core of mounting seafarer frustrations are feelings of being overburdened, undervalued, and disconnected. Then, allied to those issues – which would be bad enough – we hear feedback of a sense of feeling under-rewarded and seafarers speak of having to deal with a daily lack of respect from ashore.

Seafarers have raised concerns that within too many companies, shoreside management is seen to lack empathy and their concerns for crew welfare seem superficial – or, at best, only at a compliance level. Seemingly, there are few companies that strive for excellence when it comes to their people. This is not only a huge disappointment, but it will likely come back to bite the industry.

In the current recruitment and retention squeeze, it is extremely dangerous to make our people feel undervalued and frustrated.

However, while we can debate this, there are more prosaic issues and concerns to consider. Over 2023, seafarers spoke out about the fact that while administrative burdens seem to multiply, crewing levels remain static. The problems of paperwork seem to persist, even in an increasingly digital age. This remains a puzzle, and we ask how and what can and should be done to resolve this.

Security burdens

Towards the end of the last quarter of 2023, the risk of attacks on vessels was beginning to increase and concerns were growing. Associated with those concerns, we also heard of a ramping up of workload, whether through longer trips owing to diversions, or through the work to secure and maintain vigilance on board. We have heard repeated concerns about the escalating response needed by crew to counter piracy and terrorism.

Unfortunately, it seems that once more seafarers are shouldering a disproportionate burden. Extended work hours and disrupted sleep to maintain security watches are on the rise. And the heavy toll of security duties is exacerbated by understaffing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, shore leave has once more become a casualty of wider uncertainty. Seafarers spoke of their growing sense that security was replacing Covid as the excuse to deny access to shore. The feedback is that procedures and processes are not only struggling to return to normal post- pandemic but are now being altered to reflect security concerns.

In times of sustained satisfaction downturn and frustration, it can be a challenge to find positives to build on. They are there though. One particularly interesting response from a seafarer was on the issue of keeping regular crews together.

Working on ships with people you know and on regular patterns helps to forge bonds and friendships. Those crews are far more likely to be satisfied and enjoy their jobs.

From those seafarers, we heard about how much easier it is to develop a social life on board and how the standard of training and even mentoring is boosted.

So, despite the past year of negatives, there is still a chance to change the trajectory. We can make life better at sea even in the face of falling sentiment. We can make sure that seafarers are supported and have the resources they need to respond to rising security risks. We can explore the paperwork paradox: why is our industry digitalising at pace, but this is not yet having the desired impact on seafarer workloads? And we can rise to the challenge of improving social life and camaraderie by keeping crews together.

Only then can we hope that positives emerge in 2024. It is a worrying time for the entire industry, but with small changes, giving respect to seafarers, and by thinking and empathising, we can hopefully see sentiment rise once more.

Steven Jones is founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index.