Far-reaching impact of Covid

A Lloyd’s Register-led survey sets the foundations for improvements in seafarer well-being

By Verity Relph

As of December 2020, as many as 400,000 seafarers were stranded on ships working beyond their contractual period, according to figures from the International Maritime Organization. These distressing statistics are heard again and again, but how do seafarers really feel about the situation and their treatment during the pandemic, and what lessons are there to be learnt for the maritime industry? This is what a recent Lloyd’s Register (LR) survey set out to uncover. Launched on June 25, 2020, the ‘Day of the Seafarer’, in collaboration with the UK Chamber of Shipping, The Mission to Seafarers (MtS) and Safety at Sea, it aimed to provide a snapshot of maritime work- ers’ wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The survey was intended to find out what is really going on – are seafarers being treated fairly and what are their own perceptions,” explains Joanne Stokes, senior principal human factors consultant at LR. Looking at the efficacy of Covid-related measures and the level of support that seafarers have received during the pandemic, the aim was to offer insights that would help the industry improve its response to the pandemic, and ultimately lead to better safety and wellbeing for seafarers. It targeted both shore staff and sea staff, helping to throw into sharp relief the effect of the pandemic on those working at sea.

Feeling undervalued

One of the most concerning findings was around recognition and value. “I think people have been shocked by the number of comments from seafarers as well as the content of those comments,” says Stokes. “Specifically, that only 8% of seafarers feel valued in their role and 13% strongly agreeing that they are performing an essential role. This, in my view, speaks volumes about the treatment and experiences of seafarers during this pandemic. It is also compounded by seafarers’ comments about being ‘in prison’ aboard, and that no one appreciates their role in the supply of goods and fuels, and how they feel ‘abandoned’.”

Communication was one of the areas where seafarers reported feeling let down, not being properly informed of the reasons for Covid-19-related decisions or feeling that their wellbeing concerns were not being listened to, and there were worrying comments about the handling of quarantine measures and treatment following a positive diagnosis.

The survey also shed light on how the stresses and strains of the pandemic have impacted seafarers’ mental and physical wellbeing. A total of 27% of those surveyed reported high workloads, fatigue and not being able to get a good night’s sleep, while other issues included a lack of social interaction on board, inability to exercise, and poor-quality food.

The latest Seafarers’ Happiness Index report, published in January, revealed similar findings as crews continue to struggle with the effects of the crew change crisis and incessant workloads (see page 13).

Stokes highlights the safety implications that such problems can have: “As an industry we have long been aware of the issues of mental and physical health on board ships. We are aware of the dangers of seafarers becoming fatigued and how this can increase the likelihood of human error. This pandemic has once again brought this to the fore. Seafarers are working harder, faster and longer. If operations are still going on at the same levels, yet you’re tired and you don’t have enough people, you’re not going to perform as well. It’s about prioritising safety and managing workload levels in front of operations, so you give crew a chance to rest and a chance not to make mistakes.”

It also appears that many seafarers are still not getting the support they need and, even when it is available, there are obstacles that prevent them from accessing it. The survey revealed that 54% felt they were not being actively helped to manage stress and fatigue during the pandemic. When asked about access to professional support, only 30% of seafarers said they had used professional services, with stigma and concerns that it could affect employment among the reasons given for not seeking help.

Follow-up actions

The results of the survey have had an impact, says Stokes. “One benefit is that there have been numerous conferences and discussions on this topic since the LR Survey results came out. Many companies have come forward to talk about the work they are doing to support seafarer mental health through programmes, self-help, and training sessions. This is really positive.”

She gives examples of initiatives that bigger companies have put into place, such as mental health training to teach people what to look for in their own and others’ mental health, and podcasts and videocasts talking about mental health and helping to reduce the stigma which surrounds it. MtS’ Mental Health Champions project is one such example, giving seafarers access to resources to support their mental wellbeing.

There have been other signs of progress too. A crucial step in resolving the crew change crisis would be to recognise seafarers as key workers.

Designation would ensure that seafarers are exempt from Covid-related travel restrictions, allowing them to be repatriated at the end of their contracts. It would also be significant in helping seafarers know and feel that they are essential and valued.

“There has been mounting pressure on governments to recognise seafarers as essential workers,” says Stokes, highlighting a number of recent publications by bodies such as the United Nations and the IMO. “In addition, the recent Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change has seen over 450 companies sign – including Lloyd’s Register.” Other signatories include AP Møller-Mærsk, NYK, BP and Shell, V. Group and mining groups Rio Tinto and Vale; maritime transporters, unions, The Mission to Seafarers, ISWAN, the World Economic Forum and other supply chain partners have also signed up.

However, Stokes puts emphasis on the role of governments in bringing about tangible change: “The actual impact companies can have in making these actions happen remains in the hands of national governments and their willingness to co-operate with each other. Arguably these changes require governments to change their mindsets, from seafarers as a Covid-19 threat to vaccinated seafarers as essential workers maintaining global trade as we know it.

“That is not to say that there hasn’t been progress at the national and international level. As of January 25, 2021, 53 countries had signed up to IMO Circ. 4204, Add. 35/Rev.3 which designates seafarers as essential workers.”

Future steps

The survey has been an important vehicle for drawing attention to the issues facing crews and in providing lessons for the industry on how it can improve its response to the pandemic, both now and in the future. As Stokes says: “We are really glad to have put this survey out as it has helped to highlight where we need to push and where we need to exert pressure.”

There is still a long road ahead. With the spread of new variants of Covid-19 and some countries adopting stricter crew-change restrictions since the new year, there are fears that the challenges of last year will only worsen for seafarers in the coming months. However, governments signing up to crew change procedures and declarations, and the proactive approach that some companies are taking are all positive steps.

As we enter our second year of the pandemic, the challenge now is to ensure that governments and industry continue to take the steps needed to ensure that those who maintain our global supply chain are safe and supported. “The survey is an exercise we’re likely to repeat later in the year to gauge how far the industry has come in the treatment of seafarers as the pandemic continues to play out. We will ask seafarers about their ongoing mental and physical health and whether they have seen a marked change in their treatment as a result of actions by companies and governments.”

Stokes is also hopeful that the focus on supporting seafarer mental and physical welfare will continue post-Covid. She highlights employee assistance programmes to remove the mental health stigma, more open communications and honesty behind decisions, better internet connections, and managed crew changes that put health and wellbeing first, as some of the key ways in which the issues raised in the survey can be addressed. Such actions will go a long way in helping seafarers feel supported and valued.

To hear more insights into the survey findings and to listen to the podcast, visit: https://www.lr.org/en/insights/seafarer-survey/