Hopes dashed by Omicron

Period of hope gives way to confusion and frustration for seafarers

By Steven Jones

In closing out 2021, we unfortunately saw a drop in the overall average figure for the Seafarers’ Happiness Index. The drop from 6.59/10 to 6.41/10 for Quarter 4 was not particularly surprising given the year ending with a surge of Omicron Covid-19 cases. The knock-on effects for seafarers were as predictable as they were depressing. There was some positivity in areas such connectivity, training and food but the overall trend was far less positive, highlighting the challenges of dealing with uncertainty.

Seafarers are robust, resilient and they cope so well with all the various trials and tribulations which are thrown at them. But the uncertainty of Covid-19 has really exerted a heavy toll on crew mental health and wellbeing. In the Q4 2021 Seafarers’ Happiness Index report, the peaks and troughs of pressure have been described as ‘yo-yo’ in nature. One month things look good; there is a drop in infections and the world’s borders are set to reopen. The next month, there’s a spike and lockdowns return with seafarers unsure of which way to turn. This leaves them lacking clarity, consistency and a clear idea of whether they will get home as expected, or whether their contract of employment will be rolled over and extended, sometimes against their will or without their agreement.

Such ambiguity and a lack of certainty is draining to deal with and has a hugely detrimental effect, creating doubt, stress and frustration. Seafarers want to know how long they will be away, and when they are likely to go home. It is the same basic need that people at sea have always had. Even seafarers like to plan.

So, the yo-yo takes its toll. At the start of the reporting period for Q4 we noted a rapid rise in sentiment. Seafarers were looking ahead to the holidays, and those who were due home were increasingly hopeful they may finally get back. Then the latest variant hit and hopes and dreams were thrown into disarray. The impact on happiness was hard and deep. Levels dropped off, as uncertainty rose.

Profit share

While the issue of crew change and seafarer movement were a primary focus in 2021, there was another trend seen over the year: 2021 saw a real hardening of sentiment from seafarers about the business of shipping and their role in it. There was a far more militant tone in responses we received, particularly when discussing the risks and rewards of their career, as seen by seafarers. Wage levels have become more of an issue, and there was a criticism from many respondents that shipping’s financial gains are not being adequately shared among seafarers. This perception is further damaging and eroding goodwill.

Another issue is that of key/essential worker status. Seafarers are increasingly dismayed and disappointed by the inability of those in power to universally designate them as such. They know how important they are; they know that without them world trade would stall and people would go hungry and be without power. They want to know that the sacrifices they make are at least reflected in status and recognition.

In yet another year of uncertainty there are some things which have come very much into focus and will need to be addressed in 2022. To put it plainly, seafarers want to know when they will be going home, they want the rewards they receive to mirror the huge profits being generated in shipping, and they want to be seen and formally recognised for the amazing job they do to keep ships and cargoes moving.

Steven Jones is the founder of the Seafarers’ Happiness Index, in association with the Wallem Group and the Standard Club in 2021. The Index is designed to monitor and bench- mark seafarer satisfaction levels by asking 10 key questions and serves as an important barometer of seafarer satisfaction with life at sea. Questions focus on a range of issues, from mental health and wellbeing, to working life and family contact. If you would like more information, to see the data or read more in-depth reports, visit www.happyatsea.org for access to the latest results and to have your say.