Maintaining the mental health momentum

Paying more than lip service to seafarer welfare

By Carly Fields

In these distressing times a “tiny sliver of positivity” is emerging from the chaos of the pandemic, according to Vroon Offshore chief officer Joanne Rawley. She notes a growing awareness of the integral role seafarers play in the global environment and of the importance of good mental wellbeing.

But if the industry is to capitalise on the momentum, it needs to pay more than lip service to the issue: “We need to show we’re really listening and can be trusted,” says Joanne, speaking to The Sea. This means being actively involved in research and working groups to keep the conversation moving. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted, for example, that more attention needs to be focused on the direct correlation between some- one’s health (physical and mental) and the level of distraction while completing their duties safely, as well as the factors that affect that.

Joanne’s sea-going career started in 2012 and over that time she has worked as a chief officer on multi-role North Sea vessels, yachts and tall ships and has worked ashore in safety. Her goals for the coming years focus on increasing mental health awareness and reducing stigma, particularly in the maritime industry, and supporting other maritime professionals and veterans as best she can.

She was recently awarded the UK State 2020 Merchant Navy Medal of Meritorious Service for services to seafarer wellbeing and mental health, an accolade that prompted a “whirlwind of emotions”. Referring to that award, Joanne says that she does not claim to be an expert; she sees herself as just someone with lived experience and a passion for learning, developing and assisting others.

She sees opportunities for better addressing mental health within seafarer education as one avenue for development and has put forward recommendations for a mentoring scheme within the UK and incorporation of mental health into compulsory training and first aid courses to raise basic awareness. She also recently joined David Hammond and the rest of the Human Rights at Sea team to raise awareness of seafarers’ struggles and the continued violations of basic human rights.

Target areas

Many other areas are ripe for improvement when it comes to addressing seafarers’ welfare and developing their careers. For example, interaction of multi-nation- al crews could be enhanced, says Joanne. First there needs to be recognition that levels of interaction depend on the vessel size, role, culture and facilities on board.

Second, communication policies must be clear. “For example, the working language of the vessel is English, so all contracted crew are expected to achieve a certain percentage on the Marlins test to ensure communication, particularly in urgent situations, is not a barrier,” she says.

She adds that unlimited WiFi could cause more harm than good when it comes to uniting crews. “I understand the ‘need’ to stay connected with family and friends back home – with my longest trip being 18 weeks – but I disagree that unlimited and faster wi-fi is the answer.” Joanne suggests that instead of going to individual cabins to watch movies or log on, seafarers could check in with other crew or arrange a computerised football tournament, darts, or card game which all encourage inter- action. “Leading by example with an open-door policy would help to make personal discussions part of the norm,” she says.

And while cliques develop in all crews, the key is to keep them fluid. “If we start dividing crews instead of uniting them, it could lead to more isolation and reasons for exclusion – crew could be ostracised by gender, religion, race, football team etc. The list goes on and so would the reasons for exclusion – crew don’t need to be best friends and love everyone they sail with, but more emphasis should be given to communication and tolerance.”

Learning standardisation

Education inconsistency amongst seafarers also needs addressing. “Speaking only from personal experience, seafarer education appears to be highly variable depending not only on the country (I’ve sailed with cadets from UK, Spain, France and India), the college or class of vessel, but also on the individual officers tasked with assisting their development.”

She says that stories and first-hand experience of cadets being essentially employed as cleaners are common and has heard claims of cadets being sent to cabins to ‘study’ instead of undertaking their watches. “Companies sponsoring cadets should be more aware of the commitment they are taking on, realising that these 12 months of sea time is the only real world experience the cadets get before they qualify and are then making decisions that have significant impact on the safety of themselves, others, the vessel and the environment.” She strongly suggests that sponsor companies be obliged to give their newly qualified cadets their first contract to support their career development.

Automation is an area where Joanne urges caution when it comes to the impact on seafarers. While progress in automation could reduce accidents, increase efficiency and reduce environ- mental impact, there could be a negative impact on an already fractured industry. “I believe four categories of [autonomous] vessel have been defined by Lloyd’s Register, only two of which would have seafarers on, suggesting an even greater reduction in manpower and a push for multi-skilling which would lead to increased isolation onboard,” she says. “I’ve tried to stay current with the latest reports from the UK’s Maritime Autonomy Regulation Lab (MARLab) but currently there are too many unanswered questions. What would happen if a vessel were cyber-hacked? If boarded by pirates can the vessel be manually overridden? What if vessel control or visibility was lost by the operator in a fire/pollution incident? There are certainly going to be interesting times ahead.”

Help yourselves

Seafarers have their own role to play in these ‘interesting times’, particularly when it comes to improving their working conditions. In the UK, the Merchant Navy Code of Conduct exists for a reason: a rank structure complying with a detailed management system in such an environment is crucial – a vessel cannot be a democracy. “However,” Joanne says, “enabling an open atmosphere encouraging discussions and sharing of issues and ideas is also crucial.”

Joanne also urges seafarers to get involved with maritime charities, organisations and study groups to improve the link between sea and shore, making seafarers part of the way forward rather than just subject to it. She highlights two of the many initiatives that she has taken part in. One is the joint Maritime UK, UK Department for Transport and Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers Maritime and Me campaign to profile women in maritime and encourage girls to join the sector. The other is the WISE Campaign (Women into Science and Engineering), which encourages women and girls to value and pursue science, technology, engineering and maths-related courses in school or college and move into related careers and progress.

“By assisting the ‘Maritime & Me’ campaign and WISE, I’m hoping it will generate a spark or two of interest in the industry to show others that it can be accessible for the younger generations of women, or a female in her 30s, as I was, if they fancy the challenge of a complete career change.” Joanne points to figures from the International Maritime Organization reporting that only 2% of seafarers are female – and over 90% of those are employed in the cruise and passenger sector.

“It is certainly not a career suitable for everyone, but I think it’s crucial to let the upcoming generations know there are options out there that don’t depend on university or working 9-5 in an office environment,” concludes Joanne. “The only way we’re going to increase our levels of diversity is to promote, encourage and support.”