Small acts with big meanings

Some owners have risen admirably to the challenge of lifting the spirits of seafarers

By Steven Jones

The latest report from the Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) has been released, and features feedback from crews pleased to see the end of 2020 with some signs of hope for this year.

The average SHI results showed happiness levels of seafarers for the final quarter of 2020 at 6.37/10. This showed a marginal climb from 6.35 in Q3. To see a rise during a pandemic is surprising, perhaps even more so when some of the positives have been delivered through the actions of employers.

All too often we read of problems regarding ship owners and actions which negatively impact crews. Thankfully, this time there were some signs of progress, and we heard of the solutions and investments that some companies are making to improve the lot of their crews.

Some respondents spoke in glowing terms of the efforts that their employers are making. This included improvements in connectivity, food and diet onboard, and in recreational activities. Across numerous surveys, we heard from seafarers who said they had benefited from owners investing more, seemingly in recognition of the problems in getting home and as a reward for the sacrifices that many are making at sea.

We received reports from seafarers whose employers have secured better or cheaper internet access for them, with some even granting free data. We also heard of companies who had raised food expenses to ensure better quality food, and of others that had provided ships with new exercise or entertainment equipment.

The companies which have found the budget to improve the facilities and life onboard clearly gained much kudos and gratitude from the crew. It is a wise spend indeed, and such investment is recognised and hugely welcomed by seafarers.

While it would be ridiculous to say that such gestures would ever make up for the stress of not knowing when seafarers are finally going to get home, the data shows that the impact of making life better onboard translates into a big difference to the sentiment at sea. The SHI responses from seafarers whose employers had acted to improve facilities onboard were overwhelmingly more positive.

Crew change mess

Unfortunately, despite this positive news, the problems of crew changes and the realities and impact of Covid-19 for those at sea are still very much in evidence. It was sad to read seafarers describe their current experiences as the worst in decades at sea. The mess of crew changes continues to impact the industry and is acutely and personally felt by seafarers and their families.

Seafarers also spoke of a sense of feeling misunderstood, and that people ashore no longer understood the pressures of the job or the impact of not getting home or being granted any shore leave.

There was also talk of a worrying disconnect between crews and those in management positions ashore. Sadly, there appeared to be a real sense of resignation and antipathy across the written responses received, with a sense that the job and life of a seafarer is simply a mystery to those ashore.

The issue of workload was particularly concerning. We heard that seafarers are losing faith in the rules and claim that time and time again the hours of work/rest are merely being fabricated to maintain compliance. This would be bad enough when seafarers are getting their contracted leave, but to have prolonged work over extended contracts without

adequate rest is a recipe for real problems ahead. Speaking under the cover of anonymity, some seafarers admitted to feeling scared that they would lose their jobs if they could not complete their tasks in their ‘work hours’, or indeed if they spoke out about the actual amount of time they spend working.

Another key issue related to training, specifically the push to get seafarers prepared for maritime cyber security rules which have entered into force. Seafarers claim the rush to train to meet this ruling was not matched by investment elsewhere. They claimed that while cyber security awareness skills and training are good in theory, they are undermined by insecure systems and/or equipment – something which is beyond the sphere of influence or control of most seafarers.

Relationship negativity

Where we usually hear positive reports in the SHI about relationships onboard, on this occasion there was a sense of growing levels of stress, uncertainty and pressure which was negatively affecting interactions. Sadly, there was a sense that the atmosphere onboard was being tainted as crews focused solely on ‘getting through’ the pandemic with an all- encompassing longing to go home.

We also heard of problems arising when seafarers travel to join their vessels for their next rotation. The reports lay bare that the treatment of crews, the checks they go through and the standards of accommodation for mandatory quarantine are not good. Seafarers complained of being treated like criminals in some countries. There is clearly a need to ensure the fair treatment of those travelling to and from vessels.

So, while we heard good news when it came to the gestures which can make life better at sea, the responses to the latest SHI make it clear that seafarers are still struggling, and the issue of crew changes is still very much at the fore.

Steven Jones is the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, in association with the Shipowners’ Club and Wallem Group in 2020. The Index is designed to monitor and benchmark 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 well-being, 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.