Mental health is not an obvious or easy subject in any context but certainly in shipping. The perception of a ship’s crew is usually one of strong men and women who act without complaining always with a shared interest of the ship and her cargo. Yet the mental health of the crew on board of a ship is a subject that deserves special attention.
After all, life at sea is not always easy: far away from home, long hours and little private time. At the same time one may have to deal with work stress, problems at home and – not to be underestimated – the traumatic consequences that the danger of working at sea such as an accident resulting in the personal injury of a crewmember. In terms of crew health, the focus is mainly on physical health but mental health is equally important. In handling claims involving human error such as cargo damage due to human error or personal injury claims we have noticed that the mental health of the crew can be an important element in the cause and the handling of such matters.
According to the Sailor’s Society, a British initiative that helps sailors monitor their own well-being, a study conducted in collaboration with Yale University found that more than 25% of people at sea suffer from one or more features of depression. Many of them, about 45%, do not ask for help. About a third discuss it with friends or family and only a fifth discuss it with a colleague, despite the fact that they often spend months at sea together in close quarters.
Crew members with mental health problems may feel they are not up to standard within a ‘macho’ culture on board. The commonly adopted attitude may be to pull yourself together and get on with what you are doing, ignoring the long-term negative consequences. The study conducted by the Sailor’s society shows a reluctance to openly discuss problems due to the fear that they may be considered unfit for their job.
Mental health issues can be a problem not only for the crewmembers themselves, but also for family, friends and other crewmembers. It can manifest itself in low morale, concentration problems and an increased risk of absenteeism and – last but not least – injury due to unfocused work. The ship’s management may as a result be faced with costs due to delays, repatriation and an increased risk of cargo or ship damage, or navigational errors. An even bigger problem may arise if a crew member’s problems turn into dangerous situations due to physical aggression towards others or themselves.
Of course, it is impossible to maintain high morale on board with everyone under all circumstances. Every crewmember has their own needs, peculiarities and background. As management, it is important that you are as aware as possible of the ups and downs of your crew and can actively intervene if you notice that a crew member is having a hard time, even if they do not speak about it.