Pragmatic action on seafarer wellbeing crucial for a resilient shipping industry

03 October 2022

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​These past few years seafarers’ have shown great endurance amid a myriad of challenges. While many owners introduced measures to help cushion their workers from the strains of the crew change crisis during COVID-19, for many seafarers it has taken a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing. Now, beleaguered crews recovering from those trying times are having to contend with geopolitical conflict and navigate the stresses and strains of a beleaguered global supply chain, which continues to experience major delays around the world. If we want our industry to remain resilient, we must take active steps to improve our support for seafarer health and wellbeing.

All too often, allocating a budget for wellbeing is seen as an add on or luxury. And in a cost of living crisis, it is understandably difficult to justify spending money on seafarer welfare programmes.

However, a small amount of investment now will have positive spin offs such as a loyal workforce, helping companies to retain skilled workers and attracting new talent. The industry is facing a skills crisis, with shortages of officers already predicted by the International Chamber of Shipping and BIMCO before the pandemic. This will only be exacerbated further by the poor treatment crews received from governments around the world during the crew change crisis.

Taking proactive measures to improve working conditions and support for physical and mental health of crews is vital to keep talented seafarers in our industry, rather than lose them to roles ashore.

Increased competition for skilled workers

And it isn’t just traditional seafaring skills that we require. As the industry adapts and changes to fit new environmental regulations, we will be competing with onshore industries for workers with a broader understanding of multiple alternative fuels, as well as those with greater knowledge of digital and automated systems. We are competing with attractive roles on land that offer a far more comfortable working environment.

Workers’ motivations are also shifting. Increasingly, people want to work with ethical companies, with seafarers now prioritising companies that promote an environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda. As a result, ESG is not simply an optional business practice—it is now a default business practice which puts you in line with existing market sentiment. Committing and successfully executing an ESG strategy can help improve your company’s reputation and attract new talent.

For example, the prospect of universal connectivity alone is something which can significantly raise seafarer happiness, improve optimism and crew morale. This is shown in this year’s Seafarer Happiness Index, where the second quarter’s overall rating was 7.21/10, compared to the first quarter’s rating of 5.85. The disparities in this data, which the report has attributed to the issues of connectivity, demonstrate that putting seafarer wellbeing at the forefront of decision-making can positively impact ship operations.

A happier crew is a safer and more focused crew; the Happiness Index reiterates that seafarers who have access to family and friends are able to face any challenges at sea with a better disposition. This change in mindset has the potential to reduce safety incidents on board and improve crew relationships to create optimum operating conditions.

This makes evident that practical, pragmatic steps are the way forward. Something as simple and affordable as offering crew Wi-Fi demonstrates how small changes can have a clear and positive effect on seafarer wellbeing. For those not sure where to begin, shipowners need only look to findings from industry surveys such as the Happiness Index, and engage and communicate with their own crews, to determine what minor adjustments can be made for maximum impact.

Using data to seafarer advantage

With this in mind, we have undertaken careful research and development to produce clear and easy to implement key performance indicators (KPIs) for shipping. These ensure ship owners and operators can implement changes as of today to improve wellbeing and collect data for future analysis of health programmes.

There are numerous research projects and seafarer health initiatives out there, but too often great advice does not get transformed into real-world changes that can be easily implemented in day-to-day business operations.

This is why we did not commission a study which would rehash already established facts within the industry. Rather, our study with Yale University looked at how these maritime health worker initiatives are currently being implemented. This report then created a basis for discussion with industry stakeholders who informed us of potential obstacles to the implementation of health initiatives and solutions to these obstacles. The roundtables found a consensus on certain points, which then fed into the structure of creating KPIs.

These KPIs can be found in our discussion paper and can serve as a basis for companies to begin implementing initial systems of care on board vessels.

Bringing everyone to the table

However, we recognise that these KPIs are merely recommendations based on stakeholder feedback. There is always room for improvement and for understanding what measures seafarers need in place to support their wellbeing. Our goal remains to engage with interested stakeholders and continue to refine our recommendations to industry.

A critical element to this continuous improvement is bringing in the expertise of seafarers themselves. This is why we are asking for crews to feed back on the KPIs and ensure that crews have the opportunity to voice their opinions so that we can have a comprehensive understanding of the best implementation strategy for health initiatives.

Collaboration and open communication are key to success. We want to know which welfare programmes seafarers have seen implemented and what they have gained as a consequence. Did these strategies work to improve seafarers’ wellbeing? If so, how? This is a continuous process, and such conversations will help refine our collective approach to improving seafarer welfare and identify future goals and challenges.

For maritime businesses, these KPIs will provide accountability when assessing the implementation and success of seafarer health worker initiatives. We hope that companies will work with us and provide feedback on the recommended measures, as well as the most favoured trends and solutions that are provided for health initiatives.

Let’s begin to make real change in the industry or we will suffer the long-term consequences. The business case is simple: you cannot run a ship without seafarers. Not supporting their needs at sea can result in poor crew retention and attraction levels. During a recession, you cannot afford to overlook cost-effective viable measures that would encourage crew to continue working with you. Collaboratively addressing crew wellbeing has a vital role to play in ensuring continued resilience for shipping as we navigate these uncertain times.