Investing in seafarer wellness for safety and business sense

March 27, 2018

Despite the attention paid to technology, a ship’s most valuable asset remains its crew. This truism overlooks the fact that until recently, the mental health and emotional wellness of seafarers – and the contribution this makes to efficiency and safety – has received little positive attention.

The Wellness initiative launched by the Sailors’ Society in 2015 was the first concerted attempt to focus on raising awareness and providing the tools that shipmanagers and owners needed to address this topic.

Close behind them are the P&I Clubs, whose work in loss prevention is a natural fit with wellness and not just for reasons of welfare. The costs saved by identifying and acting on mental health issues can prevent a tragedy but it can also save an owner money.

UK P&I Club’s Sophia Bullard has spent 25 years talking to shipowners and says that it’s not drones or autonomous ships that are the growing area of focus, but mental health issues.

Speaking at the second Wellness at Sea conference in London, she pointed out the direct correlation between how owners have traditionally operated and what they now realise they must do.

“Owners use technology to monitor, report and analyse all sorts of functions so that they can see things before they go wrong. That their best asset is the crew is not a secret, so why not monitor assess and improve the mental health of crew for the same reasons,” she asked.

She shared the case study of a young second officer on his sixth contract and given a clean bill of health at his pre-employment examination only to be found dead from injuries sustained in a fall on deck. Despite no signs of unhappiness, subsequent investigation uncovered relationship problems and concealed illness.

The handling of the claims to UK P&I Club members had so far cost $150,000 and would pass $200,000 before it was concluded, she said. The owner had since put in place multiple initiatives to cater to the needs of crew, including counselling helplines, team building exercises, increased social interaction and exercise equipment but there is more to do.

“This company wants well-adjusted happy, health crew whose skills and knowledge can be retained onboard but poor mental health impacts every aspect of life, so we need to look for triggers in physical symptoms and errors,” she added. “There is no quick fix to spotting the signs which means problems may only emerge once mariners are at sea.”

The statistics bear out the need for preventative action, with the cost of the club’s ‘people claims’ accounting for 40% of the total in a 10 year period – equivalent to more than $700m. Even so the data are not conclusive because people claims include injury and illness and the 355 cases range from anxiety to psychosis.

Of these, there were 77 individual – and preventable – suicide cases, and this is for just one P&I club out of 12 in the International Group so the figure could easily be extrapolated.

Bullard acknowledged the emotive topic of attaching monetary costs to people but says it has been just as been emotional analysing cases over the years and realising that the industry could and should have done better to pull down the costs, estimated at $5.6m and rising.

“When employers have the ability to identify mental health issues sooner they can start the intervention early, get assistance and cut down the impact on people and the ultimate cost,” she added. “We want operators to invest in crew training just as they would for any other aspect of the business. Why would you put crew to sea without looking after their mental health. It’s not a financial cost, it’s people’s lives and the impact goes beyond the individual to friends, family, colleagues and the company.”

In terms of loss prevention initiatives, the Club uses lessons learned from high profile cases and suggests that owners build their own mental health policy that can act as a living programme across all offices and at sea, through all ranks to create consciousness around the subject.

It was noted several times during the Wellness conference that ships are still a macho working environment and one in which talking about personal feelings is neither encouraged nor supported. This has to change Bullard said.
“Early identification means early intervention and we need to get crew involved at any rank, they need to buy in and understand it, promote it when chatting with colleagues. There should be no stigma in talking about it. Crew need to learn the triggers and warnings and be prepared to ask a few questions.”

P&I clubs occupy a prominent position of being able to raise awareness and signpost people to treatment and bringing in the experts required. The UK club was the first to set up a crew health programme looking for a new way to improve loss prevention came across the Sailors’ Society programme.

“We thought, why isn’t everybody doing this, the need was so obvious and it complements what we’re doing, detecting physical and mental conditions before they take hold on ship.”

It’s an approach that requires crew to take action too; buying in to their own health and taking a proactive approach to their own wellbeing, but there is plenty of evidence that given the opportunity they will do so. For owners, the business case is obvious: invest in the wellness of crew or face having to make more costly investments after an incident.

But nothing illustrates like a bit of context. Bullard concluded by returning to the data and the 77 seafarer suicides, lives she contends that could have been saved through investment in emotional wellness and loss prevention. “If you need to put a face to these people then look around you and consider that 77 is about half the people in this room. That’s not a statistic.”

Mariners affected by any of the issues raised in this article should speak to their colleagues and officers and make contact to their nearest onshore support service at the first opportunity.