Separation from family and friends might cause seafarers to feel isolated, but this is not the only form of isolation they can encounter. Another comes from the very technology designed to reduce it.
Better digital communication technology can compound isolation problems at sea by reducing social interaction on board. Rather than chat, play games or watch videos with other crew members, it is now all too easy for seafarers to retreat to their cabins with their mobile devices.
HRAS spoke to North P&I Club claims executive Robert Robinson about the club’s recent concerns on potential downsides of greater connectivity at sea.
HRAS: How can greater connectivity be a bad thing for seafarers?
A lack of social interaction on board might mean that seafarers may feel alone and friendless, and this in turn could mean that they have less support for any problems they might encounter either from home or at sea.
Having easy access to family and friends back home is of huge benefit to seafarers. However, sometimes issues at home will cause seafarers anxiety, and this can be exacerbated by having easy access to communications but not being able to deal directly with problems.
A 2005 study from the UK Office of National Statistics lists coal miners as having the highest suicide rate of any occupation and merchant seafarers the second. What has changed over the last decade to make the issues more acute?
Technological advancement, whilst improving ships operations, has also placed greater pressures on seafarers to carry out their tasks quickly and efficiently. Certainly there is less and less time in port and shore leave opportunities may be limited.
The administrative burden has also increased. In particular, the increase in communications such as email can be onerous. This means that crew now have less time to complete various tasks, and therefore the pressure on them to complete such tasks on time, have increased.
So, when faced with a small crew working different shift patterns, possibly also eating at different times of the day, it is no wonder that crew members are retreating to their cabins to watch the latest DVD, video call their friends and family or play on their game consoles alone.
HRAS: Most incidents at sea are due to human error, and one of the drivers of human error can be underlying emotional issues. Do you see a clear link?
Any examples of a connection between the issues would be purely theoretical, as it is difficult to analyse the root causes to ascertain whether there was any underlying emotional issue.
It could be possible, for example, that a seafarer could suffer a trip or fall, or in a more extreme case be involved in an incident such as a collision, due to lack of awareness or reduced concentration. It is difficult, however, to uncover the reason for this lack of concentration and whether personal issues could be a factor.
HRAS: What solutions do you see to the problem of seafarer isolation?
The World Health Organisation states that “Health is a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Therefore, it is clearly important to recognise that direct face to face interaction on board, on a social basis, can directly affect a seafarer’s health and well-being.
Seafarers are becoming more isolated from each other. The technological improvements are by no means a negative thing, it is important to a seafarer’s mental well-being to be able to connect with those back home, but as we stated in our Signals article, this should not come at the price of social interaction with your fellow crew members.
In the past, once they had finished their watch, seafarers would interact with each other in the bar or lounge, enjoy conversation or sitting together around the television, watching the latest movie. Perhaps an officer organised a weekly or monthly entertainment evening, darts, cards or a quiz; maybe even a BBQ or a table tennis tournament.
It is in the general interests of the company, vessel, and crew to ensure a decent level of social interaction on board. So, occasionally banish the Xbox and get out the ping pong table, dart board, playing cards and board games. These will forge relationships on board and help the crew to be happy. A happy crew works more effectively, more efficiently and are more likely to be able to help individuals deal with any issues they may have.
All of this helps crew get to know each other, forge friendships and encourage effective teamwork. The sense of isolation lessens, and there is probably someone to confide in if experiencing problems.
HRAS: Who should take responsibility for building greater camaraderie on board?
It is perhaps not for anyone on shore to decide who should be responsible for ensuring a decent level of social interaction on board. Nor should it be a duty for any particular rank to provide a formal counselling role and increase an already full workload.
Owners and operators can provide suggestions about how to increase or maintain social interaction but ultimately it comes down to each individual vessel to decide the best method for them, with the people they have on board. One person may be put in charge of making the social arrangements, but it does not necessarily need to be someone of the same rank across all vessels.
HRAS: Do you think owners and operators face a risk from the greater availability of communications from shore with respect to the potential for crew to report and document conditions, behaviours, safety issues they are not happy with – or to generate evidence that could be used in case of accidents, violations of regulations or violations human rights?
It is important that these complaints or problems are voiced in order for any issues to be rectified. Owners and operators therefore need to ensure that their crew feel comfortable coming to them with any such complaints, rather than feeling a need to go to a third party.