Steven Jones, the compiler of the Seafarers Happiness Index, on the collective mood onboard. If it were the five stages of grief, we’re now approaching acceptance begrudgingly.
Ding, ding, ding, ding…No it’s not your phone, but a metaphorical ringing of the bell around the necks of seafarers that most countries would probably like them to wear. Indeed in the latest Seafarers Happiness Index, reports emerged of crews increasingly being viewed as the new lepers, pariahs to be kept as far away from the population as possible.
Unfortunately, all kinds of ‘Covid theatre’ seem to be emerging, in which seafarers are asked to do things that erode credibility and make life at sea even more exasperating and frustrating than it already is.
When faced with challenging times even small frustrations begin to eat away at people. As such, we heard seafarers are angered by a range of small impositions, ones that build to paint a global regime that undermines the professionalism of seafarers.
One problem we heard was seafarers feel they are being painted as “bringers of disease” when visiting nations. The self-same places are desperate to access the goods, materials, fuels and food which these crews bring to them. Why, is there such a disconnect between the good that seafarers do, and the bad reception they get when doing it?
Make seafarers feel rewarded and recognised, a part of the good and not some outsiders to be shunned, ignored, and dressed like Halloween extras when they pass through airports
As many nations are currently experiencing, when transport links are stretched or broken, shortages occur. Sadly, very few seem to be joining the dots and understanding that shop shelves are ultimately stocked by the seafarers who get the things through in the first place.
To read of seafarers stating that they feel unwelcome is as depressing as it is wrong. Alas, until the global importance of shipping is hammered home, then crews will continue to be treated badly. “Treated like outcasts by various port authorities at every port”, was one response from a seafarer. A sentiment that sets the scene on how the profession is perceived.
There are seemingly questionable decisions at the core of so much of the seeming degradation and humiliation of seafarers. In an airport, it is easy to spot seafarers, dressed in cheap paper approximations of hazmat suits and herded together, only lacking the plague bells to seemingly warn people of the dangers coming around the corner. Some have even been forced to wear plastic sauna suits! Can you imagine…and then they have their temperature checked. Yes, no S, Sherlock, they seem hot!
These panicked, knee jerk and ill-considered moves are likely to have a far more detrimental impact on health than the minuscule likelihood of bacteria being transmitted from their normal clothing. Research shows that paper suits achieve about the square root of sod all, in case you wondered.
Being made to leave vessels while wearing disposable suits and made to transit airports looking like convicts or the undead. This is not right, not necessary and delivers only a ‘Covid theatre’ of viral protection, it does nothing to save lives. This is a source of much annoyance for seafarers.
Lest we forget, it is seafarers who are increasingly vaccinated, who are frequently tested and who actually often spend whole ocean passages as a form of quarantine. Yet, they are the people forced to dress for effect. This is humiliating, it does little to protect anyone from the virus and is another sign that wider society and the authorities in many nations do not understand, appreciate or recognise the importance of seafarers.
There are shipboard issues too, and across the past year and a half, we have become accustomed to reading reports from vessels about some ill-conceived, or poorly thought-out diktats added with too little real-world consideration to their safety management or operational systems.
Seemingly small and trivial issues, such as washing all their equipment, clothing and even bedding at ridiculous intervals, have a big effect. Then there are demands that masks be worn onboard, and even social distancing when trying to hand over a navigation watch, meaning that neither watchkeeper can see the radar screen at the same time. COVID theatre comes in many forms, alas usually it turns into either a tragedy or a farce.
Rules which are not fit for purpose, not thought through or considered, make for tension, pressure, annoyance and frustration. Things that once more add to the potent and potential cocktail of stress onboard.
In pulling together the latest feedback for the Seafarers Happiness Index there appears to be some good news as some stability has returned to the data received. In fact, the average happiness figure across the thousands of seafarers we have spoken to and heard from in the past two years has returned to exactly the same position at the end of Q3 2021 as it was at the end of Q3 2019.
We have seen the pandemic hit, and we have seen how seafarers have had to ride the Covid wave through their emotions and the impact on how they live and work onboard ships.
While it is good to see the data rise, it becomes increasingly obvious looking back through the past couple of years that seafarers have gone through emotions very much in keeping with the five stages of grief, a model which includes – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The drops and rises in the happiness data and responses mirror these phases, and today we seem to find ourselves seemingly settling at some form of ‘acceptance’. Seafarers get how it is, and how it is likely to be. For some that acceptance is good, and they can continue without too many surprises or disappointments. For others, what this acceptance means is that they understand, but that they now no longer feel that seafaring is for them.
We received many responses from seafarers who said they were done with the sea, and that they no longer wanted to continue in their career. With so many similar messages, it seems there is a real problem brewing as skilled, knowledgeable and experienced seafarers decide that they will not return to the sea.
We heard from many seafarers, particularly those aged 35 and over, that they were not intending to return to sea once they eventually got home. The challenges of balancing home life with the uncertainties that the crew change crisis have seen those who may have been tentatively considering a move ashore accelerating their career change plans.
The issue of retention in an already stressed workforce is a major concern. The expertise that is potentially going to be lost should serve as a warning to all. A profession that is becoming more difficult, less enjoyable, less rewarding, and one which is talking about the death knell of unmanned ships, should not be surprised that it will become ever more difficult to attract and retain people. “Fun and happiness are taken out of sailing by most ship owners and managers for commercial gains”, ran one response which captured the prevailing sentiment.
As such, it seems there is likely to be a growing shortfall in seafarers in the coming years, and with little or no coherent mechanism to manage the problems coming over the horizon what can and should be done about?
Well…perhaps treating seafarers with respect, decency, and courtesy could help? Perhaps making them feel rewarded and recognised, a part of the good and not some outsiders to be shunned, ignored, and dressed like Halloween extras when they pass through airports. That would at least be a start.