A newly connected way of life at sea can see bad news travelling fast – instead of trying to hide from reality, perhaps we need new coping mechanisms and ways of helping crews dealing with difficult times.
Anyone who has worked at sea will remember the time that bad news arrived – or even the effect of hearing something bad from home had on others. The chirpy Third Mate laid low when his girlfriend dumped him, the tears of the Second Engineer whose Dad died.
These things happen, and it can be hard enough to cope for people at home, but at sea it can hit incredibly hard. The effect on bad news from home is perhaps something that is all too easy to overlook, but it can have a serious effect on safety, wellbeing and performance.
A new publication from the Nautical Institute and Human Rights at Sea, “Managing Traumatic Stress – Guidance for Maritime Organizations” aims to provide guidance to senior management to help improve the mental health of seafarers. The author, Professor Neil Greenberg, states that better mental health support for maritime not only provides moral benefits, there are also legal and financial benefits too.
The idea of “doing the right” thing is a challenge – how do companies today deal with the moral, ethical and even operational demands that seafarer mental wellbeing brings?
In the new reality of life onboard, many of the “softer” layers have been stripped bare. Smaller crews numbers, greater demands and a breakdown in social cohesion mean that it is harder for seafarers to know who to turn too.
There is also an issue with mixed nationality crews – there are definite cultural and social differences with the ways in which certain nations deal with upset, shock or grief.
So too there has been an erosion of soft skills – there just aren’t the people with the time to care sufficiently anymore. Everyone is too busy, too focused on their own roles and responsibilities.
Stripping to a lean operational manning machine, has seemingly made us “more mean”…and that makes it even harder for seafarers to cope when things go wrong. There is just no obvious direction to turn.
With these challenges in place, is it possible to develop ways of managing negative coping behaviours? Whenever something bad happens it’s easy for us to slip into self-victimisation – why me? Or we can react with anger, self-blame, dejection or depression. These are all potentially damaging even when ashore, but at sea they can be deadly.
With the retreat into loneliness and slinking back to single cabins that can happen all too often these days, a lack of social cohesion onboard and the lack of any pastoral roles and responsibilities, means small problems can easily become very big ones.
The unenlightened perhaps all too readily seek to blame the internet – but this is simply not true. There needs to be a new way of employing and deploying social media onboard. New ways of crews talking together – of playing together and of feeling part of something.
It may seem ridiculous to past generations – but people want to interact together digitally. They want to chat online, they want to play games or compare songs, books, even sports performance. Seafarers need to be part of that. , it seems that there is.
To better prepare seafarers to deal with complex, challenging and even distressing situations, we perhaps need to develop a new way of managing the process of physical disconnection, distress and disbelief. So what can you do?
1. Release your frustrations: Don’t bottle that feeling – talk to a friend about it. We need to get back to the days of “shipmates”. A listening ear does wonders, and seafarers need to be encouraged to support each other.
2. Realise you are not alone: It may feel so hard being at sea dealing with stress from ashore – but it is important to realise that you are not alone in this. Other people onboard will have been through this…other people in the office ashore. They too have likely experienced it. So reach out and find who can help.
3. Being frustrated isn’t going to solve anything: It is ok to feel pain and even anger, but get that out and then find a path forward. Lashing out or going berserk will create more problems. Agitation prevents good decisions. So try and sit back and think clearly of the route ahead – there will be one, however hard it seems.
4. You always have a choice: Whatever has happened the next response is a choice. The events up to that point may be out of control, but now with choices comes some form of power.
5. Objectify it: Stuff happens, as they say. The incident, decision or action is a situation. Try to remove the feelings and look at the situation objectify. It’s hard, but can help so much.
6. Focus on what you can do: Seafarers are problem solvers, so the decision to focus on a next stage can be empowering and helpful. Action creates possibilities. It creates results. By taking action, you are no longer a passive recipient. You are back in the game and shaping outcomes. See the problem as an obstacle to be overcome.
7. Ask for help: No-one wants you to suffer, so do not fear or shy away from asking for help. This gives others a chance to shape positives too – and can be really useful for those who are suffering, and those who are eager to help but don’t know how.
Worse things happen at sea they say, but sometimes it can just be a sense that things feel worse when so far from home. The interaction which the internet brings will throw up new challenges – and employers, managers ashore and those at sea need to think differently and of how to manage these issues.
There is a temptation to deploy the usual three monkeys approach – see no, hear no, say no…but that will not make this go away. The internet at sea can bring massive benefits – to think of limiting access or to ban seafarers from interacting with the world, and of information and entertainment runs contrary to the way in which society is flowing.
Instead of fighting the flow, shipping needs to think of the benefits and embrace them, it needs to be alive to the potential problems and find ways of dealing with them. Connected seafarers face challenges, but the benefit far outweighs the harm.