Maritime experts have been looking at the ways in which seafarers use the internet and have been asking whether the ability to instantly communicate with home is good or bad news.
A THORNY ISSUE
It may seem incredible given the way in which billions of people globally use the internet, but industry “experts” have been looking at the thorny issue of web use among crew, asking whether the internet onboard is a good thing.
Citing a couple of sad stories there have even been questions as to whether the ability to instantly communicate news to seafarers thousands of miles from home was a negative factor.
The issue seems to hinge on whether access to the internet, and the ability to “always be in touch” is a good or bad things. What considerations need to be managed, and is such contact actually good for the well-being of seafarers?
In the examples given, a tragedy occurred when a young officer took his own life after learning that his wife-to-be ashore had decided to finish the relationship. While the other story saw a duty officer on the bridge receive bad news from his wife, which was followed by an accident onboard.
BAD NEWS BEARS
In both cases, the ability for seafarers to receive news from home, even when thousands of miles from home was seen as a “negative factor” and a catalyst for bad things to happen.
On the ship which saw the accident, it is understood that the officer later confessed one of the factors contributing to the accident was that his mind was not entirely on the job.
There is an inherent balancing act which does need to be considered when shore life and the occasional harsh realities of life at home seep into the consciousness of those away.
The idea that the internet and communications can really be to blame seems a bit of a stretch – however, it does seem that people need to think and act differently. It is obvious that what happens at home impacts seafarers at sea – but to think that crew can be insulated and isolated is not really the answer.
NOT A NEW PROBLEM
Seafarers have always received bad news eventually – whether through letter or telegrams, then crackly phone calls via Portishead radio, and then via email…and then today via Skype, Facebook or WhatsApp.
The tragedy of a young officer being pushed to suicide by a philandering spouse is a story as old as time – sadly. It’s just that the internet perhaps makes the bad news travel faster.
The idea that watchkeepers may be thinking about home and not the job is another issue, and not a new one either. Mind you, to think that such a response is down to the internet alone is something of a red herring.
Are we actually seeing the impact of fatigue in concert with other factors? Are seafarers receiving news from home which were they rested and thinking straight they’d be able to deal with, but as they are fatigued then their responses are exaggerated by their state?
Tiredness and fatigue, combined with the stress of work – these have a massive effect on the ways in which people react to situations. It seems that we need to understand just how big an effect they have, and before we decry access to family and friends as a negative catalyst, perhaps we need to also manage the mind-set of seafarers.
Are we seeing a negative cocktail, one which is bound to cause stress and distress? So instead of dismissing the idea of providing internet access, perhaps we need to simply manage and stay alive to potential problems.
Seafarers will always receive bad news eventually – that is a fact. So whether it’s via pigeon, phone, fax or Facebook – the word will get through. So instead of decrying that, we need to give thought to how emotional wellbeing is managed and supported.
The use of these powerful tools of communication should be part of a wider educational process, encouraging seafarers to be aware of the potential pitfalls of being in touch with home, and of how they should deal with negatives.
HOPE FOR THE BEST
It can be hard being at sea – and there is a danger that the realities and hardships of life onboard, of watch patterns, of too little time ashore or of poor diet and lack of exercise will all take their toll.
We know from the Crewtoo Seafarers Happiness Index just how great the effect is of all these combined facets of life at sea. There is an imperfect storm which can build and swamp the unwary seafarer. Enlightened employers and real leaders need to recognise that and develop means of helping crews to cope better.
In many ways, the moment a seafarer steps through the departure lounge and the journey to the vessel begins, then they are trying to maintain a work/life balance. There is a sense of hoping for the best, and of course wishing that friends and family remain well – but are we perhaps good enough at preparing for the worst?
DO THE RIGHT THING
Are employers alive to the potential hazards, and are they willing or able to respond? There are moral, ethical and even operational reasons that seafarer mental wellbeing needs to be considered.
Pulling the plug on the internet is simply not the answer – that is a knee jerk response. That is treating the symptom, not the disease – so employers need to do the right thing, in the right way.
Crews need to be better equipped to manage their own mental health – but there needs to be a new culture of empathy and caring onboard. Are we helping seafarers to understand how to respond to challenges of sadness, loneliness and stress? Ashore too, managers need to improve – they need to be a friendly, open presence that can be there for their people.
Everyday difficulties can hit seafarers hard – everybody gets stressed and exhausted when bad things happen, but when they happen and you are helpless and away at sea, then they can seem so much worse.