Getting the balance right

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

29 January 2016


In a similar vein to the ShipInsight Work or Welfare article earlier this month, North P&I Club’s latest Signals newsletter included an article linking modern life on board ships with an increasing suicide rate among seafarers. In essence the Signals article compares life on board some ships today with what was the usual way of life and asks if isolation is now more prevalent. In today’s digital age isolation should, you think, be a thing of the past. A seafarer can connect to his family and friends back home across a multitude of electronic devices at more or less any time they choose yet research shows that seafarers now have the second highest suicide rate of any occupation. Separation from family, friends and other crew may cause a seafarer to feel isolated and this can lead to mental health issues. However, isolation from family is not the only form of isolation that seafarers encounter. They may feel isolated and friendless on board which will affect their work. One of the drivers of this on board isolation may in fact be the technology that should make things easier. Having easy access to family and friends back home can cause problems in some cases. It does not allow seafarers to have the ‘clean break’ from domestic issues that they might have had in the past. Sometimes issues at home will cause seafarers anxiety and this can be exacerbated by the easy access that technology brings. In most cases easy access to home is a great plus for seafarers, but it can on occasion actually become detrimental to seafarers welfare. Another unintended aspect of modern technology is that the internet and the various social media platforms may actually make on board life less social. Off duty seafarers would once interact with each other in the bar or lounge, having general conversation or sit together around the television and watch the latest movie. Sometimes there would be organised entertainment such as cards or dart tournaments, quizzes and where the weather allowed BBQs on deck. All of this helped crew get to know each other, forge friendships and encourage effective teamwork. The sense of isolation was less and there was probably someone you could confide in if experiencing problems. Modern technology has produced a situation where it is easy for seafarers to retreat to their cabins and plug in, which reduces social interaction. Technological advancement can lead to smaller crews, less port time and multinational crews can create cultural and social challenges. So when faced with a small crew who it is not easy to speak to, 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 and/or play on their games console alone. 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.” The article concludes that it is important to recognise that direct face to face interaction on board, on a social basis, directly affects a seafarer’s health and well-being. In order to decrease the number of cases of mental health issues, there needs to be contact with family and friends back home; but crucially, this should not come at the expense of social interaction with fellow crew members. There needs to be a balance, and the statistics evidencing an increased suicide rate amongst seafarers and an apparent decline in social interaction on board, should not be considered a mere coincidence. It suggests that an occasional return to the older lifestyle 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. Maybe someone can even come with ideas on how modern technology can actually encourage social interaction on board and across a fleet.