The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the key role that seafarers play in the global supply chain. As the pandemic took hold in early 2020 a significant crew change crisis unfolded globally due to border closures, strict quarantine requirements and a faltering vaccination rollout. Stranded aboard their vessels and with an unclear pathway out of the pandemic the mental health of seafarers deteriorated significantly.
With 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea at one point, the issue was framed as an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Stakeholders within the maritime industry including companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) responded by providing mental health and psychosocial support. Whilst information on available support measures and their perceived value from the employer perspective is available, it is unclear how seafarers themselves view and use these support measures.
How was the study conducted?
To address this knowledge gap, Lloyd’s Register Foundation funded a team of researchers from the University of the Philippines Visayas, World Maritime University and the University of Plymouth. The researchers identified which support interventions were made available to seafarers, and importantly - which they viewed as being most beneficial. The study complements a Lloyd’s Register’s COVID 2020 survey which looked at significant crew safety and wellbeing lessons learned from the pandemic.
The authors used qualitative in-depth interviews with various key stakeholders to identify 22 distinct psychosocial interventions and used these responses to formulate a web-based survey. Over 1,400 seafarers responded to the survey between July and September 2021 detailing their usage, and perceived value, of each intervention type.
What issues did the authors identify?
The authors split the 22 interventions into two groups, those provided mainly by employers, and those by other stakeholders. The authors identified several alarming outcomes, with nearly 50% of respondents reporting poor-quality, or insufficient, personal protective equipment (PPE) being supplied. Additionally, vaccine provision was significantly skewed by nationality with over 80% of Chinese respondents being vaccinated compared to around 23% of Filipino seafarers.
The authors then collated their findings by plotting the percentage uptake for an intervention against its perceived impact. It is important to note that all interventions were perceived to be positive but to varying degrees, it is not the case that those in the left-hand quadrants were not valued by seafarers.
From the charts below, the most impactful intervention was to ensure timely crew changes, given the large number of seafarers who were effectively stranded at the height of the pandemic it is clear to see why facilitating this change was so highly rated. The creation of a supportive environment and the provision of peer support was also rated very highly, and most respondents felt that they had access to this support network.
Why are the findings interesting?
Several interesting observations can be made from the report. Firstly, it is worth reiterating that while some interventions were rated more highly than others, all 22 interventions were seen by seafarers as having a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
Secondly, it is interesting to note that none of the interventions identified during the qualitative interview stage are to do with the physical workplace. There is a strong trend for seafarers seeing value in a good work-life balance, with enhanced support and contact with their families, a collegiate atmosphere on board, external support through helplines, apps and personal support with port chaplains coupled with a desire for reduced overtime and more effective crew change schedules.
These are then supported by a second theme of improved individual health and safety, through the lens of COVID-19, by the provision of sufficient high-quality PPE for the whole crew and a prioritisation for vaccination. The stark differences in vaccination rates between nationalities may have been addressed since the time of the study, however given the emerging requirements for booster vaccination programmes it is still important to pursue prioritization of seafarers as key workers to ensure a rapid rollout.
Finally, it is interesting to compare these responses with those of a small sample of employers revealed during round table discussions that Lloyd's Register Foundation ran in June and July 2021, in partnership with Seafarers’ Hospital Society and Yale University. There, companies focused more on things they could readily control such as internal communications, food and exercise provisions, and recreational activity support. In this report, it is worth noting that whilst seafarers still see value in these interventions, they rate them less strongly than those discussed above.
The key message is the importance of listening to and acting on seafarers’ concerns, with a stronger focus on seafarers being treated as humans, rather than a resource. Whilst this is especially true during the acute phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a clear need for such interventions to remain into the future.
What can Lloyd's Register Foundation and other stakeholders do?
This study highlights the need to raise standards across the industry, with a collaborative effort required to deliver the most impactful interventions to as many seafarers as possible.
As the report demonstrates, ‘wellbeing’ initiatives are hugely wide-ranging and difficult to categorize making it difficult to deliver a cohesive plan. Furthermore, while employers have the power to make some interventions, others are far more difficult to implement. However, this report does represent an important contribution to identifying ‘what works’ and what could improve the entire industry in the long-term, which is the major focus of LRF.
Building on our work establishing the relationship between psychological wellbeing and safety, the Foundation has again partnered with Nottingham Business School (NBS) to produce a maturity framework for organisations’ wellbeing policy and practice, as well as a toolkit for managing wellbeing conversations between different organisational stakeholders, which is due to launch in spring 2022.
In addition, NBS and Lloyd’s Register Foundation are conducting a Rapid Evidence Assessment of what works for wellbeing in maritime, providing the baseline of published research from which we hope to build capacity in this area. To be kept informed about our plans, sign up to our mailing list and LinkedIn page.
Lloyd’s Register Foundation has also funded The SafetyTech Accelerator to engage stakeholders with tech solutions for objective, ethical, real-time assessment of seafarers’ wellbeing, enabling more timely and effective interventions in support of both seafarers and safety.