Feeling Down, But Not Allowed Out

Alas, those who shared with us time round felt a drop in the overall level of seafarer happiness, which has now slipped down to 6.13/10 from a high in Q3 of 6.59. Analysing the data and assessing the returns, we saw consistent drops across all categories, with only connectivity proving a surprise riser. As ever, it was the seafarers who shared their experiences which have painted the real image of life at sea today.

Despite a slide in the figures, there were still some positives to emerge. According to the data, the happiest seafarers were those on container vessels, aged between 25-35, from Africa and serving as engine crew.

The most telling positives when it came to the narrative results related to the pride seafarers feel when providing for their families and communities. While other major positives related to connectivity and also maritime training.

The happiest seafarers spoke of the importance of their role as provider for their family, especially in giving their children a future and providing the best education and standard of living they can. There is a sense of sacrifice in being away, but where that translates into positives at home, then seafarers are happy to do whatever they feel is best for their family. However, there were some concerns about the payment of wages back to their families – which is a problem for many seafarers.

There were concerns about family too. These related to the issue of what happens in the event of illness or injury – there seemed to be a lack of confidence that employers would look after dependences in the event of something bad happening at sea.

With regards to training and education, there were many respondents who said how pleased they are that their companies support them to learn and develop their skills. They stated that whether in-house or external training, each brought a positive experience which went a long way to improving and advancing their careers.

Seafarers reported that positive training rests on a threefold approach. Those who were happiest said they received good quality, engaging and relevant courses, which were delivered so as to minimise the impact on their time, and which translated into positive outcomes for seafarers.

The other most telling positive reported was something of a surprise, as the issue of connectivity is an area in which seafarers have traditionally voiced their dissatisfaction and frustration. This time though, seafarers felt that there are improvements and that it seems the industry is waking to the importance of providing communications and access for crews. However, this was tempered with the view that there is still huge scope for further progress.

It was repeatedly stressed that seafarers who feel able to keep in touch with home are more relaxed. The data clearly demonstrated that crews who have good quality, low cost access to the internet and connectivity are far happier than those who don’t.

Those who have internet and communications access are more satisfied, while those without are increasingly rallying against their lack of connectivity. Indeed, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction where access is denied, is slow, or is too expensive. There is also real anger directed towards masters and companies who are seen to be profiteering from charging for access.

While it is great to hear of the pride in providing for others, the pleasure that links to home bring and the positivity felt about career development and training, there were some fundamental negatives voiced too.

Perhaps the most troubling element of the Seafarers Happiness Index in this Quarter was the reported of crew members experiencing racism onboard. Not unsurprisingly, this was impacting wellbeing at sea and job satisfaction too. There were indications that this is a problem on the rise, though seafarers felt that there was nowhere to turn when they faced such abuse. Often, they do not feel able to raise the issue onboard, for fear of exacerbating the problem, while even complaining to the company is not often an attractive option. There were calls by some respondents for an independent complaint line or procedure – which is something perhaps the industry should explore.

Seafarers also stressed that life at sea is constantly changing, and while conditions onboard may be ok, perhaps even good, at certain points it does not take much to tip the balance and make things difficult. It seems that there is so little slack in the system onboard that it does take much to negatively impact crews. They stated that quick rotations of port calls, heavy traffic, demanding cargoes or weather can all have a massive impact on the quality of life onboard.

There was also some frustration about the levels of administration and paperwork that is still expected of crews. While the pressures of meeting vetting standards were criticised repeatedly. One comment was that, “shipping is tricking itself if it thinks being safe on paper makes it safer on the water”. While another stated, “A lot of my workload is time-consuming fulfilling the requirements of vetting and does not contribute to the vessels operation. It will never be looked at by anyone other than myself”. Systems which are meant to raise standards are seemingly compromised if they are making seafarers more stressed.

The Seafarers Happiness Index also highlighted issues which would provide opportunities for improvement, where companies and the wider industry can find answers to give crews the facilities, access, services which will make them happier.

These would clearly include changes to the ways in which crew management companies deal with remittances. Numerous seafarers stated that their remittances which are sent back to their families often appear to have been “unfairly” tapped at source with either brokerage fees or questionable exchange rates applied. Given that there is so much pride in the role of seafarers as providers back home, then this impacts not only individuals, but the profession itself.

Other improvements would be to ensure that better quality food is purchased, and to ensure that ships have some form of social interaction onboard – with sports cited as a great way to bring crews together.

We always need more data, and to hear the stories of more seafarers…and for those who have already done so, to share again. We are building new online capabilities and applications to process the data, and to make sure the voices at sea are heard. So please visit www.happyatsea.org to find out more, and to complete the survey. We also want to get these reports spread far and wide across shipping, so please do pass this on. We must also thank the companies which have approached us about setting up bespoke happiness surveys for their own fleets, and those who see the value in benchmarking their own performance against the wider population of seafarers.

Access the latest report here: https://www.happyatsea.org/wp-content/uploads/SHI_Q4_2019.pdf

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