The International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) has made recommendations on ways to improve crew wellbeing, based on the latest findings from its ongoing Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project.
Among the recommendations are the appointment of a voluntary 'Social Ambassador' onboard every vessel to help convene social activities and promote crew engagement; free WiFi services for all crew; and frequent reviews of recreation facilities to ensure they meet the crew's preferences and needs.
The report concludes that further research is also needed into the effects of fatigue and tiredness, and their impact on seafarer mental health. Separation of work and rest time on board is important and these boundaries should be clearly established and maintained because of the detrimental impact to seafarer wellbeing if they are not.
ISWAN plans to continue the development of SIM as a long-term project for seafarer wellbeing, starting with a controlled evaluation of the effectiveness of the project's guidance and recommendations, which ISWAN hopes will lead to its establishment as a continuing resource for the sector.
The project is funded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Red Ensign Group (REG), which sponsored the project with the help of Trinity House and funding from the UK government.
The SIM Project's phase two research gathered first-hand accounts from the seafarers of 21 vessels from 10 different shipping companies operating worldwide, and examined the data to explore the impacts, drivers and barriers of social interaction whilst living and working onboard. The research took place between November 2020 and January 2022 and coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The SIM Project's research lead Dr Kate Pike said: 'The project has shown that social interaction promotes mental and physical health and provides an essential outlet for seafarers from their work onboard. Social interaction and activities are not just pleasurable pastimes, they are a necessity that should be fully supported by shipping companies and strong leadership onboard and ashore.'
Dr Pike pointed out that the report's recommendation on connectivity went 'slightly beyond' the recent MLC amendments, which mandate either cheap or no-cost connectivity onboard.
'The SIM Project recommends that Wi-Fi connectivity is always available and made free to all seafarers.'
Having reliable connectivity onboard is essential for seafarers to maintain contact with family and friends and the outside world and for access to online entertainment and social media, she said. The SIM Project had shown that where Wi-Fi is unavailable or unstable, low mood is likely to be experienced.'
The findings also highlight the importance of engaged and visible leadership both onboard and ashore, to support and encourage crew participation in any social activities. Vessels in the SIM trials that supported their crew in this were able to mitigate the effects of long hours, numerous port calls and other factors that otherwise lowered mood.
ISWAN's project manager Georgia Allen said: 'Much like the lives of the seafarers we sought to understand more about, phase two of the project has resulted in a richly diverse and fascinating body of data which has laid the foundations for much more work to come.'
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)'s director of UK maritime services Katy Ware, who is also permanent representative of the UK to the International Maritime Organization, said: 'I am delighted to see the continuation of this vital work in recognising the importance of social interaction to the wellbeing of seafarers. We have already seen that small steps can have huge impacts, such as having a designated wellbeing ambassador on board.
'There are many aspects of life at sea that cannot change, but this research shows that wellbeing is not one of them and it can be improved by strengthening social interaction, particularly alongside organisational commitment.'