In the aftermath of the global pandemic, mental health and well-being at sea took a long-awaited place in public awareness. But is the industry, and society, focused on the real issues, and how best can Skuld members safeguard the well-being of their own seafarers? Geir Hudø Jørgensen, Senior Vice President, Global Head of Loss Prevention, believes we need to get 'back to basics' to build sustainable success.
"Concern for our seafarers is obviously a good thing, and I welcome the increased awareness, but we need to have the right perspective here."
Geir Hudø Jørgensen exerts a degree of caution when broaching the issue of a key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 3 – good health and well-being) in a maritime context. Geir, who himself has around a decade at sea behind him, believes the media's focus on crew well-being can be a "mixed blessing". Positive, certainly, but it can be counterproductive and, in reality, doesn't change much without concerted industry action.
A question of balance
"Firstly, there's a danger that people get the impression that life at sea is a bad thing," he notes, adding: "And it certainly is not. It's one of the most rewarding, satisfying careers you can have. Then there's the issue of looking at seafarers in isolation, like they're 'different' people. They're not. They're just people with the same strengths and vulnerabilities as anyone else."
"World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show that around 15% of working age adults had experienced some mental health problems in 2019. In Greece that number was 34%, in the Philippines it was over 20%. Recent industry figures suggest that the figure for seafarers is around 20%. Now, of course, that is a concern, and we'll talk about how to approach that, but we should be careful of presenting the maritime profession in a negative light. It deserves a more balanced treatment."
Despite his pragmatic tone, Geir is deeply concerned with this issue and far from complacent when mentioning the figure of 20%. "That's simply not good enough," he says, categorically.
With he and his team's experience of inspecting between 200 and 250 vessels a year, and talking to a lot of seafarers in the process, he has a good idea of the root causes of major challenges to well-being and mental health... and some very clear advice. Namely, get the basics right first. "We inspect to ensure adherence to international standards," Geir states, "and my key message from that experience would be 'make sure your vessels are 100% Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) compliant'. Do that and you're off to a good start."
From a solid building point you can put firm foundations in place, he says, reducing the risk of mental health challenges: "For example, provide good quality food, ensure compliance with rest hour regulations, provide opportunities for physical exercise - there's no need for a gym onboard a vessel if there's no time to use it! – offer recreation facilities, and, crucially, a safe and healthy working environment. And that includes a whistle-blowing procedure to effectively report and address any harassment on board. There should be zero tolerance for this at sea, just as there is on land."
Get these pillars in place, Geir stresses, and there'll be "far less firefighting", and far greater levels of well-being.
Unfortunately, and despite the post pandemic awareness, there's still work to be done on those all-important pillars. "The Norwegian Maritime Authority published port state control findings recently showing that the numbers for MLC violations are actually on the rise," he reveals. "So, despite the added attention, for some seafarers their working and living conditions are actually getting worse."
Geir says that "cost control" is probably the cause of this decline, with ISM managers desperately trying to reduce expenditure in a climate of ever declining margins, and ever inflating prices. That could be a very expensive mistake to make. "If you imagine an officer navigating a busy shipping lane, that's demanding enough in its own right," he declares. "Now, you add the pressure of long working hours, sub-standard living conditions, perhaps an unfair contract, or unreliable pay, and uncertainty over when they might see their family again... it's a recipe for mental and physical (by which I mean both human and asset) danger, if not disaster."
It's part of Skuld's job, he says, to work in long-term partnerships with members to reduce risk and prevent loss, so there's a clear message he'd like to give everyone in the industry to assist in that aim. He smiles: "Look after your seafarers and they'll look after you and your vessels."
Setting the right course
Alongside existing workforces, there's also the issue of recruiting the right people and preparing them in the optimal manner for a life at sea. The solution to the first challenge is to "know your people" Geir opines, investigating which candidates are suited to sailing, before establishing as much continuity in crews as possible. "Cobbling together crews at the last minute to fill positions, without knowing them, or them knowing each other, can create added pressure at sea," he says.
In terms of preparations, seafaring skills and awareness must be honed, with particular emphasis on retaining focus and prioritising tasks. From a mental health and well-being perspective, an increasing number of courses and resources are being made available, with Skuld helping to lead the way. "Together with the Norwegian Training Centre (NTC) in Manila we offer the Mental Health for Seafarers course to prepare people for life at sea, while also giving senior officers tools they can use to identify and address challenges before they turn into real problems."
He continues: "This focuses on awareness, psychological first aid and mindfulness. It's not about firefighting – just sticking plasters over issues – but rather staying ahead of them and actually dealing with them, helping owners and operators build on their firm foundations to create solid, happy crews and vessels." Geir says that, together with Skuld's ongoing practice of sharing insights, best practices, incident learnings and industry developments, this is "a practical way we can help contribute to better lives at sea."
Finishing on that note, it seems that Geir's own life at sea couldn't have been much better. He describes his years onboard seismic survey vessels as "really fantastic", admitting that long working hours and demanding tasks caused "periods of stress" but also that "I'm not sure I've ever been less stressed at work either – when everything is in place, the sea is calm and the sky is full of stars, it was wonderful."
Much of that enjoyment stems from the fact that his employers had "the right foundations in place", helping create a culture and environment where health and well-being were nurtured and promoted. "And I think that will apply to the majority of the industry today, and certainly our members – more people get it right than wrong. "But we can't be complacent," he concludes. "We need to recruit and retain the best people, working in the best environments, to make our industry as sustainable as possible. Having the right foundations in place for mental health and well-being is central to that drive."
Happy sailing everybody.