Report: Socializing Can Boost Crew Wellbeing - if the Captain Buys In

Peter Cornelissen / ISWAN

Published Jan 5, 2021 9:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new report published by the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) finds that onboard social interaction benefits crew wellbeing, reduces isolation and cuts down on stress. 

ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) project - sponsored by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Red Ensign Group - was launched with the objective of encouraging social interaction on board. The pandemic and the crew change crisis have placed even more importance on the need for crew cohesion, according to ISWAN. An estimated 400,000 seafarers are currently serving beyond the term of their original contracts due to crew change difficulties, increasing the potential for isolation and making relationships on board more valuable than ever. 

The first phase of the research consisted of a large survey of seafarers and other stakeholders, along with 10 in-depth telephone interviews. The findings suggest that leadership from the senior officers (especially the captain) is the single most important factor in helping the crew to interact comfortably. "It has to come from the top down and the captain has to be there, because otherwise there’s a kind of suspicion . . . whereas when [the master] gets involved that disappears," said one respondent. 

Increased workloads, cultural/language differences and fatigue were identified as the three biggest barriers to social interaction on board. 

“Although measures can be put in place to facilitate recreational gatherings on board, it is these fundamental issues that need to be addressed for a long-term impact to take effect. Social interaction on board has a unifying impact that promotes a happier, more motivated crew that can work more effectively and safely together," said Dr. Kate Pike, research lead and author of the report.

The project is still ongoing, but the initial report includes actionable information for vessel operators. In particular, the study shows that crew differences - including nationality, gender, and age - should be considered in planning onboard activities that bring the whole crew together. (Barbeques appear to be universally popular.)

For the next phase of the project, ISWAN is working with several shipping companies to test out social engagement initiatives on board. After this is completed, Phase Three will use data and feedback from the trials to develop a "toolkit" for shipping companies.

“The MCA works closely with seafarer charities and industry to understand the challenges faced by seafarers . . . as well as providing suitable support to ship owners, who owe their crew a duty of care under the Maritime Labour Convention,” said the UK MCA's director of maritime services,  Katy Ware, who also serves as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the IMO. “Our seafarers provide a vital service, keeping the hearts of nations beating and we can’t underestimate their role in our lives."