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Mental health guidance for seafarers during COVID-19

Being a seafarer can be demanding at the best of times.

We recognise the significant impact and added challenges that COVID-19 is having on the people who work in Australia’s maritime sector. 

Mental health issues among seafarers is an increasing area of concern. Dealing with long periods of time separated from family and friends, long work hours, shift work and fatigue, along with the general operational hazards of seafaring, all play a part in creating a stressful environment.

The effects of COVID-19 on seafarers is wide-ranging. Some are taking it in their stride and others are feeling it much more. But one thing is sure, we are all human. As such, there are some mental health issues affecting how we work and how we approach our safety in general. 

Operators and the masters are responsible to ensure their crew have the necessary information and strategies to help alleviate the effects of stress that can lead to mental health issues.

Educate your crew 

Masters and senior crew members should know about the psychological impact of stress and mental health issues, including knowledge of the short and long-term consequences of stress.

Masters and senior crew should also:

  • ensure crew members have information and awareness through training
  • establish prevention and minimisation programs
  • be able to identify employees having problems
  • initiate the necessary assistance if required – including some masters and senior crew being instructed in mental health first aid.

Identify behaviours 

Be aware of the following behaviours in crew, if they are out of character:

  • withdrawing, isolating, or being quieter than usual
  • appearing distressed
  • appearing agitated or irritable
  • having difficulty managing the work or workload
  • being argumentative, aggressive or getting into conflict
  • being confused, unusually forgetful, or having trouble concentrating

Know some strategies for helping a seafarer having difficulties:

  • spend time with the seafarer
  • offer your assistance and a listening ear 
  • respect their privacy
  • help with any practical arrangements they may need
  • do not take their emotions personally, as this is probably a part of their reaction
  • do not tell them they are ‘lucky the situation isn't worse’—they probably don’t feel lucky
  • help them to re-establish a normal schedule as quickly as possible, and include them in the activities of others
  • encourage them to be active and involved
  • encourage them to look at what they can manage, rather than just thinking about what they want to avoid
  • be prepared to help in the short term.

Crew reactions to stressful events

After a stressful event, people are often very sensitive to how others react toward them or describe the event, their role and their reaction. Validation of the stressful experience has an important effect on a person’s recovery. 

Make sure all crew are aware of how stress can affect them. This way, experiencing a mental health issue is likely to be recognised and validated. If senior crew are aware of the principles of mental health first aid, the crew are more likely to receive the appropriate support they need in such situations.

Crew with low morale typically exhibit the highest risk for psychological injuries. This is because strong morale acts as a buffer or protective factor against the effects of mental health issues and other stressors. 

The master or senior crew should schedule regular catch ups, including:

  • An informal debrief – get crew members to talk about how they are going and allow for the sharing of mental health information.
  • Recognition by a valued authority – have someone important, like the master, acknowledge the crew and the efforts they have made.
  • Follow-up contact with seafarers who have been identified as likely to suffer a mental health issue.

Crew strategies

  • All pre-operational briefings should include some mental health information. This will help crew develop coping strategies early so they are better prepared to manage. It also helps to educate them about what to expect.
  • give the crew a chance to talk amongst themselves about stress and fatigue. 
  • try practical arrangements such as assigning less complicated tasks to less experienced individuals; slowly introducing them into harder tasks or pairing them with more experienced seafarers. 
  • Calm breathing exercises –when having a mental health-related reaction, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. The person can be left feeling ‘hyped up’ or hyper-aroused. Over-breathing and the insufficient release of carbon dioxide is a common symptom suffered by people with high levels of arousal. Controlled breathing slows the respiration rate. This exercise can be performed by a seafarer whilst working at their station and can help control feelings of anxiety or arousal as they occur.
  • Muscle tension exercise – an increase in muscle tension is one of the first indicators of arousal or stress. By learning and practicing muscle relaxation, an individual can pick up the early signs of tension and successfully ease them. This exercise may be difficult to perform while working, so may best be used on a break or at night prior to bed.
  • A good resource for crew is the Hi Res app. This app was developed by the Department of Veteran Affairs for returning soldiers. It provides free-of-charge access to breathing exercises, muscle tension exercises and many other mental health strategies and resources.

Distractions, stress and fatigue brought about by unfamiliar and changing tasks, extended working hours, competing priorities, concerns for work mates or family who may be at risk or vulnerable, etc. can increase the risk of mental health issues. 

An important aspect to combat the effects of distraction, stress and fatigue is to ensure we look after our health and nutrition to the best of our abilities. The only way to prevent fatigue is to get enough sleep. When we are not fatigued, our concentration is better, it’s easier to avoid distractions and we can better handle stress. 

As maritime activity increases with the easing of restrictions, we should think about our limitations, and recognise that we and our crews are an important part of our risk assessment and safety control measures and thus ensure your crew get the support they need to limit the risk of mental health issues.  

Links to helpful information:

We have recently released the Australian Fatigue Guidelines for International Shipping. These guidelines provide important information about ways to deal with and reduce fatigue. 

We have also published information specifically to DCVs on managing the risk of fatigue and is developing further guidance specifically to DCVs in this area. 

Last updated: 

Thursday 9 July 2020