Seafarer Mental Health and Wellbeing
Today is World Mental Health Day and in very few industries is employee mental health such a critical issue as maritime, having been tested by extreme conditions in recent times.
The impact of Covid on seafarers has been well documented, creating issues such as extended periods at sea and reduced or non-existent shore leave.
The toll taken on seafarers in terms of feelings of isolation, separation from family and loneliness has been severe.
Lots of valid advice has been distributed on methods of managing mental health and wellbeing including exercise, rest, socialising and relaxation.
Things that aren’t talked about as much but are also key tools are managing mindset and an understanding of how to manage energy.
These are incredibly powerful tools in combating stress and mitigating it’s damaging effects.
In this post we’ll explore why managing your energy is so important for your mental health and offer some practical advice.
It is an especially pertinent issue at sea as we know that fatigue from long hours and limited sleep are major issues.
How do energy levels impact us?
Low energy levels invariably result in low mood, whether that’s feeling sad, anxious, short tempered and angry- any negative emotion you can think of. It also affects mental capacity in the workplace leading to reduced performance.
Naturally it also impacts physical capacity too, making the working day even harder and increasing the likelihood of poor quality work and in some cases accidents.
So how do we manage our energy?
Inputs and outputs play a major role.
As an example if you consume poor quality food and don’t keep hydrated, your physical output will suffer, hence the oft stated advice to eat healthy, nutritious food as a way to combat stress, along with staying hydrated.
When we are dehydrated, the brain interprets that as a danger signal and releases stress hormones to help us deal with what it interprets as a stressful situation- adding to the physical symptoms of stress that you may be experiencing.
Consider that you can’t expect your mental health to be where you want it to be if you neglect your physical health…
Inputs also apply to what you consume mentally. To many people relaxation is scrolling through their social media feeds. Whilst understanding that social media can be a way for people to maintain a sense of contact with home, we can consume so much content that it impacts our ability to focus, maintain a good attention span and retain knowledge and information.
It can also lead to overwhelm as there is only so much information that we can absorb, again leading to feelings of stress.
Creating energy to improve physical and mental wellbeing
We’ve mentioned the importance of inputs such as food, hydration and what we consume mentally.
We talk about the importance of exercise in managing mental health, but don’t often talk about the why’s other than that it can release ‘feel good’ neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin and over a sustained period of time it can also boost serotonin levels, the chemical often cited as being deficient in instances of anxiety and depression.
Exercise also creates energy which is another reason why many people feel calmer and happier afterwards. Paradoxically it is when people least feel like exercising that they derive most benefit, so if you’re fatigued and in a low mood exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but potentially the most beneficial.
Exercise clears the stress hormone adrenaline from your body, leaving you feeling calmer, more relaxed and very importantly more likely to sleep better.
Whenever your brain senses you are stressed it will release adrenaline to help you combat the situation- what’s known as the fight or flight response.
Unfortunately the brain hasn’t developed from it’s primitive protective purpose- a caveman facing a sabre toothed tiger needed a dump of adrenaline but there’s very few situations as serious as that encountered on a daily basis that warrant this response.
The ONLY way to reduce adrenaline in the body is to burn it off with exercise. That doesn’t have to be hours on a treadmill or smashing weights in the gym, 30 minutes brisk walk can often have a positive impact- or indeed any activity that gets the heart rate up.
The importance of sleep on energy levels.
This can be summed in one word- crucial.
We know that a lack of sleep is frequently cited as a major issue among seafarers, so how can you address that?
6 tips for seafarers to improve their sleep quality and duration
Reducing the mount of stress hormones in the bvody through exercise is an excellent way to boost not only the suration but the quality of sleep. The calming effects of exercise will natrurally lend themselves to being able to relax and wind down before bedtuime to facilitate a good sleep.
Higher levels of oxygen and clean air have been shown to be beneficial for sleep.
Having a regular winding down routing signals to your brain that it is time to prepare for sleep and can trigger a relaxatiob response.
Your routine can be anything that you find relaxing- it could be winding down with a book, sitting quietly, meditating or journaling to empty your thoughts. Breathing exercises and focusing specifically on the breath during them will help to slkow your thoughts and allow you to feel more relaxed.
Prepare your cabin for sleep
Turn the lights down low, set a comfortable temperature and keep you bed clear, only using it for sleep where possible.
Use blackout blinds or curtains in the period before and during sleep if your cabin isn’t dark enough, or use an eye mask
If noise is an issue consider earplugs, listening to soothing sounds, music or white noise for example.
You should try to avoid consuming caffeine for at least 6 hours before attempting sleep. Whilst caffeine can be effective in enhancing cognitive functioning and it’ stimulant properties can enhave productivity, it’s these very properties that can cause problems getting to sleep and sleep disturbances.
The impact of blue light on sleep has been well documentd so ideally you should avoid using a phone, laptop, PC or TV in the hours prior to bedtime.
In reality, many if not most of us will watch TV until we go to bed or even in bed which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it can indeed be quite relaxing to doze off to.
Going back to the quality of your imputs, much of this depends on what you are consuming- something stimulating and thought provoking isn’t conducive to a good nights sleep.
This also goes for mobile phone/internet usage- it’s not just the blue light issue but also the constant stimulation of the mind by consuming the huge amounts of information available tous on our devices, such as on social media for example.
The impact of mindset on mental health and wellbeing.
Our quality of life is often said to be governed by the quality of our thoughts.
We have to take responsibility for this and for our mindset.
Whilst absolutely not downplaying the role of external circumstances on stress experienced by seafarers, the level of stress felt and the subsequent impact can be reduced shifting our mindset and addressing internal factors.
There are events that happen everywhere that we cannot control- but what we have absolute control over is our responses and our thoughts around events.
When it comes to uncomfortable or negative situations we always have 3 options: change the situation, leave the situation or change our thoughts and perspective about it.
Wishful thinking or reality?
Shifting your mindset- consider that every perceived negative has a positive even if it’s difficult to see one. If you look hard enough you will find one. That mindset shift will build resilience to stress and over time will become automatic.
What it will also do is show your brain that situations you would previously viewed as stressful in fact are not and therefore there is no need to release the stress hormones that play such a big part in people feeling the physical effects of stress.
We can train ourselves to become more aware of the positives in everyday life- gratitude is a powerful emotion that fosters feelings of wellbeing. Taking just a few minutes out of your day upon waking to write down or simply think of 3 things for which you are grateful can help reduce the negative feelings you may be encountering. Similarly, doing the same prior to sleeping can have a similar effect, along with writing down any troubling thoughts you may have (journalling). This can help you to see them in a different light and with increased clarity instead of them running through your mind.
Is this the same as positive thinking? No. Positive thinking isn’t the answer, positive thinking without positive action is just another thought.
How you behave will have a profund effect on how you feel.
What does that mean exactly? Take the most common mental health ‘condition’ stress as an example.
If you act in a fearful way such as isolating yourself, not eating properly or not drinking enough water for example, you are sending a signal to your brain that something is wrong and that you are under threat.
When that happens your brain will try to protect you by releasing more stress hormones (adrenaline) which will make you feel worse.
What you need to do is act as you would if you felt completely fine- socialise, exercise, eat and do everything else you would do under normal circumstances.
Continue to make time for the things you enjoy- make it non-negotiable that you do at least one thing every day that you enjoy.
That could be socialising, exercising, reading, video games- anything that you enjoy.
Absorbing, ‘flow’ activities are an excellent way of diverting your attention from howyou may be feeling or the stress that you are under. Your energy flows where your attention goes- if you are constantly dwelling on a perceived negative situatuion, that’s what you will feel, so if you can channel your attention somewhere else you will reduce the impact.
There is no single right answer to that- it’s about finding what works for you as an individual.
Learning a new skill or studying towards a qualification are excellent options.
Goals and objectives will give you a sense of purpose and ultimately achievement.
The brain is a problem solving machine- if you don’t look for challenges or objectives in a positive manner they have a habit of finding you in a not so positive way. It will try and solve problems that don’t really exist or exacerbate minor problems.
Goals you set yourself don’t need to be huge- in fact the best goals are those that stretch you but are realistic. They could be getting fit, staying fit, getting stronger or eating healthily- things you can work towards on a daily basis and get that satisfaction from contributing towards them on a daily basis and benefit from the good feelings that brings.
Where can seafarers can go for help with mental health and wellbeing?
We hope that the advice and tips we have published have been helpful and thought-provoking.
We have created a FREE package to aid seafarers whihc you can access here
International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWANS)
ISWANS is an international maritime charity which works to improve the lives of seafarers and their families with services, resources, strategies and advocacy.
They operate SeafarerHelp, a confidential 24/7 365 days a year multilingual helpline to support seafarres and also their families.
Phone: +44 (0)20 7323 2737 (request a call back: www.seafarerhelp.org/callback)
Live Chat: via www.seafarerhelp.org
WhatsApp: +44 (0)7909 470732
SMS: +44 (0)7860 018538
Their website also has a comprehensive resources section including a Good Mental Health Guide for Seafarers.
The Mission to Seafarers
Seafarer mental health is an area of key concern for The Mission to Seafarers. They can be found in over 200 ports in 50 countries and are available 365 days per year.
Their support includes
- Visiting ships to check crew members are well
- Providing SIM cards to connect you with loved ones and transport when you’re on land
- Help connecting you to other organisations, or speaking to them on your behalf
- Emergency support
- Seafarers’ centres, where you can relax, connect to wifi, and have something to eat and drink
FREE Mental Heath and Wellbeing training package
Advice for individual seafarers and also to train your teams.
This package contains a training video offering advice, hints and tips to create and maintain optimum mental health and wellbeing among seafarers as well as facilitation notes for delivering the training to a group.
The maritime industry’s best e-learning content
Unparalleled breadth and quality of content. We offer the most comprehensive library of maritime blended learning content ever assembled.
Read related blogs
The net-zero transition - building a better, equitable, and greener industry for us allAn industry for its people Although discussions about decarbonising maritime are focused on alternative and low carbon fuels, there can be no doubt that maritime is - at its heart -...
World Maritime DayWith green technology in the spotlight on World Maritime Day, it’s important to remember that this transition to the 4th propulsion revolution can only ever be powered by people. The journey to Net Zero will require a great deal of training and...
Guy Platten presentation at OTG Event during Posidonia 2022Guy PlattenSecretary GeneralInternational Chamber of ShippingAt the recent seminar held by Ocean Technologies Group at Posidonia, Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping...