Social Dynamics, Technology and Increased Isolation

28/01/2016 | North

Most incidents at sea are due to human error. One of the drivers of human error can be underlying emotional issues. Poor mental health of a crew member can have consequences for the vessel and the crew. This may be an increased likelihood of incidents occurring on board, or could be something more mundane such as having to spend time dealing with an individual’s problems.

Isolation and Technology

In today’s digital age isolation should, you think, be a thing of the past. A seafarer can connect to his family and friends back home across a multitude of electronic devices at more or less any time they choose. Why is it then that, despite technological improvements allowing greater connectivity to loved ones left behind, research shows that seafarers now have the second highest suicide rate of any occupation?

Separation from family, friends and other crew may cause a seafarer to feel isolated and this can lead to mental health issues.

However, isolation from family is not the only form of isolation that seafarers encounter. They may feel isolated and friendless on board. This in turn may mean that they are less able to cope with any problems they might encounter either from home or at work.

One of the drivers of this on board isolation may in fact be the technology that should make things easier. Having easy access to family and friends back home can cause problems in some cases. It does not allow seafarers to have the ‘clean break’ from domestic issues that they might have had in the past. Sometimes issues at home will cause seafarers anxiety and this can be exacerbated by the easy access that technology brings.  

In most cases easy access to home is a great plus for seafarers, but it can on occasion actually become detrimental to seafarers welfare.

Another unintended aspect of modern technology is that the internet and the various social media platforms may actually make on board life less social.

In the past once they had finished their watch seafarers would interact with each other in the bar or lounge, having general conversation or sit together around the television and watch the latest movie. Perhaps an officer organised a weekly/monthly entertainment evening, darts, cards or a quiz. Maybe even a BBQ or a table tennis tournament.

All of this helped crew get to know each other, forge friendships and encourage effective teamwork. The sense of isolation was less and there was probably someone you could confide in if experiencing problems.

Modern technology has produced a situation where it is easy for seafarers to retreat to their cabins and plug in, which reduces social interaction.

Technological advancement, whilst improving ships operations, has also placed greater pressures on seafarers to carry out their tasks quickly and efficiently and in some cases has meant that fewer crew members are required to sail on board particular vessels. Certainly there is less and less time in port for already limited shore leave opportunities.

Vessels these days also tend to have a multinational crew, creating different cultural and social challenges, with language in particular.  

So when faced with a small crew who it is not easy to speak to, working different shift patterns, possibly also eating at different times of the day, it is no wonder that crew members are retreating to their cabins to watch the latest DVD, video call their friends and family and/or play on their games console alone.

The World Health Organisation states that “Health is a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Therefore it is clearly important to recognise that direct face to face interaction on board, on a social basis, directly affects a seafarer’s health and well-being. In order to decrease the number of cases of mental health issues, there needs to be contact with family and friends back home; but crucially, this should not come at the expense of social interaction with fellow crew members. There needs to be a balance, and the statistics evidencing an increased suicide rate amongst seafarers and an apparent decline in social interaction on board, should not be considered a mere coincidence.

It is in the general interests of the company, vessel, and crew to ensure a decent level of social interaction on-board. So occasionally banish the Xbox and get out the ping pong table, dart board, playing cards and board games. These will forge relationships on board and help the crew to be happy. A happy crew works more effectively, more efficiently and are more likely to be able to help individuals deal with any issues they may have.