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Supporting remote workers on World Mental Health Day

06 / 10 / 2021
Maria Synnou, Product Expert SafeMetrix

“The lack of face-to-face social interaction led to many people feeling isolated and lonely“

After being asked to stay at home and avoid contact with others during the height of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the lack of face-to-face social interaction led to many people feeling isolated and lonely. It was difficult even for those who spent lockdown with families or friends: being stuck indoors staring at the same four walls day in, day out steadily took its toll

We experienced that for only a few months, but that situation is the ongoing reality for the maritime and energy industries where extended periods away from home in remote and distant locations is the norm for millions of workers.

With World Mental Health Day taking place on October 10, we caught up with clinical psychologist Maria Synnou, product expert for Mintra’s psychometric testing tool SafeMetrix, to discuss the impact on mental health of working in remote locations

Q: Are workers who spend significant periods away from home more likely to experience mental health issues, such as feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression because of the nature of their work?

A: Seafaring is a very challenging profession and life onboard has its own unique characteristics. Seafarers are far away from home, family and friends and they lack access to many facilities. They are isolated and have to deal with difficult circumstances that are challenging both physically and mentally, including possible dangers in accidents, injuries, and diseases.

The same applies to workers in the energy industry who can also be cut off from loved ones, especially those working long stints in the remote or offshore locations, or risky territories where communication with those back home might be limited.

A study by Katharine Parkes compared how onshore and offshore operations impact workers’ mental health in the energy industry. It was found that offshore workers present higher levels of anxiety than onshore workers, possibly due to their high-risk operations and tasks. The offshore work environment can be more challenging and specific emergencies may arise unexpectedly affecting mental wellbeing. Further, offshore workers operate under different regulations, and are more confided and isolated. In such environments, stress and fatigue can become overwhelming and could lead to mistakes and mental health issues.

These industries can be perceived as macho environments and there is a tendency to leave emotions at the door. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to feel lonely and unable to share feelings. Being away from loved ones, the people who know and understand you, can be tough and the feeling of loneliness, as well as any accompanying mental health issue, is only made worse by not having anybody to talk to about it.

Q: The Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on seafarers. What may be some of the mental health impacts arising from the crew change crisis and being confined to a ship for months beyond an original contract?

A: Despite everything that has happened during the pandemic, the shipping industry has continued transporting more than 80% of the world’s trade. But there has been a human cost with seafarers facing immense physical and mental pressures: those stranded have expressed exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety and mental stress, and their situation is exacerbated by lack of certainty about when they may be able to go home.

As of March 2021, it was estimated that some 200,000 seafarers remained on board commercial vessels, unable to be repatriated and past the expiry of their contracts and the default maximum 11-month period of service on board. A similar number of seafarers were stuck on land and unable to return to their ships.

Regular crew changes are essential to comply with international maritime regulations for safety, crew health and welfare, and employment. The crisis raises serious welfare, safety, and regulatory concerns and there is an increasing risk that crew fatigue could lead to human error and serious accidents.

Crewing issues came under the spotlight in the wake of the Wakashio incident in July 2020 when the vessel ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, spilling hundreds of tons of oil in the process. Reports indicated at least two of the crew had been on board the vessel for more than 12 months, unable to disembark when their contracts expired because of restrictive quarantine rules.

Q: Does having internet access for personal use make remote workers feel even more isolated when they can see what they are missing out on, or does it enable people to feel more connected? Is there a way of striking a balance on internet use?

A: It can be both beneficial and harmful. There are several pros and cons of increased connectivity, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I believe those working on locations such as ships, offshore installations and other remote sites should have access, but guidelines should exist.

Lack of connectivity has been linked to an increased feeling of stress and isolation for seafarers who spend most of their lives away from family. At the same time, several maritime casualties have been attributed to technology distraction, providing a key argument for supporters of a limited connectivity onboard. This creates a dilemma of compromising safety over crew wellbeing and vice versa.

Several studies have shown that connectivity has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, smart phones improve communication with loves ones, however that could mean that seafarers are online and absorbed in a screen rather than interacting with others around them. Around-the-clock access to the news allows seafarers to feel more connected with the outside world but could mean they use their rest time to scroll news and social feeds instead of actually resting.

The world is moving in an unprecedented pace that people are unable to handle. Today’s world makes 24/7 internet use a normality rather than a necessity and offshore industries cannot escape. With appropriate guidelines and provisions, any potentially adverse effects of constant connectivity could be eliminated. It is entirely up to the individuals as well as operators to ensure workers reap the benefits of internet as a great invention.

There are many different types of mental health issues, each with their own symptoms, but are there any typical ‘warning signs’ people should be alert to when considering whether they need to seek support?

Recognising mental health issues is the first step in accessing the support needed to recover. Mental health can affect anyone and can feel just as bad, or worse, as physical illness. There are some typical signs – physical, behavioural and emotional – that should give rise to concern.

Physical symptoms:

  • Suffering from frequent minor illnesses, headaches, or stomach upsets
  • Pain, aches, cramps, or gastrointestinal problems without any clear cause
  • Difficulty sleeping, waking early, or oversleeping
  • Constant tiredness or feeling of fatigue
  • Feeling run down
  • Lack of care over appearance
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Minor physical ailments

Emotional/behavioural symptoms:

  • Irritability, aggression, or tearfulness
  • Loss of confidence
  • Depressed mood, persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness
  • Loss of humour
  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
  • Loss of interest or no longer finding pleasure in activities or hobbies
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks or making decisions, increased errors
  • Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and/or sedatives
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Becoming withdrawn, spending increasing amounts of time alone
  • Disruptive behaviour
  • Poor job performance
  • An employee who is normally punctual frequently arriving late

If you think that a colleague might be displaying mental health signs, reach out to them. Many of the remedies for minor problems are often in the hands of those who create the working conditions under which employees work and live. Colleagues and friends are often able to form an impression of a person’s mental state, and therefore colleagues can help each other.

Q: Can you signpost any good quality resources that could be used by anyone who needs support with their mental health?

A: Yes, the good news is that, thanks to events like World Mental Health Day and because of the pandemic, people are generally much more aware about mental health issues. There are many organisations that offer support, such as The World Federation for Mental Health. Organisations such as The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network provide support for seafarers and while these SafeMetrix resources are aimed at maritime, the advice is applicable more generally.

World Mental Health Day takes place on October 10 and the theme for this year’s event is Mental Health in an Unequal World.