Wellbeing in the workplace: a focus on seafarers
Being employed is the third biggest driver of adult wellbeing, and the quality of the job we have has a significant impact on our ability to feel good and function well.
Though many drivers of wellbeing are universal, not all occupational contexts are the same. An example of this is the maritime sector, where the wellbeing of seafarers is a longstanding concern due to the working conditions of serving on a marine vessel and demands on employees’ schedules, safety and physical abilities.
To understand the current evidence base for maritime wellbeing and the support available for those working in the sector, Lloyd’s Register Foundation commissioned a set of reports.
Here our Work & Employers Wellbeing Implementation Lead Rahima Rahman takes us through the research.
While practices aimed at addressing physical safety are well established in the maritime sector, there is a lack of shared understanding around how psychological wellbeing is best conceptualised and the kinds of interventions which might be most effectively developed and scaled up.
Assessing the state of the evidence
To identify the ‘active ingredients’ of supporting seafarer wellbeing and inform the design of effective interventions, Lloyd’s Register Foundation commissioned a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of Seafarers Psychological Wellbeing, conducted by Nottingham Trent University.
The REA asked:
- What is the current state of the field?
- Are there any common/general themes being explored within the evidence base?
- What are the current gaps and challenges?
The REA initially reviewed 691 pieces of core literature, which was reduced to a final selection of 183. This literature covers highly varied approaches and interventions around seafarer psychological wellbeing, primarily but not exclusively focused on the Global North and all published in English language.
The REA highlighted that psychological wellbeing has a significant impact on the productivity and safe behaviour of employees. There was a considerable diversity in focus and nature of interventions designed to improve seafarer wellbeing. These were grouped into six categories: physical health, psychological wellbeing, counselling and therapy, training, digital tools and environmental categories (figure 1).
Where reported, the evaluations of the efficacy of interventions tended to demonstrate modest gains in relation to the target measure, with the exception of physical health interventions, where there were some cases showing negative effects.
Psychological wellbeing was usually treated within a framework of stress, coping and resilience, and tended to adopt the individual seafarer as the unit of analysis, rather than relationships within the workplace or structural factors.
The report uncovered significant gaps in the existing evidence base, including:
- A lack of high-quality evidence or long-term evaluations on overall efficiency of existing approaches to confidently identify the active ingredients that support seafarer psychological wellbeing. This is impart due to comparatively small sample sizes.
- The lack of an overarching framework to approach psychological wellbeing in relation to safety, unify evidence or provide suitable benchmarking for evaluation, creating the need for structural support, innovative tools and improved assessment.
- Little evidence of interventions being scaled up or extended to other populations within the sector.
- Although there is a growing appreciation for a holistic view of wellbeing within the evidence base, there remains a ‘general lack of understanding’ for wellbeing ‘in all its dimensions’ (physiological, psychological, social and economic) across the maritime industry.
The impact of Covid-19
The issues impacting seafarer wellbeing – fatigue, anxiety, stress, workload and environment – have been exacerbated and spotlighted during the pandemic due to multiple lockdowns, social isolation and changes to working practices. Effects include the ‘crew-change crisis’ which saw 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea, as well as questions regarding regulatory compliance, and increased cases of fatigue and risk to safety.
To better understand the impacts of the pandemic on wellbeing in relation to safety in occupational contexts, Lloyd’s Register Foundation commissioned a report by Nottingham Trent University.
The report covers multiple sectors, with a particular focus on the maritime sector as an example of the complexity and challenges around wellbeing.
The authors interviewed thought leaders and expert practitioners and reviewed published industry reports and emerging research literature, and found evidence:
- that stigma around mental health may have become further entrenched due to fears around disclosure and job security during a time of economic uncertainty;
- that line managers experienced problems with recognising mental health issues due to the novel conditions of remote working;
- of a greater focus on social relationships in approach to wellbeing during the pandemic;
- of a widespread reconsideration of how employees think about their own health and safety in relation to the workplace, based on their experiences of the pandemic.
Based on the report, employers could consider:
- Adopting sustained, holistic and proactive approaches to maintain supportive working culture.
- Consulting employees and encouraging autonomy in decision-making.
- Focus on line-manager and employee conversations.
- Facilitate cross-professional dialogues and ways of working between Occupational Safety & Health and Human Resource Management practitioners.
The Lloyd’s Register Foundation used the REA and covid impact report, in conjunction with other research, to produce Shining Light on Seafarer Wellbeing.
The publication details several further recommendations:
- Workplaces are unlikely to return to the conditions they experienced prior to the pandemic, so it is important we preserve wellbeing gains. There is value in maritime employers adopting practical changes introduced during the pandemic more permanently to support long-term, structural improvements to wellbeing. These include greater connectivity and ability to communicate regularly with loved ones.
- Maritime employers should consider employee voice, based on existing evidence that seafarers themselves have clear preferences around interventions, typically those with a physical focus or involving enhanced recreational activities.
- The diversity of the existing evidence base may actually be a strength rather than a shortcoming. Developing different methods for curating and analysing existing work, such as methods of continuous comparison and conceptual innovation, may help.
- There is a need for joined-up action between employers, mental health organisations and government.
For effective decision making and intervention design we need to know why and how something works, and how to implement what is known. The first step is to actively fill gaps, and researchers can use those identified in the REA to build more high-quality evidence that is based on industry need and includes stakeholder perspectives.
Workplace wellbeing is influenced by factors such as organisational structure, culture, and general understanding of wellbeing. Being in a job is good for our wellbeing, but being in a job that is worthwhile is even better. Our briefing on job quality and wellbeing looks at what approaches are most effective at improving wellbeing through job design. These principles can be applied across sectors and in a variety of organisational contexts.