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How captains see mental health in yachting

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By ISS Captains Committee

The Captain’s Committee of the International Superyacht Society (ISS) is a collective of current seafaring captains from varying backgrounds and locations that work together to represent the concerns of yacht crew and captains. Major projects include support for ISWAN and the launch of the yacht crew helpline yachtcrewhelp.org and the publishing of issues of wide industry concern.

In this second article from the ISS Captains [click here to read the first about fatigue], we confront an issue that cannot be ignored. It is not generational, not gender specific nor culturally targeted. Mental health of seafarers poses a threat and risk to all crew. It manifests in seemingly innocuous behavioral changes and can have devastating consequences.

This article was in draft well before COVID-19 changed the fabric of our global community. We will not provide any commentary on the crisis as there is enough already. All it does is heighten the need to be aware of our seafarers and their mental health challenges.

The problem

Crewing on a yacht is characterized by a unique set of features that sets it apart from other occupations. This includes:

  • Living in an environment that must appear to be “perfect” at all times,
  • A lack of empathy from shore support network (i.e. misdirected envy from family and friends with no understanding of yachting environment or pressures),
  • Demanding physical and mental working conditions,
  • Long hours of work creating high levels of stress and fatigue, and
  • Employment insecurity where the slightest perceived failure can result in being let go on a whim with all the attendant stress.

It can also be a lonely life. Not only are yacht crew away from family and friends for long periods of time — for some at a young age — many seafarers live isolated lives while onboard. An increasing degree of automation onboard ships has led to smaller crews, and crew members may have different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Of course, cultural diversity is also a positive, depending on how it is approached.

The lonely life in seafaring is not new, of course. What is new is that society’s expectations have moved incredibly quickly. This cannot be ascribed to any generation; in a time of constant connectivity, nobody expects to be out of contact for an extended [time] from loved ones, family and friends ashore.

Technology, for all its wonders, can also not be ignored. It has become clear that the use of technology, especially social media, has made the individual more isolated, with face-to-face interactions diminished.

Crew are goaded into presenting an alternative reality online. This “reality” often presents a life that is carefully curated and full of joy, whereas the lived experience of the crew member is long working hours, little recognition and restricted living quarters, all the while traveling to beautiful locations but being unable to step ashore to enjoy them. This may be the true reality, though the picture shown on social media by the crew member is very different, all smiles, and beach parties.

The incongruence and tension between these two realities creates tremendous stress on the individual. It can ultimately have a devastating impact and was cited as a contributing factor to the loss of a member of our yachting community who could not reconcile the online reality with the yacht’s true reality.

As we captains did in our first article, we also look to other industry sectors for guidance to define and understand the problem.

The commercial marine sector is aware and concerned for seafarers’ mental health, so much so that Cardiff University was supported to conduct a study into cause and effect (published Gard Nov. 26, 2019).

In the commercial maritime sector, there was shock that 55% of companies had not introduced policies or practices to address seafarers’ mental health. The ISS captains read this as 45% positively responded. It would be frightening to conduct the survey in the yachting sphere.

“The study concludes that ‘it is appropriate for industry stakeholders to be concerned about seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing and that such worries may be somewhat overdue. In fact, 55% of employer respondents stated that their companies had not introduced any policies or practices aimed at addressing issues of seafarers’ mental health in the last 10 years. Going forward, there needs to be much more emphasis placed on proactive measures aimed at improving the conditions of work and life onboard for seafarers and less placed on reactive and self-help strategies for employers and seafarers.”

Shortcomings

The captains in their shared and lived experience do not know of a cohesive policy that recognizes or provides support strategies for crew experiencing mental health problems. With many yacht medical policies excluding cover for mental health or stress injury, it is almost structurally denied as being a medical issue.

With this being so, the seafarer must make the decision whether to stay and try to “work through it” or lose their income. Would we do the same with a broken limb?

MLC [the Maritime Labour Convention] requires there to be a policy on bullying and harassment, but how is this supported beyond a document?

We are a long way from a solution when an ISS captain reports:

“… On the last trip, my owner said that psychology has nothing to do with leading a bunch of yacht crew in tight quarters. It made me laugh because it is actually the biggest and most important part of my job.”

The senior captains of the ISS understand their roles and the responsibility given to them, and contrary to some this is not for manoeuvring the wonderful yachts. It is for delivering consistent leadership and effectively communicating.

The power of leadership (an ISS captain’s story)

After taking command of a large yacht from another captain, it was apparent one of the deck department was drinking too much, overweight, and quick to anger. Looking to find a cause over just dealing with the problem, I discovered the past captain would scream, yell and micromanage. With this known, it was a conscious shift to show the deck crew kindness, leadership, and encouragement to take ownership of their department.

The team completed more in less time, and the beat-down crew member started training, drank less, lost weight, and told his fellow crew that he was much happier with his job and now wanted to stay.

I can teach my young nephew how to correctly dock a boat or fill out paperwork, but it is only through our education and lived experience that we develop into the leaders that can psychologically help a crew member in need, whether it is a professional or personal issue. We are all without our loved ones at sea and crew rely on the captain and department heads to have developed emotional skill sets to support them.

Never underestimate how much influence you can have on some people with positive interaction over time.

The solution(s)

As with every article the ISS captains present, we acknowledge, simple solutions would be in place and there is no single “silver bullet”. Nevertheless, we say there is a way to go in the yachting community and some of the changes are not beyond taking steps toward today.

Yachting is a wonderful community and profession to be involved in. It presents great opportunities for personal growth, education, life experiences, and friendships. It broadens most people’s horizons through travel and contact with different cultures, both through journeys and also via co-workers.

These are opportunities that should be cherished and taken advantage of. Additionally, in challenging economic times, yacht crew can gain an advantage with their at-sea salary helping them gain a financial foothold not available to many of their shore-based peers.

As captains, it is our moral responsibility to make sure that these opportunities are taken by crew. This support and constant communication can help having a crew that is stimulated and has tolerable levels of stress. Remember captains: “lead the people, manage the process”.

Captains

Leaders are not born, nor are they created with a certificate of maritime competency. Captains need experience to lead and to acknowledge they do not have all the answers. Mentoring/coaching is common in the corporate and military spheres. It is beginning to be available in yachting. Captains, owners and managers of yachts are encouraged to seek this. The ISS can provide referrals for mentoring services.

Crew

Captains all try their best with the tools they have at their disposal. They make errors, and some (regardless of certificate) are just not suited to lead a team and can, through their own sense of self-preservation, be incredibly damaging. Crew must speak up using their respective pathways (DPA/owner’s representative) if this is the case. It is a serious step but one that at times is essential.

Structure of operations

There must be systems in place to handle stressed crew, but again ask if the stress is actually a symptom of the real problem that never gets acknowledged.

This could be one or more things such as a guest-on schedule that does not acknowledge the humanity of those delivering it, one person with power in the organization that has no leadership skills and does more damage than good, or someone who is far more interested in job self-preservation than helping the team to solve the issues that are crippling the organization. The challenge to a yacht is to identify and rectify this structural flaw.

Three Cs: Communication, Communication, Communication

Having the old-fashioned owner-captain relationship can go a long way to helping with crew morale and their mental health. All ISS captains wish every owner asked the open-ended question of what suggestions the captain has in regard to solving the problem of crew. A prepared captain can discuss how the past few years of the guest usage schedule has been a benefit or a detriment.

To help build the team of people from all over the world, confirm that you are having the appropriate number of quick and to-the-point meetings with crew, as most crew complain of the “mushroom” scenario.

From little things, big things grow

There are many small changes that, when aligned, can make a difference. Use of recreational areas and the gym when guests are not onboard helps immensely as does having the time in the program to actually provide clear unencumbered days off to crew.

The captain needs to feel supported by their management and yacht owner to think as far outside the box with creative ideas that are minimal impact for the owner, but a great benefit to the crew.

Also, while crew are eating lunch or dinner, ask them to not be looking at their phones, but instead engage with the other people at the table and turn off the TV at mealtimes and breaks.

These steps will not solve anything quickly, but over months and months, you will see a difference in how the team comes together. By only looking at our phones, I would never know that one of my fellow crew has a brother that has the same physical handicap that my cousin has, and talking about it makes us much closer.

Summary

The awareness of mental health is critical in all aspects of our community living, professionally and personally. One ISS captain observed that “mental health concerns are so prevalent I am dealing with them daily. This should not be the case and something needs to change.”

If we were to do a stress/mental health risk analysis as we may do for other hazardous operations, would our yachting work environments pass? If they wouldn’t, what do we need to change?

For the love of yachting, the ISS captains ask that we all become stakeholders in supporting our captains and crew in this most critical aspect of their safety and performance. We also ask that you do more than nod in acknowledgement. We ask that you join us in supporting ISWAN and donate to the development of its support portal. Now more than ever this is needed.

The International Superyacht Society (ISS) is the representative organization of the large yacht industry with a mission to “promote excellence and ensure sustainability in the global yachting industry”. This is the second report from the ISS Captains Committee, a worldwide committee of eight yacht captains. Comments are welcome below. To reach the committee, email info@superyachtsociety.org

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