Entertainment to tackle social isolation

Better provision of communal onboard entertainment could prevent social isolation and mental health problems for crew

Social isolation is a common experience for seafarers used to spending long stretches of time away from friends and family. With crew numbers falling, work hours increasing, and the rise of multinational crewing, social isolation is a problem that looks set to grow unless shipowners take action. Could something as simple as offering a communal space to watch television and films help solve the problem?

“With MLC [Maritime Labour Convention] 2006 regulations in place, there is now a requirement for shipowners to enhance the working environment and boost crew morale,” said Andrew Sirkett, marine commercial manager at satcoms and IT support company NSSLGlobal. “What’s more, crew are expensive to replace and retrain, and many, particularly younger, crew members are unused to extended periods without access to internet and entertainment services.”

The MLC 2006 regulations state that consideration should be given to providing onboard recreation facilities including television viewing and the showing of films. Yet these types of provisions, which can be viewed as inessential or dismissed as the softer side of welfare, do not always fall high on shipowner’s list of priorities. Ships also often have a lack of sufficient space for communal eating and recreation, which is often segregated into rank, and there may be restrictive alcohol policies. Both can increase the feeling of isolation.

A report by academic researcher Olivia Swift into social isolation among seafarers carried out for the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network explained that this is both a cause and symptom of a range of mental health conditions. These conditions make it harder to both retain crew and maintain safety, she said.

And while the provision of onboard internet, which varies widely from ship-to-ship, has meant crew can now have more communication with their friends and family, it has not necessarily helped with the feeling of social isolation on board.

Helen Sampson, director of the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), will soon publish two questionnaires conducted in 2011 and 2016 that show seafarers are spending most of the off-work time alone. The most common response to a question about what seafarers did after work was “go to my cabin and rest”. Seafarers also went to their cabin alone to watch movies and to play music. A smaller section used the internet there.

“As vessel accommodation space is continually reduced, seafarers are forced to live in increasingly cramped conditions, where rooms are not available to facilitate group activities and engagement,” said Sampson. As a result, seafarers are living more solitary and potentially unhealthy lives.

Seafarers working in 2016 displayed “higher indications of the presence of psychiatric disorders than in 2011”, Sampson’s forthcoming research report will reveal. In 2016, there was a 9% increase in the numbers of seafarers displaying indications of psychiatric disorders.

Sirkett believes NSSL’s entertainment service, CrewVision, could provide a simple and cost-effective way for shipowners to tackle these issues. It runs via satellite communication system VSAT, rather than over broadband, and gives crew access to a wide range of television programmes, documentaries, films, including recent cinema releases, news, and sports reports. These all get refreshed regularly, typically overnight, from on-shore ground stations. So far about 750 ships have expressed interest in the service.

While crew might find the same film and television content online and can watch it on a phone or iPad, Sirkett hopes that providing CrewVision on HDMI television in communal areas will help to create a social space that will draw crew out of their bedrooms and interact. He acknowledged that the size of communal areas varied but aimed for at least one 50–60 inch television to supports a communal movie area, while other smaller televisions could be used elsewhere to catch up on news or sports reports. “A lot of ships are becoming ‘dry’ [alcohol-free] so this balancing the loss of a socialising area and creates another place to get together,” he said.

Importantly, as the service is provided over VSAT, it may free broadband aboard the vessel as the crew is encouraged to socialise rather than surf the internet alone in their rooms. NSSLGlobal has recently been in discussions with a Philippine TV provider as it is conscious of catering for multinational crews, Sirkett added.

Sampson welcomed such on board entertainment provision. She believes it will keep seafarers “better in touch with the outside world and it will give them things to talk about among themselves”, although she felt the inclusion of live sports events would be a welcome addition.

However, she said, this kind of service will only truly work in bringing together seafarers if it is given adequate communal spaces with proper and comfortable seating. “This will maximise the benefits to welfare and morale.”

Unfortunately, SIRC’s research suggests that communal spaces on many modern ships are often too small for group activities to be comfortably undertaken and that seating is “very uncomfortable”. SIRC sees this as part of a general deterioration in comfort on board many vessels, and Sampson attributes this to prioritisation of “cost and durability over comfort”.

She believes shipowners should show more concern for leisure and recreational activities, particularly when ships are designed and commissioned. Things like swimming pools, squash courts, decent sized crew messes, barbecue facilities, and bars have “all disappeared from ships just as seafarers need them the most”, said Sampson. “Seafarers have less shore leave, are more fatigued, and are showing signs of deterioration in mental health.”

Whether shipowners are prepared to invest more in the ‘softer’ side of welfare remains to be seen, but as far as Sampson is concerned, leisure and recreation facilities have always been essentials, rather than luxuries.

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