The popular image of the merchant mariner is that of a tough guy. He’s a little rough around the edges. He doesn’t say much, but when he talks you better listen because he hates to repeat himself. His skin is tanned from hours in the sun, and his body is deceptively strong. He works hard, he plays hard, and he drinks harder. The image fits because life at sea is not easy.
Merchant mariners are away from their families for months. They can go for days without seeing another living soul (other than their shipmates) as they cross the oceans. They are at the mercy of weather conditions and the high seas while in transit.
Should something go wrong—no one’s coming to help.
Living and working under such conditions is not easy and can become overwhelming. The life of a merchant mariner is a stressful one. How that stress gets dealt with can mean having a long, happy, and healthy career and having a short, miserable one.
To a degree, it is up to the person to figure out what he or she needs to do to maintain their mental health while at sea. But there are several things that shipping companies can do to help:
- Increase Shore Leave:
The sexy part about taking a job on ship is the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. Of course, the exciting part isn’t seeing new worlds from the deck of the ship but getting to go ashore and experience a culture first hand. But there will be times when shore leave must be restricted.
In some parts of the world, it may not be safe to be an American wondering the streets. The ship may not be in port long. Rather than risk having to hold up departure for anyone (or leaving them behind), the Captain restricts people to the ship. In many cases, it may be easier to complete work while the ship is at dock.
There are many valid reasons for restricting shore leave, but when possible, it should be encouraged.
- Prevent Abandonment:
it can be very hard to get a job these days. Doing it is even harder. But when there is an ever-present danger of a company going under or running out of cash while a ship is in transit—that’s bad for the morale of workers. Maybe companies should be forced to place a ship’s wages in an escrow account or something that only the ship can access. That way, if a worst-case scenario happens, at least the crew can get paid.
It may seem like a simple thing, but internet access while at sea allows mariners to remain in contact with loved ones and not lose track of what’s going on in the world. The feeling of disconnect that happens when at sea can be hard on a mariner’s psyche. Of course, it is a little harder to get a good connection when you are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and haven’t seen land in two days. Should a virus be accidentally downloaded on the computer and possibly the ship’s systems—well, that could be bad.
It may not be the easiest thing to get, but it can help quite a bit.
- Counseling services:
People shoreside have the benefit of being able to talk to friends, loved ones, clergyman, mental health professionals, etc. when life gets to be too much for them. Who do merchant mariners have while crossing the ocean? The Captain? No one wants to talk to their boss about how hard work is. But it would be unrealistic for shipping companies to start staffing crews with a mental health professional.
However, if ships had reliable internet connections, they could contact a company counselor that is shoreside as needed.
- Protection from criminal liability:
This can be a tough one. On the one hand, you do have some people that are willing to cut corners and do things they know are illegal because they want the ship to be on time. Those people do not deserve, nor should they have any sort of protection from criminal liability. How to tell when
someone was trying to cut corners or when something was an ‘accident’ can be tough. But what companies can do is make sure that there isn’t even the slightest perception that they want mariners to do something illegal for any reason.
- Perks on board:
If companies were to present mariners with the option of slightly higher salaries relative to more onboard perks, most would probably choose higher pay. However, there are some things companies should try to provide like the internet, better food, a rec room/ exercise room, comfortable beds, etc. They may seem like simple, little things, but when a mariner has a chance to go work for someone who may pay a little more, it’s the little things that will keep him from leaving.
It may seem like a silly ‘millennial’ thing to say, but a little respect goes a long way. People are more apt to enjoy their work and feel good about who they work for when they hear a ‘good job’now and then. At the same time, this also means no berating a mariner in front of his shipmates. If he must be criticized, do it in an appropriate setting.