Business needs to act on mental health among the workforce - Guy Platten

On the IMO's Day of the Seafarer, UK Chamber CEO Guy Platten writes that business needs to recognise the problem of mental ill health among the workforce - at sea and ashore.

Around the world today, the maritime industry is marking the Day of the Seafarer.  The day is organised by the shipping industry’s global regulator, the International Maritime Organisation, and celebrates the people who work onboard the world’s commercial fleet. 

Shipping is the mode by which 90% of world trade is carried to consumers.  At a time when international trade is so heavily in the political spotlight, it’s worth reminding ourselves of those seafarers who commit their professional lives to ensuring it works.  

As a seafarer myself, I know how wonderful a career it is. But working at sea has always been a high-stress environment and despite ever increasing automation the likelihood is it will stay that way. For seafarers, their workplace is also their home, but one in which they can exercise little control over their daily lifestyle, such as what they eat, how they exercise, their sleep patterns and what they are able to do in their free time. 

This can foster extraordinary camaraderie and build lasting friendships.  But for some it can compound and intensify feelings of loneliness and isolation. Seafarers themselves often tell us that the best way to relieve such isolation is to enhance internet connectivity at sea.  We never underestimated the importance of being able to ring home, keep in touch on social media or even just check the football results.  But since that connectivity has improved we’ve sometimes found that it has enhanced, not resolved the sense of missing out. Furthermore, imagine receiving bad news from family in a Facebook message, but knowing that you have no power to resolve it until you are back at home - which could be many months or weeks away. 

The world of business is in the habit of tracking performance - key performance indicators and incident reporting are now the norm. If you can gather data on how and why injuries have occurred, you can work to reduce those incidents. Rail, aviation and shipping all use this data-driven approach to monitor and improve their safety performance. But the mental wellbeing of our workforce is something we can’t monitor with metrics. Although it can manifest itself physically in various ways, mental ill health is invisible and insidious.

In much the same way that industry has formulated strategies to prevent physical harm coming to their workforce, we need to do the same for our workers’ mental wellbeing too. This point isn’t limited to shipping – you can say the same for any business on land or at sea.  Mental illness is estimated to cost UK businesses £30bn every year through lost production, recruitment and absence, so not caring for our workforce’s psychological needs is as damaging to the bottom line as it is to our reputation.

Some 26 per cent of seafarers said they had felt “down, depressed or hopeless” on several days over the previous two weeks, according to a study of more than 1,000 seafarers conducted by international maritime charity Sailors’ Society and Yale University.  This figure is high – but things are only marginally better on the shore. One in six adults surveyed in England met the criteria for a common mental disorder, according to an NHS study published in 2016. 

There will always be aspects of workplaces that create stress but which we cannot change. We can, however, help and support the way workers approach those stresses. That is what industry must recognise. We cannot fix everything, but that does not mean we can’t fix anything. 

It’s why we in the shipping industry have worked with trade unions to develop new guidelines for shipping companies, setting out how companies can best take care of the workforce.   This collaboration will make a difference and prove we take this seriously.

But the whole of British industry needs to act on this.  We need to build a healthy, engaged workforce that is psychologically resilient and able to confront stress. But also where those who are suffering, for whatever reason, know that they work in an environment that understands their needs and is willing to help. 

The UK Chamber of Shipping is moving to help its member companies support their seafaring workforce, but mental ill health is a problem that affects workers both at sea and on the shore – in my industry and in yours. 

“Lives matter”, we say when we talk about workplace safety. I want that phrase to take on a deeper meaning. It’s not just about preserving human life, but enabling employees to live happy and fulfilled lives throughout their professional careers. 


  • For its part, the UK Chamber of Shipping has launched The Seafarer Mental Health Repository, a new project that aims to bring together in once place the various initiatives that seek to help improve the mental wellbeing of our seagoing workforce.

For more information contact:

Guy Platten

Chief Executive Officer

020 7417 2842 / 07872 398831

tcooper@ukchamberofshipping.com