Poor internet, 12-hour shifts and unhealthy food: sailors’ job satisfaction takes a dive

Upon measuring the happiness of crew members, it has been found that spirits have fallen in the first quarter of 2023

A sailor explains how the engine room of a ship works to a group of visitors in Malaysia, in February 2023.
Álvaro Sánchez

The sea offers many rewards for those who’ve made their livelihood from it, as well as for the rest of the world’s population. Being far from land while watching whales and other marine fauna appear and disappear in the middle of the ocean is a fascinating way to live. But for the nearly two million people who work as sailors, being surrounded by water for months on end — with hardly any chance for a break — can take a toll.

To monitor the well-being of these professionals, Mission to Seafarers — a Christian organization serving merchant crews around the world — has been carrying out a crew happiness index since 2015, based on responses to their surveys. In the first quarter report of 2023, the news is not entirely good: the happiness measurement has fallen from 7.69 to 7.10 points.

Among the complaints, those surveyed reported that their 12-hour-long workdays are a source of fatigue, causing a break in the balance between personal and professional life, with adverse effects “for the mental and physical health of seafarers,” the report states. This erodes the communal environment inside ships. “The demanding nature of work on board can affect crew members’ ability to interact with each other,” the text adds. When the social relationships with the people with whom you share space for so many hours deteriorate, job satisfaction worsens.

Being a sailor requires a lot of dedication. There are personnel who spend more than six consecutive months at sea. Some companies even ask them to extend their stays — and they sometimes agree, for economic reasons. Most sailors come from India and the Philippines. Their salaries, which start out at around $400, are essential for them to be able to support their families, especially at a time of high inflation. “Many seafarers feel that their salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living,” the report explains.

Sailors also find limitations when it comes to going ashore in certain regions, which leads some to feel as if they’re “in a prison.” Extended periods of time away from land can also deal a blow to the morale. Despite the fact that most countries have already lifted the bulk of the restrictions that were imposed during the pandemic, there are specific cases in which sailors have not been allowed to disembark. Certain jurisdictions cite health risks as being the reason for these restrictions… even when no infections are detected and even though the sailors have to be fully vaccinated. Their work — which is essential to globalization, as 90% of merchandise travels by sea — was essential during the worst of the pandemic, when they continued to work to guarantee the stability of supply chains in very difficult conditions. For more than two years, they were barely able to leave their ships, so as to avoid contagion in the places where they were docking. This effort was publicly recognized by UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Inflation is also fueling another phenomenon that hurts these professionals. Crew members who have been surveyed warn that the companies they work for have reduced food budgets to save money, oftentimes hiring unskilled cooks. This has resulted in lower-quality meals and smaller portions, fueling concerns about a lack of nutrition. “Respondents [have] described the meals as [being] unhealthy, monotonous, and of poor quality.” Cases of food poisoning from eating fish — which come from potentially contaminated waters — have also been detected.

While living in the workplace — far from family and friends — the internet is a fundamental escape. Sailors recognize that contact with their loved ones has improved and become cheaper than in the past, thanks to improvements in technology. Connecting is a way to relax and be entertained, which helps them continue to feel like they’re part of their friend groups. Sharing stories and photos of their travels boosts their self-esteem. Their loved ones can know where they are and what they’re doing. Keeping in touch is simple.

However, there has been widespread unhappiness over the low speeds of internet connections and insufficient data rates. In some areas, a stable internet connection is non-existent. “There is often very little time for video calls, because [sailors] have to combine work and sleep with little downtime,” the report emphasizes. However, expectations for the situation to improve are high, thanks to Starlink — billionaire Elon Musk’s satellite internet operator — which promises to improve internet access and lower the price of connecting. The daily exchange of emails and video calls between husbands and wives or children and parents depends on a strong digital network.

Technology stands out as the simplest remedy against boredom and isolation. Distracting your mind during long periods away from home seems almost mandatory. Yet, shipping companies don’t always encourage leisure on board. “There is a need for more engaging activities,” the report authors note.

Practices vary greatly from company to company. While some provide mental health care and medical services, others don’t. Sports — which are associated with healthy lifestyle habits — are often not facilitated, as there are no adequate facilities. There isn’t enough down time: excessive bureaucracy and unnecessary tasks are criticized by the authors. Meanwhile, the marathon work hours — full of night shifts and time zone changes — leave sailors with little energy for physical activity. In addition, poor connections can make it difficult for sailors to use instructional videos to exercise individually.

The text doesn’t refer to the specific problems faced by women, who are still a small minority in the field, representing barely 2% of all sailors. It’s crucial that women be better integrated into the profession, which, for decades, has been plagued by rampant sexism, with abuses taking advantage of the impunity provided by the isolation of ships. This has become a priority issue for the sector.

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