July 03, 2009

Popeye Stress

“In the end, the reason my wife and I broke up was just that we were living in different worlds”, the Chief Engineer told me, draining the last of his drink. “Nobody ashore really understands what a sailor’s life really is.”

I had run into him in a small port in Canada where both of us were waiting for our ships to berth to sign on. We gravitated towards each other, as sailors are wont to do and enjoyed a couple of drinks and dinners together. He was just returning to sea after a year or two and after a life threatening experience on a previous voyage; the small container ship he was on ran into a typhoon off Japan. The crew spent a few days in lifejackets with engine trouble before they were providentially saved. Revealingly to me, the Chief was not too upset about almost losing his life; he was devastated, however, that nobody at home had really understood what he went through. I think he felt that he was entitled to some special consideration, particularly from his wife. A natural reaction; can’t really blame him.

This may well be an extreme, though not unusual, case. The reality remains, however, that even at the best of times, seafaring today is far more stressful than it has been in the last fifty years or so: the nature of modern shipping makes this inevitable. One could argue that safety standards have risen (not fast enough) and that the advent of advanced radars, GPS and communications has made life at sea easier in many ways. The counterpoint to this argument is equally valid, which is that extremely low staffing levels and operational and commercial pressures have nullified these advances; in fact, in some cases these advances have contributed to lower thresholds of acceptable safe clearances in many parameters of navigational and machinery operation. Whatever your own point of view, at least I believe, as I look back over about thirty years of sailing, that pressure today is much higher on the Master, officers and crew of any ship than what is was then.

There are very few organisations that research seafarer’s lives: most of our opinions on seafarer stress therefore remain just that, opinions, and are based on anecdotal evidence. One exception is the Seafarers International Research Centre, a part of the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences in the UK. Although it does research seafarers from across the world, it seems to me that the exercise, in the end, remains largely academic and is diluted by generalisation, because the handling of stress has a cultural element to it.

In any event, I do not see even the largest management company in India using SIRC’s findings as input to improving their own HRD policies, except at a very raw and rudimentary level. In addition, of course, the fact that there is no independent seafarer research of note done in India, a country that prides itself on its academic standards and that claims to supply more than a twentieth of the global seafaring workforce, is telling in itself. It becomes obvious, once again, that we do not really care enough about our seafaring community.

However, we should. Sailors on the path to burnout are less efficient, less motivated and more prone to making mistakes and causing accidents. Besides, higher stress levels are surely a contributing factor to shorter career spans at sea today.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, or at least the psychological after effects of a life threatening episode, will probably be experienced by every sailor least once in his working life. These may well cause him severe problems at work and in human relationships for a while. The Chief Engineer I met was probably suffering from PTSD, which is a recognised medical condition with approved medical treatment. He took a long break while he struggled to overcome PTSD; with proper counselling, he would have been back on his feet much faster, and would have been available for work sooner. And maybe not have been divorced.

The industry would do well, therefore, to support its seamen in whatever ways it can in its own self interest. There is a lot it can do. For example, Stress Management could be made an integral part of a seafarer’s training starting at the Pre Sea level. Many of these techniques, including Yoga, are universally known to be beneficial to physical and emotional well being; we in India do not need to be reminded of that. What stops our HRD departments from incorporating these into every seminar and every in house training programme? (Oops, I forgot, we normally do not have HRD worth the name). What stops our marine training establishments from doing the same? (Oops, they will not or cannot do anything unless the DGS mandates it). What stops our managers from arranging counselling to crews that have been through major life threatening experiences at sea? (Oops, it costs money. Barring the few of us who do this, usually in high profile cases, it is usually cheaper to risk crew walking away from the company). Clearly, a little will and a little thought is needed by many here. And a little concern.

I should mention here that many years ago, we were taught IRT (Instant Relaxation Techniques) at a Master’s revalidation course in Chennai. It was probably the most useful part of the course. However, such exceptions apart, all of us, whether at sea or ashore, approach the issue of ever increasing levels of stress at sea with typical bravado and machismo. Tough sailors are supposed to survive, to grin and bear it, to never complain and never explain. Stress is for the weak and PTSD is for the effete, don’t you know?

While there is some truth in the fact that a sailor must be physically and emotionally more resilient than many in other professions, we often take the macho spiel too far. In the process, we not only make Popeye caricatures of ourselves but we sometimes do ourselves, our families and our employers great harm. We must realise that there is a thin line between useful bravado and empty bluster, and that there is an even thinner line between being the strong and silent type and getting ulcers.

As Zsa Zsa Gabor said, Macho does not mean mucho.