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Persistent Bullies Should Be Removed from Ships

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September 6, 2021

A zero-tolerance approach to bullying should be in place on all vessels, with abusive crew members removed from the ship if they repeatedly harass a colleague, according to some mental health experts.  

Former chief engineer Stephan Vecchi believes the maritime industry must have a strict two-strike policy to protect seafarers from bullies.    

“Usually, it’s one person who starts the bullying and you can find them pretty fast because they are typically a troublemaker,” he said in a video interview with Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS). “This person should get a warning and then be removed if it’s not possible to stop the harassment.”

The German national, who was never bullied at sea but experienced it as a child in school, added: “When it comes to bullying or mobbing on board, there is no tolerance in my eyes – and there shouldn’t be. It can create a big problem among a small crew, so it must be stopped immediately. It’s a ticking bomb that can destroy the whole climate and, ultimately, affect crew members’ mental health and safety.”

Vecchi was speaking to MHSS, which provides 24/7 professional mental health support to the maritime industry, for a video series about life aboard vessels and how it impacts someone’s physical and psychological wellbeing. 

Bullying was one of the contributing factors to the 60% surge in seafarers calling the MHSS phone line from April to June 2021. Issues raised during the calls included anxiety, bullying or crew conflict arising from limited experience with different cultures or nationalities.  

Other findings showed that young cadets who called MHSS, usually after taking the company’s coping strategy training, tended to report bullying on board. Elsewhere, more shipping industry office staff had contacted MHSS because of burnout or harassment by management. 

Victims of bullying aboard vessels should speak to a trusted colleague, officer or the Master, according to Vecchi. However, seafarers working with people from different countries and cultural backgrounds may struggle to talk openly to other crew members – a more common issue now than in Vecchi’s day. 

“I joined the industry in 1986 when I was 17 and things were very different then,” he said. “There were 30 Germans on the first vessel I worked on, so you spent time with people who spoke your language and shared your culture. 

“Nowadays, you have a mix of people from different cultures working together, which all seafarers are used to. However, everyone has an iPhone or iPad, meaning people are more likely to sit alone in their cabins.”

Daniel Musafia, a former ship captain who was interviewed for MHSS’ video series, believes crew members dealing with bullying, harassment or other issues affecting their mental health get better support now than when he joined the industry in 1984. 

“Unfortunately, on my first commanded vessel, one crew member tried to commit suicide,” he recalled. “The good team I had on board dealt with it but we had no training or support, so it was an extremely difficult situation. 

“The Romans had an expression: healthy mind and healthy body, which is key to avoiding circumstances that might give rise to physical injuries [or mental illness]. To be in better control of our thoughts and to help colleagues on board makes mental health training and know-how an important part of basic training for seafarers today.” 

When starting out as a seafarer, Captain Musafia was often away from loved ones for 8–10 months. Lengthy contracts coupled with other demands of the role such as the physical labor, working conditions and dangers of being at sea would affect mariners’ mental health. 

“We had some cases of sudden and serious physical and mental health issues,” he said. “The beginning of my sea career had many challenges; it was difficult because you were dislocated from your family, friends and culture.”     

Some of those issues remain, especially long stints at sea amid the global pandemic and crew change crisis. But Vecchi believes the physical and mental pressures of the job, along with the diminishing appeal of a once romanticised industry, is making recruitment more problematic.    

“It’s difficult to get motivated, young seafarers,” he said. “The industry is no longer romantic as the whole business has changed. [In my day], we sailed to see the world and had a good time on the ship. We’d visit three to four port days in different places and would, for example, spend a week in South America. Today, you’re in a port for 18 hours and can’t leave the ship because you have to work.”

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