2012 was a significant year for the UK and not only because of Ben Ainsley’s amazing cache of gold medals at the London Olympics. Something happened in parliament that was quite unprecedented (and no, it wasn’t cross party agreement). The unusual event involved several experienced politicians standing in the House of Commons and speaking publicly for the first time, about their individual battles with mental health issues. MPs including Kevan Jones, Charles Walker and Andrea Leadsom spoke movingly about the effects that mental health conditions, such as depression, stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder, can have on a person and those close to them.
This brave stand by MPs, paved the way for millions of us to firstly, admit to having experienced a mental health problem and secondly, to realise that we are completely normal! At long last, the issue of Mental Health has ‘come in from the cold’, enabling us to have an honest discussion about the effect that it is having on our working lives at sea.
We all have mental health just like we have physical health. When we are in good physical health we have the fitness and vitality to be active and get things done. Just as good mental health brings feelings of being well balanced and positive, enabling us to cope well with day to day events. Similarly, just as physical ill health can vary in severity from the inconvenience of a common cold to the something far more serious and life threatening, mental ill health can vary from feeling overly stressed to an all-consuming depression that is potentially life threatening. The reality in the workplace is that the underlying cause of sickness absence is just as likely to be linked to a mental health issue as to a physical health issue, and while this has been known statistically for some time, it is only now that the stigma surrounding mental ill health is lifting sufficiently to really begin to address it.
Despite the positive steps that have been taken, there remains a rather large ‘elephant in the room’ that needs to be confronted if mental health issues are to be taken seriously in the seafaring world. Despite a trickle of women coming up through the ranks into more senior positions, it continues to be a male dominated world and the sad reality is that men are less likely to seek help for mental health problems and three times more likely to commit suicide than women and suicide rates in seafarers is the highest of all industry sectors. The message from this is clear, men in senior positions need to engage with the causes of mental health problems and recognise the signs and symptoms in themselves and others. We should all be aiming to create an on-board culture where mental health is as valued as physical health and where crew feel at ease discussing it.
The causes of mental health problems vary hugely from individual to individual, although commonly reported issues include bullying, harassment, stress, over work, fatigue and problems at home. As a leader you need to be alert to the mood of your crew and observant of the quality of relationships on board. For example, has what started out as a bit of light banter between crew gone too far for one of them? Are you aware it’s going on and are you checking in with them? What action are you prepared to take? When you are busy these things are easy to overlook however, these simple but valuable leadership actions may prevent a situation spiralling into a serious mental health issue for a member of crew.
It is a challenge for leaders to gain the trust of crew who worry that admitting to mental health difficulties would make them appear weak, especially within the macho culture that is present on many vessels. Conversely many senior males shy away from asking female colleagues how they feel in fear that they might actually tell them! No one said leadership was easy. Nevertheless, my experience, of working with senior leaders inside and outside of the maritime industry, has shown me that there are few leaders who have been untouched by their own mental health challenge at some point in their careers. This leaves me in no doubt that those leaders who recognise and use their own experiences to better understand their crew, earn their trust and respect in a way that leaders who deny their mental health challenges, never will.
Creating a culture that values the mental health of the crew means being observant and taking notice of crew who appear unusually quiet, withdrawn or unusually bad tempered. Most importantly, make sure that there is a well-established practice on board of regular one to ones, beginning with the Captain and Chief Engineer, cascading throughout senior leadership to their teams, so that everyone on board has the chance to be seen and heard. When you ask the question ‘how are you?’, take time to really listen to the answer, and remember that your own humanity is a good place to begin when laying the foundations for a mentally healthy crew.
Julia Matheson works as a leadership coach and facilitator for Impact Crew, her first career being in Mental Health Nursing. If you would like to discuss how to incorporate mental health wellbeing into your leadership role, please give us a call.
Julia Matheson Impact Crew
t: +44 (0)1425 614 419