Crew Welfare: Connectivity Impact on Crew Behaviour

The impacts of onboard connectivity on the ebbs and flows of life at sea are not as straightforward as they might first appear, according to a qualitative study initiated jointly by the Sailors’ Society and Inmarsat.

Numerous surveys have attempted to measure the uptake of connectivity in the commercial shipping fleet. These statistical analyses paint a broad brush picture illustrating the increasing prevalence of broadband at sea. They successfully reveal too the general upward trend in capability, reflecting the heavy investments that satellite communications providers, like Inmarsat, have made in their infrastructure to make their services more reliable and affordable.

They also hint at the value seafarers accord to onboard Internet access. However what these market research exercises offer in breadth they lose in depth, due to limitations inherent to statistical analyses. For this reason, Inmarsat partnered with the Sailors’ Society, an international charity organisation that campaigns vigorously on crew welfare issues, to look behind the headline statistics and construct a more nuanced understanding of how onboard connectivity, or lack thereof, impacts on seafarers lives.

“Statistics provide a good indication of how far we’ve come. But the focus on quantitative metrics such as number of units installed or average monthly download volumes cloaks the transformative impact these systems are having on seafarers,” said Drew Brandy, SVP, Market Strategy, Inmarsat Maritime. To explore this human dimension, the organisations turned to a team of researchers with backgrounds in anthropology from the Royal Holloway University in London to conduct a qualitative study into the subject.

In contrast to online surveys, the study’s authors spent time on two containerships to conduct in-depth interviews with the multinational seafarers aboard. Crucially, conversations took place across the full crew hierarchy from the Master and Chief Engineers to the deck hand and oiler, as well as any cadets onboard. “Involving all ranks and nationalities was pivotal to gauging differences in experience and capturing a realistic snapshot of life on a modern vessel,” said Mr Brandy.

Today, connectivity is about more than email, web-surfing or logging on to social media. It is linked to safety, training and continuing professional development, and mental health. By bringing to bear anthropological research methods, the idea was to tease out how the availability of communications tools affects crew behaviour and, by extension, the relationship with productivity, self-esteem and wellbeing.

One criticism levelled at always-on connectivity is that it risks disrupting work and rest patterns. Not only is this fear unfounded, according to the Royal Holloway researchers: the opposite is true. If the only time crew can contact family is through personal mobile phones, they will place that call as soon as the ship enters signal range, regardless of the time of day, workload or rest hours. For seafarers in an environment with patchy or non-existent connectivity, prioritising it when it is available is an understandable behavioural adaptation. “People exhibit the same response on land,” observed Mr Brandy. “It’s a feeling everyone who owns a smartphone can relate to. But the compulsion for seafarers who’ve been out of signal for days or possibly weeks is much, much greater.”

Greater Internet access has also been blamed for causing crew members to retreat into their cabins, where they go online instead of spending downtime more wholesomely socialising with their colleagues. However, the new research suggests broader factors are involved. While ships are nowadays fitted with communal recreational facilities ranging from televisions and videogames, to  karaoke machines and gyms, participants said these are not enough to check the boredom of a long voyage. The introduction of restrictive policies on alcohol consumption was also raised.  As one participant summed it up: “Connectivity hasn’t damaged social cohesion; smaller crews, ship architecture, and less time in ports have.”

On one ship the researchers spent time aboard, crew Wi-Fi was rationed to 50Mb per week. Given that an average web-page today weighs in between 2.5 and 5Mb, the crew quickly learned to conserve their quota. Most reported restricting themselves to instant messaging services such as WhatsApp and regional variants thereof. Besides offering a higher signal-to-noise ratio, such utilities reveal a preference for meaningful communication with family and friends, rather than aimless web-surfing to pass the time.

Frequent home contact allows crew members to maintain a stronger connection with family life. Moreover, the researchers suggest, it allows them to stay ‘in control’ of their lives; thus, minimising feelings of separation and missing out on important life events. It also eases the transition back into home life when returning from sea.

The corollary of this de-stressor effect is that a lack of connectivity can amplify other stresses, such as those caused by financial issues, family strains, and isolation – regardless of crew rank. “Wi-Fi gives them the option to call home at a time when the ship is less busy and resolve these problems without the additional pressure and workload during a port call,” says Mr Brandy.

Many respondents deem the absence of quota roll-over to be ‘unfair’. Consequently, they spend time and energy constantly tracking their own data usage and searching for low data consumption apps to make their weekly MBs last longer. Meanwhile, crew frugal enough to have quota remaining at the end of the week sometimes shared it among colleagues so that it wasn’t wasted – an altruistic behaviour that the researchers say can actually boost social cohesion. The personal email accounts allocated by the shipping company were mostly eschewed, due to a perception of being monitored.

The study also found that crews on the ships without Wi-Fi relying on mobile network coverage when close to shore will buy local SIM cards in port, despite knowing they were being ripped off in a sellers’ market. One result was collective frustration that shipping companies fail to appreciate the impact of connectivity on wellbeing and being to function effectively in modern society. However, fieldnotes gathered during the research also indicated that perceptions and expectations are out of sync with the reality of usage restrictions, even on ships with broadband access.

In its recommendations, the report urges shipping companies to rethink restrictions on internet use to give more flexibility to the apps seafarers want to use.  Where restrictions are necessary, they should consider the effect on crew behaviour and be well-explained, as constantly moving in and out of connectivity causes unnecessary stress, disrupts sleep and work routines, with a negative impact on crew wellness and performance.

While by no means a complete answer to mental wellbeing, instant, regular and dependable contact with family and friends builds emotional resilience among seafarers, according to study, whose findings result from commentary provided by seafarers themselves.