As a seafarer, you know that you haven’t taken the easy way out when it comes to earning a living and pursuing a career in maritime jobs. And whether you're working in entry level cargo ship jobs or marine chief engineer jobs it is highly likely that you’ve made many sacrifices to get where you are today.
Gaining your seafarer qualifications might have been tough, finding jobs at sea could have taken a while, and once you’re onboard a vessel you might find that there are days that you struggle a little more than others.
The majority of seafarers (and their shore based coworkers) love working in jobs in ports and shipping, but there is no denying that life can be physically and mentally challenging sometimes. And that is fine - you didn’t graduate from maritime academy and apply for entry level ships jobs, gain sea time and get to where you wanted to be by expecting an easy life!
You’ll probably agree that for seafarers and those that work in jobs in ports, manual work and being at one with the elements is part of the attraction of working in maritime jobs. There are plenty of people working behind the scenes in the shipping industry whose jobs involve computers, files, spreadsheets and meetings.
You’re not one of those people and you probably wouldn’t want to be.
However, that said, there are times when you might be working in jobs in ports and shipping jobs while the rain is lashing down on you and you wonder what life might be like sitting behind a desk. Just as those who work in desk and shore based jobs in the maritime industry might sometimes wish they could walk out of the office and down to the port to experience life at sea!
The point is, we all have those days, whatever our job and lifestyle is, when we wish we were somewhere else, doing something else and possibly even working alongside different people!
Having the odd day (or even week) like that is fine. But what happens if you can feel that your job is starting to take a toll on your mental health?
No one is immune to the uncertainty of stresses and challenges of life today but life on a container ship can come with its very own specific set of challenges. It can be hard if you’re working in jobs at sea to relax and ‘switch off’ thanks to always having to be vigilant (that's especially true if you're an officer of the watch) while also performing your tasks to the very best of your ability.
Plus let’s not forget that any problems can be made to feel even bigger due to the fact that your living quarters are in an enclosed space and work and life are never really separated.
As one of the people keeping the world turning thanks to your efforts and hard work, staying mentally healthy is crucial, both for your effectiveness as a seafarer, and your ability to earn money and stay sane and well for your (and your family’s) sake.
So we’re going to take a look at some ways you can look after your mental health while you’re working away in jobs at sea.
7 tips for better mental health for seafarers in maritime jobs
There are so many different examples of maritime jobs and from ratings to officers and from those working in entry level cargo ship jobs to marine chief engineer jobs, your experience might be very different to your fellow crew members onboard.
And of course, we’re all different as humans, so what works for one person as a mental health tip might not work for another. And naturally, while there are obstacles to overcome when working in maritime jobs, one thing that is a given is that for the right person, life at sea and working in jobs at sea can be immensely rewarding in ways that a 9 to 5 desk job can’t be.
So how do you stay mentally healthy while spending months away from your loved ones and facing these obstacles, while also building a career and making the most of opportunities that your unique circumstances offer?
1. Zone in on what makes you happy
It might sound more suited to a new age self help manual, but being happy is key to creating a long and rewarding career in maritime jobs. It can be easy to get caught up in the day to day details of life so it can be well worth sitting down with a pen and paper (or the Notes app on your phone) and making a list of the things you most enjoy about your life on a container ship.
Maybe it’s that moment you step on board your vessel or maybe it’s the opportunity to travel and get away from the stress and/or boredom of life onshore. Perhaps it’s the sense of achievement that comes from knowing you’ve performed your tasks to the best of your capabilities, or it could be catching up with old friends you’ve crewed with before and knowing there are opportunities for forging new relationships.
Just writing out that list can make you realize there are more things you appreciate about your life than you originally thought - and it will give you a good indicator of what to focus on if you are feeling down.
2. Become the best seafarer you can be
Maybe you’re starting out in entry level ship jobs and you just need a little time to adjust to life on a container ship and add to your knowledge so you feel more settled and at home onboard. You might want to fast track your maritime career and climb through the ranks as quickly as possible.
You may have been working in marine chief engineer jobs for years and have decided to start thinking about looking for shore based maritime jobs or jobs in ports and shipping offices.
Whatever stage you are at in your career, keeping your mind active and learning new skills - both soft skills and hard skills - will give you a sense of achievement and increase your mental wellbeing.
If you don’t feel challenged by your current job, can you speak to your superior about learning new skills or taking on more responsibilities? Why not learn to code, for example? As shipping becomes more reliant on technology, seafarers with marine tech talents will become more sought after than ever before.
Or if you’re thinking that it might be time to start re-training for a shore based maritime job but you’re still onboard, you could put any down time you have to good use by learning what soft skills you’d need to transition.
3. Stay physically fit to be mentally fit
Happiness and physical and mental health are intrinsically linked and we all know that exercise releases chemicals called endorphins into our bodies, which make us feel more positive. Therefore it’s important that you try not to neglect your workout routine.
We know it can be easier said than done to build in exercise time while you’re onboard but if you hit the gym (if you have one on your vessel) for a few reps before or after your watch or shift you WILL feel better afterwards. If you struggle to motivate yourself to go to the gym, can you find a ‘workout buddy’ onboard so that you can hold each other accountable - and spot each other’s reps?
If you don’t have a gym or you’re just not interested in lifting weights, why not be the one who gets some of the crew together to have a game of basketball on deck? It’s all too easy to sit around thinking that there’s nothing to do in your free time between watches, or shifts - or to wait for someone else to take the initiative.
But by organizing a team activity, game, match or kick around, you’ll be focusing on something positive, and be having fun (and exercise) in the long run.
4. Build your community onboard
You’ve finished your shift and you’re tired. You’re working in an entry level cargo ship job and don’t really know anything about making friends at sea. You’ve been at sea for years and are jaded. You wish there was some sort of activity to do but no one seems to be organizing anything.
There are dozens of excuses why NOT to do something. Why not flip those excuses on their head, create some positive vibes and make yourself feel better while you’re away working in maritime jobs by being the person to create a sense of community?
There are times when going to the gym or doing some squats or planks on deck will make you feel more positive. But the power of watching a movie or hanging out with your fellow crew can’t be underestimated either.
Why not suggest a BBQ? Organize a darts or ping pong tournament? Play card or board games? Dust off the karaoke machine? Or even just kick back and have a good old fashioned chat with one of your crewmates?
5. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself
Due to the very nature of maritime jobs, life at sea and supporting your family ashore, it’s quite likely you have enough pressure as it. Try not to place too many expectations on yourself. The things that create happiness and have a positive effect on your mental wellbeing don’t have to be earth shattering events.
They can be something as simple as having a good laugh when you’re off duty, increasing the weights you’re lifting in the ship gym, catching up with family online, or having a meaningful conversation with a buddy on board.
6. Be alert and be a good listener
It’s a big part of your maritime job to be alert and this extends to keeping an eye on those around you. Just as it’s important for you to communicate if you’re feeling down, whether with family or fellow crew members, it’s also crucial to look out for the signs that someone around you may be struggling mentally too.
Life on board a ship comes with taking responsibility for one another so if you think someone you know is displaying signs that their mental health may be suffering, don’t hesitate to offer support, either in person, or by speaking to a superior.
After all, you’d hope that someone would do the same for you, wouldn’t you? And at the end of the day, doing something good for someone else has the knock on effect of making you feel better too.
7. Focus on the future
Being organized is a big part of good mental health. When your life feels disorganized, so too can your mind.
It’s been well documented that being organized can lower your stress levels and while there is not that much you can do with regards to physical organization (tidying a cluttered house or backyard for example) there are things you can do to reduce stress, even while you’re onboard or when traveling to or from your vessel.
For example, you can lower your stress levels by knowing when your next paycheck is coming from. That means lining up maritime jobs well in advance. When you have your next embarkation date sorted out, you’ll feel much better knowing that your family and finances are going to be taken care of.
And you’ll also be able to make the most of your precious shore time by NOT having to spend all your time on your computer and phone trying to line up work!
How can you line up your next job at sea no matter where in the world you are? By downloading the free Martide mobile app for seafarers.
We make applying for your next contract even easier while you're currently working in maritime jobs (or if you’re looking to get back to sea after a period ashore.)
You’ll be able to check out our hot vacancies for seamen even without creating an account. At Martide we have great opportunities for crew members of all levels of experience and we’d love to help you find the right role for you whether you’re looking for entry level ship jobs, ship’s cook jobs, wiper or oiler jobs, marine chief engineer jobs, and plenty more besides!
Once you’ve downloaded the app, all you need to do to apply is register an account with Martide, create your seafarer profile, find a job you like the look of, and then click the apply button to submit your application.
The other great thing about downloading the app is that employers and manning agents will be able to easily stay in contact with you too. Whether they have information about your contract, about other maritime industry news that you need to know about, or they’re looking for someone with your skills to line up for one of their maritime jobs.
Downloading the app takes away the uncertainty of not knowing where your next job is coming from and not knowing what’s happening while you’re away from home. Removing that uncertainty will lower your stress levels and help you increase your mental health and wellbeing while you’re onboard.
Stay safe and stay well.
This post was originally published on 2nd May 2019 and updated on 17th April 2020.