It’s no secret that seafarer jobs, including Officer of the Watch jobs, can often be physically and mentally demanding.
Being away from home for lengthy periods of time, manual labor, dealing with the elements at sea, and the pressure of meeting strict deadlines all come with their own specific challenges.
However, for many seamen and women, life at sea is also incredibly rewarding with many agreeing that working in jobs at sea beats a 9 to 5 desk job hands down!
But thanks to the unique environment that working in cargo ships, container ships, bulk carriers, heavy duty vessels and oil tankers presents, it is crucial for seafarers of all ranks and experience to take extra care of their physical and mental wellbeing.
And that certainly applies to anyone working as an Officer of the Watch (OOW).
Whether a job is on shore in a port, in a depot or warehouse, or on a vessel anyone who works shifts will tell you that the change in shift patterns and the unsociable hours can be hard to get used to.
4 wellness tips for Officers of the Watch
Of course, in shipping seafarers are needed to work around the clock and a vessel’s watchkeepers need to maintain lookout 24/7, 365 on the bridge while at sea.
Add to that the responsibility of ensuring the safe navigation of the ship, as well as the pressure of being the ship’s Master’s representative while on duty, the weight on the shoulders of an Officer of the Watch can be heavy.
And working on and off around the clock with broken sleep patterns can start to have an effect on an OOW, or any shift-working seafarer’s wellbeing if you don’t take steps to maintain a sense of balance.
The system generally used by merchant ships whereby watchkeepers stand watch for three periods of four hourly blocks means that watchkeepers with less experience can keep lookout during the hours that experienced watchkeepers will be on hand to help in the event of a problem.
It is also consistent, easy to remember and allows a watchkeeper’s body clock to settle into some kind of rhythm. All of these things can help alleviate the pressure a little but there are still issues that need to be counteracted for those working in OOW jobs.
How watchkeeping can take its toll in jobs at sea
Humans are designed to be active during the daytime. Our appetites are such that they are smaller at night so that our bodies can fast and spend their energy on repair and restoration, and on readying us for the day ahead.
Obviously, this is disrupted by shift work.
Both long term night shift work and not getting enough sleep also have a history of causing the onset of a catalogue of medical conditions.
Everything from increasing the risk of some cancers to problems with metabolism and weight gain, and from depression to heart disease and diabetes have been associated with working irregular hours and the knock on effect that can entail when it comes to getting a consistently good night’s sleep.
Maintaining safety at sea
Illness, weight issues and disease aside, one very real problem is that if seafarers are constantly tired due to watchkeeping shifts, they may not be as alert and focused as they need to be when they’re working.
Put simply, performance and safety cannot be compromised and it is therefore crucial that any seafarer who is also an Officer of the Watch takes steps to help combat tiredness and ensure they’re feeling as mentally and physically agile as possible under the circumstances
So let’s take a look at some ways that anyone working in OOW jobs can help boost their mental and physical health by making the most of the sleep they do get.
Keep on moving
If hitting the gym the minute you finish a watch sounds like the very last thing you want to do, try blocking out some time around your shifts to fit in a workout.
It really is one of the best things you can do: remind yourself that a healthy body equals a healthy mind and that you WILL feel better after a training session.
Finished your watch and just want to fall into your bunk? Up early and about to head out for your shift?
Get into a routine where you set aside just a couple of minutes for some stretching, a few push ups, or a jog along the deck before you crash or start your shift.
You are what you eat
The problem with shift work, both onshore and in seafarer jobs, is that it can be all too tempting to let good eating habits fall by the wayside.
Studies have shown that irregular meal times can have a domino effect on your body’s internal patterns and digestive health thus creating delays in blood glucose rhythms - which can then upset your normal reaction times and awareness.
Peptic ulcers and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) can also be issues for those that work shifts. That’s because our digestive system normally rests and recuperates at night and if you’re up and about, working and eating, it won’t be given this opportunity.
The trick is to get into a routine while you're working in jobs at sea that works for you.
Obviously this can be easier said than done when you’re not in charge of meal times or menus, but opting for the healthiest option instead of just grabbing something for a quick fix will help you feel like you have some control over your food intake. Avoid overly sugary foods such as candy and non-diet soft drinks too.
Where possible, try and stick as closely as you can to the quantities of food you would eat on a ‘normal’ - i.e. non-shift - day and night. Basically you want to try and eat three good meals over a 24 hour period - even if the times of your breakfast, lunch and dinner are skewed.
In order to make the most of your periods of sleep, it’s advisable to avoid eating a big meal for around one to two hours before you go down, however, eating a light but still satisfying breakfast if you're going to sleep in the morning is a good idea as this will help to prevent you from waking up due to a rumbling stomach!
Maritime jobs on cargo ships are not that different to jobs ashore when it comes to the habit of being glued to our smartphones, games consoles and tablets that many of us now have.
Staying connected is a must for most seafarers but it might feel like an impossible task trying to be sociable during your life at sea!
When you’re spending months at sea away from your friends and family, it’s borderline vital for your mental health and wellbeing to have some sociable human interaction. If there doesn’t seem to be anything happening, why not be the one to organize an activity?
It might be a challenge but it shouldn’t be impossible to work a little bit of a social life at sea in and around your watch patterns.
And you’ll probably find that other seafarers in the same position as you will welcome the chance to make conversation and improve their own wellbeing onboard too!
When you're back on land
Your contract is over and you’re reading back to shore for a period of rest and recovery and to catch-up with family and friends.
One person you should also periodically check in with is your GP, doctor, a clinic or other healthcare professional (depending on your country and circumstances.)
You’ll want to do a couple of things here, as a preventative measure.
Number one, get your vitamin D levels checked. If you’re primarily working nights, you might not be getting enough vitamin D - which humans mostly get from sunshine. And it’s not just those working in OOW jobs, the same applies to anyone who spends long days without daylight, such as anyone based mostly in the engine room.
Having a yearly blood glucose test is also a good idea. Because shift work can be linked to diabetes, this will help determine if you are at risk, if you have prediabetes, or actual diabetes.
Looking for new seafarer jobs? Martide can help
Are you looking for your next job at sea? Take a look at Martide’s seafarer jobs online and then register your free account. You can then upload your work experience and seafarer documents to create your seaman resume online.
Take a minute as well to download our mobile app for seafarers and all of our vacant jobs at sea will be at your fingertips ready for you to apply to, no matter where in the world you are!
Get the app from the App Store or Google Play now!
This blog post was originally published on July 10th 2019 and was updated on 10th December 2020.
Eve is Martide's content writer and publishes regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea.
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