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How to Wrestle Stress At Sea (seafarer’s life)


The idea of stress at sea is all the vogue at the moment – but what is stress – is it always bad and how can you spot the warning signs and deal with it?


Stress is not a modern day phenomenon, but it does sometimes feel that the pressures of technology, lack of shore leave, increased paperwork and working with fewer people can take a terrible toll.

Stress overload

Information overload

Interestingly one of the most often cited reasons for stress ashore is “information” overload from being constantly connected. At sea of course, this is different. Seafarers are more often than not, completely disconnected.

So it seems that we shouldn’t look to the land for an idea of stress – perhaps we need to look at a different time, and to historical stresses and woes to understand what is happening at sea.

Back in Victorian times, in the 19th century, stress came under a range of different names. Some writers equated stress to having an, “irritable heart”. Stress was even termed a disease – and was considered to be brought on by “worry and mental strain”.


“Stress” can’t be measured, and affects different people in different ways at different times. It is a moving target – but when the conditions are right, it can hit and have a massive effect.

Too Much to do

Strain on resources

According to unions, stress occurs where demands made on individuals do not match the resources available or meet the individual’s needs and motivation. Stress will arise if the workload is too large for the number of workers and time available.

The UK Health and Safety Executive states that stress is the, “adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them.” Too many demands, too much pressure, not enough support or time…these are the ingredients for tension.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise that those conditions are all too likely to be found at sea. Too few people, dealing with too much pressure – with operations, weather, possibly piracy, disconnection from family…the list goes on and seems to be a situation almost designed to induce stress.


Stress is today generally viewed as negative, but sometimes a little can be useful. So there are considered to be two types of stress, good and bad.

“Eustress” is the good kind. Eustress helps us to improve performance, it keeps us driven and focused, and is important in meeting and dealing with the general challenges that life and work throws at us.

“Distress”, on the other hand is the bad kind. Distress is a negative form of stress. This occurs when the mind and body is unable to cope with changes, and usually occurs when the norms are being deviated. They can be categorized into acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is severe. It lasts for a short period of time. While chronic stress lasts over a long period of time.

Because of this, according to some experts, the term “stress” should actually be considered neutral with the words “distress” and “eustress” used for designating bad and good effects. This is an interesting point – but perhaps the idea of admitting that seafarers may be distress is a little challenging for the industry.


Stress is a form of “strain” which is provoked in response to situational issues – these demands are “stressors” or threats. Experts have described the phases the body goes through in response to a threat. The body passes through three stages when challenged by distress:

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight

The first stage is an alarm reaction. The body releases adrenaline and a variety of other psychological mechanisms to combat the stress and to stay in control. This is called “fight or flight” response. The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, the breathing and perspiration increases, the eyes dilate, the stomach may clench. Once the cause of the stress is removed, the body will go back to normal…if the stressor remains, then the next stage kicks in.

This next, or second stage is “resistance”. This is the body’s response to long term protection. It secretes further hormones that increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy and raise blood pressure. The adrenal cortex (outer covering) produces hormones called corticosteroids for this resistance reaction. This is a very demanding process for the body, and is where sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability and lethargy as the effort to sustain arousal slides into negative stress.

The third stage is exhaustion. If the stressor continues to act on the body the body will run out of the hormones and energy to fight it any further. Mental, physical and emotional resources suffer heavily. The body experiences “adrenal exhaustion”. The blood sugar levels decrease as the adrenals become depleted, leading to decreased stress tolerance, progressive mental and physical exhaustion, illness and collapse.


At sea, there are many potential “stressors”, and these need to be recognised and managed. They come in different forms – they can be individual causes or organisational causes.

An individual must perceive a stressor in order for it to have an effect – if there is no perceived threat, then the person happily goes about their business. Then something bad happens – whatever that “distress” is will be different for various personalities.  A shy person may experience more stress than an outgoing person, or an organised, experienced person may be able to understand the issue and deal with it – so ending the stress.

Increasingly important at sea is the concept of “organisational stress” – this can be brought on by the environment, culture, demands, systems and management that have to be dealt with. Given that seafarers work under the increasing influence of safety management systems, the effect that these demands have can have a massive impact on quality of life.


There are essentially three strategies for dealing with stress. The first is to simply treat the symptoms – but as we have seen, that will only bring a short term improvement. The second is to try and change the person – but let’s face it that is going to be doubly hard if they are under distress. The most effective is, of course, to remove the cause of stress.




Unfortunately, removing the cause of stress is perhaps the most challenging – especially at sea. There are difficult “facts” about life as a seafarer – there is the separation from home, close confinement with other people, dangers of the sea and the ship, and a spiralling workload as crew numbers have shrunk and admin demands have risen.

So perhaps the best we can do is try and treat the symptoms, while also changing the person…providing positive support, counselling, care, empathy and attention.

A nurturing and supportive environment can help minimise job-related stress, but how many shipping companies are willing and able to provide that? There is pressure on all sides, and seafarers are becoming distressed…but this time there is no lifeboat.

Do you feel you suffer from stress at sea? What do you do to cope, or does it remain until you go home? Let us know how you deal with the pressures of being a seafarer.