Seafarers are not the only group of people who suffer the effects of separation and solitude – but they are unique in the circumstances of being at sea, and of how hard it is to tackle the issue.
Isolation, loneliness and a lack of connectivity are striking at the hearts of seafarers and these will need to be managed to ensure that crews remain committed and engaged. While seafaring is a culture based on the tradition of camaraderie, friendships and interaction with colleagues onboard, it seems that these are on the wane – and that it is far more likely that seafarers will potentially feel isolated.
Sadly, seafarers are increasingly complaining that quick turnarounds, short voyages in and out of ports, and spikes in workload mean that there is never really any quality time to relax and get to know colleagues better. There are also concerns that too many crew do tend to retreat behind closed cabin doors, and there is too little social cohesion onboard.
Companies are urged to do more to counter this, and to explore just how barriers can be broken down, and how seafarers can be encouraged to interact and develop a sense of the shipboard team.
There is no hiding the fact that the ship’s bar used to be the hub of social cohesion onboard – and a few beers before or after dinner was often just the stress relief valve that seafarers needed to help them get through the trip.
Through a few social activities, such as barbecues, race nights, karaoke and the like – and all of a sudden, the time flies – the trip is nearly over and colleague become friends.
Today is not like that – the advent of dry ships, while wholly understandable has made it ever more difficult to bring people together. So there is a temptation for people to scurry back to their cabins, or to enter into solo pursuits.
It will be impossible to recreate the way things were, and it is a waste of time looking back – so instead we need to find ways of tackling the problems of today, with the low crew numbers on board, and the proliferation of entertainment in isolation.
So what can be done to deal with loneliness? Well first off, it is important to recognise that it is a complex mental and emotional phenomenon that has at its base a powerful emotion that has survival value for children. Its evolution – so you can’t really beat it, is only learn how to deal with it.
All of us have experienced some degree of abandonment, if only for a short time, and remember the painful and scary feeling that goes along with it. Whenever we are reminded of this feeling or anticipate it in the future, we get a twinge of abandonment distress that we experience as loneliness. This can happen among a crowd of friends and can be pretty confusing and can put you off your game if you don’t know what’s going on.
1 Loneliness is a feeling, not a fact! When you are feeling lonely, it is because something has triggered a memory of that feeling, not because you are, in fact, isolated and alone. The brain is designed to pay attention to pain and danger, and that includes painful scary feelings; therefore loneliness gets our attention.
But then the brain tries to make sense of the feeling. Why am I feeling this way? Is it because nobody cares? Is it because everyone is horrible? Theories about why you are feeling lonely can become confused with facts. Then it becomes a bigger problem so hard as it is, it is important to manage the feeling, and understand that it is just that.
2 Reach out…loneliness is painful and can confuse you into thinking that you are an outcast. You might react by withdrawing into yourself, your thoughts, and your lonely feelings and this is really not helpful. Anticipate loneliness and try to reach out and cultivate friendships. Friends help when you are sad and alone – there will be others onboard feeling the same way, so you need to work together to try and head off isolation. Beating this is a team game!
3 Notice your self-deflating thoughts. We often create self-centred stories to explain our feelings. If you are lonely and sad, you can begin to assume other people don’t like you. You play on your own fears. This is a downward spiral, and you have to remain focused on the facts – people like you, people care, you just need to be able to see it.
4 Make a plan to fight the mental and emotional habits of loneliness. If you realise you often spiral into loneliness – like some bad emotional habit, you need to make a plan to deal with descent and triggers of loneliness. Since healthy interaction with friends and colleagues is good, make some effort to reach out to others. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversation even when your loneliness and depression are telling you not to. Yes, it can be a challenge, but it is worthwhile, just like exercising is worthwhile even when you are feeling tired or just too lazy.
5 Focus on the needs and feelings of others, the less attention on your lonely thoughts and feelings. You can stand on the bridge wing, staring down lost in loneliness, or reclusively retire to your cabin for another session of Call of Duty – and you may feel that everything is hopeless. Or you can look down at the sea and feel grateful, you can go back to your cabin and feel excited about your game, the messages you might write or the mega playlist you will create. Think positive, think of others – help your crew mates, think great thoughts about how excited you are about eventually going home. Make the bad and sad into positives.
6 Throw yourself into your profession. There is so much to learn onboard. Ask questions, read things, offer opinions, and become the expert on things which interest you. This is a win-win, it allows you to pass time – but will also ultimately reward you. Look beyond your job – think about the insurance of the vessel, or the reason charterers have chosen your ship. Think of the engineering which could be improved, or the power management tweaks which could improve operations. Thinking is a good antidote to loneliness.
7 Concentrate on being a good person. Be there for others who are struggling – be a knowledgeable, positive, warm presence. By concentrating on being a better person, you may just find the time goes quicker, the loneliness evaporates and you are back in the arms of your friends and loved ones before you know it.
8 Be persistent and determined. Do not allow loneliness and isolation to defeat you. If Tom Hanks could survive with just Wilson for company, you can cope for the months you are away…if you decide to. Loneliness and isolation are terrible feelings – and to counter the dark side you will need to dig deep, you will need to be stronger than perhaps you think you can be. But the calendar pages will flick, the clock will tick…and home will eventually beckon.
In the meantime talk to your shipmates about what changes onboard can help. What can the company do to make life better, to ease the pain of loneliness and to make feelings of isolation evaporate. Come up with ideas, innovations and plans to make going to sea more enjoyable once more. Let us know your ideas and what things you would like to see onboard…by sharing, by talking and by telling the industry how you feel you can make a difference.