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Time for change: mental health is a collective responsibility

Credit: Jake Lester Bodegas

On World Mental Health Day (Sunday 10 October 2021) the ITF is urging stakeholders across the transport sector to come together and recognise their collective responsibility in prioritising the mental health of all workers.

The organisation is calling for a collaborative approach that will synergise the existing efforts of trade unions, employers, and all relevant stakeholders including government and international agencies across the industry, to achieve a common understanding and establish a plan of action that will help to drive real and lasting change.

Recognising responsibility

With the high-risk nature of mental health only just beginning to be widely addressed across the transport sector, the ITF is urging employers to recognise their responsibility, step up, come together, and take action to make change.

Workers across the transport sector have long been experiencing unparalleled levels of stress and pressure in roles which by their nature and environment make them more susceptible to mental health issues. Seafarers, long distance truckers, and some railway workers in particular are away from home for extended periods of time, meaning they are more difficult to reach and for them to reach out themselves. Limited access to services, information, communication, family and friends contributes to a compromised mental health. Additionally, the stigma that surrounds mental health in the transport sector can often make it difficult for workers to address their issues and seek support.

These relentless challenges have only been exacerbated by the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. Transport workers are facing very real concerns around salary cuts, job loss, sickness, and extended periods of isolation. The increased anxiety is likely contributing to increased psychological distress and therefore an increased risk of developing mental health problems. The ITF are calling for more to be done, and fast.

The ITF believe that the need for all stakeholders to consolidate their individual learnings and take direct action is becoming increasingly obvious. Reports illustrate the harsh reality that many across the maritime industry are struggling with their day-to-day activities. In 2019, long before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ITF Seafarers Section and ITF Seafarers’ Trust commissioned Yale University of medicine to conduct a study on, “Mental Health and Risk Factors in Seafarers”. According to the study, prevalence of depression and anxiety among the surveyed seafarers was 25% and 17%, respectively. There is no doubt that the past 18 months will have increased these shocking statistics.

While for some employers across the maritime industry tackling the challenge of mental health can seem like a daunting task, the ITF are resolute in their assertion that the time is now to take collective action. Transport workers cannot wait any longer for a better and more consistent approach to mental health support, particularly as we continue to deal with the aftershocks of the pandemic.

Stephen Cotton, ITF General Secretary, added: “The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted maritime transport workers and those from the wider transport industry in a myriad of ways, including stress and anxiety about health and family, social isolation, and mental and physical fatigue.

Even though limited measures such as access to helplines and communications were put in place by some employers during the pandemic, this World Mental Health Day we are urging the industry to come together to create a centralised plan of action that will give mental health the focus and attention it needs and deserves. The workforce we represent are key workers who often go under appreciated for their efforts, they need help and support now more than ever. Let’s not let them down.”

Continuing support

The ITF recognises the mental health crisis across the transport sector and continues to develop and implement initiatives via its global Wellbeing Programme, aimed at increasing awareness, providing support, and initiating change. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, life for the seafaring community has been extremely challenging, making the continued support of the Programme all the more important.

To respond to the specific conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the ITF launched its innovative ‘Reflect, Recognise, and Reach out’ digital campaign. The campaign utilises social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share information, advice, and support on managing stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Based on three core pillars, the campaign encourages seafarers to reflect on the challenges being faced and the effects on their mental health so they could be addressed, recognise the early signs and symptoms of stress to mitigate the effects, and ultimately reach out to get support, while signposting to services and other sources of support.

Other long-standing initiatives offered by the Programme include the provision of training and technical support to ITF affiliates to enable their members access to high quality 24/7 tele-counselling on a range of wellbeing issues, including mental health. This sees the ITF working with large-scale seafaring unions such as the National Union of Seafarers India (NUSI), Associated Marine and Seafarers Union of Philippines (AMOSUP), Forward Seafarers Union of India (FSUI), National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS), and Seafarers’ Union of Turkey (TDS), to maximise the benefits.

Additionally, in collaboration with its affiliates from different transport sectors, the ITF has been holding regular Facebook Live sessions on a variety of mental health issues, which it plans to continue following increasing demand. Each live session has attracted thousands of transport workers, in addition to over 100,000 views of the recordings so far.

To increase awareness of and access to the counselling services available to seafarers and their families, the ITF has created the ITF Seafarers’ Wellbeing Directory. The directory consolidates the resources available for ITF affiliates and other organisations to make it as easy as possible for seafarers to access these valuable services that are often out of reach in the isolated environments in which they work.

The Programme has also curated a library of factsheets and guidance sheets offering practical advice on a range of wellbeing issues. All the content is simplified to make it as accessible as possible for all seafarers requiring support.

The ITF Seafarers App has been developed with the particular needs of the seafarers in mind - with the ability to be downloaded for free and accessed anytime, anywhere. The software offers a hub of practical information and has recently been revamped to provide essential advice regarding important wellbeing issues such as stress and depression, as well as a valuable contact point to the ITF for further support.

A recent survey carried out by the ITF indicates that Facebook is the most effective way to communicate with seafarers. With this in mind, the Wellbeing Programme utilises its Facebook page to update seafarers and other transport workers on wellbeing issues, while members frequently use the associated Facebook Messenger as a means to contact the ITF for support and guidance on their specific needs.

Jacqueline Smith, ITF Maritime Coordinator, commented: “Deteriorating mental wellbeing has long been a growing concern for the maritime industry. Seafarers’ psychological health issues are often sparked by poor conditions and long working hours, as well as money worries and even the loneliness that comes with spending so much time away from family and friends. I strongly support the call for the wider transport industry to implement clear and robust guidance regarding mental health, and factor it into existing policies where appropriate.”

Education is vital to tackling mental health issues. Prevention, early recognition, and early intervention often result in positive outcomes. This is why the ITF remain committed to highlighting the issue and sharing information and advice at cadet and trainee level. Over the years, the ITF has drawn on its expertise to develop modules on Wellbeing, covering subjects such as managing stress, that are taught in maritime schools across the globe. In collaboration with its affiliates and selected maritime academies, the ITF has introduced these modules in countries including India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Thailand, Uruguay, and Ukraine.

Furthermore, the ITF Wellbeing Programme is currently developing a comprehensive training module on mental health issues for unions’ 1st Responders/Peer educators in direct response to the stressors presented by the pandemic. The module has been field tested among road transport and maritime unions of India and is expected to be launched in next few weeks. Union educators, organisers, youth and women committee members in the transport sector will be trained to fulfil these roles and prove crucial in mitigating the long-term mental health and psychosocial issues stemming from current stressors.

Looking to a brighter future

The ITF believe that while mental health support is slowly improving across the transport sector, accelerated change is needed to prevent further damage to the workforce.

At present, stakeholders are considering the issues surrounding mental health individually, which is preventing significant action. To find a better way forward, the ITF calls for a three-stage approach. Firstly, that all relevant stakeholders, including unions, employers and government agencies reach a common understanding of the issues surrounding mental health. Secondly, that they recognise their joint responsibility and create a synergy between the existing efforts of stakeholders. Then thirdly, that they launch a collaborative endeavour whereby all stakeholders come together to develop programmes and initiatives to make real and lasting change.

The ITF believe that this approach would evolve and gain traction against the backdrop of all stakeholders involved identifying mental health fundamentally as a workplace issue firmly intertwined with the nature of the roles and environment of the transport industry.