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crew mental health

Emma Kate Ross of SEAS THE MIND responds to Quay Crew’s Crew Mental Health Survey and need for change in the yachting industry.

While a tiny kernel of hope stirred in me at one aspect of the Quay Crew Mental Health Survey results, I have to say that for the most part they made for some pretty grim reading.

But one thing that was heartening to learn is that some yachts are trying to improve the mental health of their crew by introducing policies to support them. Even just 5% of yachts implementing mental health policies and practices including the presence of a Mental Health First Aider on board can only be a good thing. I hope that this is the beginning of a steady uptick in yachts showing care for the mental wellbeing of their crew. 

In fact, there is also one other positive: the existence of this survey at all. I am so pleased that Quay Crew have taken it upon themselves to do this, and I am also extremely pleased to see that with over 900 respondents, a huge number of yachties have decided to contribute their invaluable data so that we can form a picture of what is really going on in our industry. That the issue is being researched and discussed at all is truly encouraging.

Unfortunately, it is hard to find much else positive here. Despite the efforts of a few yachts to improve mental health provision, overall crew mental wellbeing has stagnated and even declined further. Crew now rate their general wellbeing on board as 6.5 out of 10, down from 7 out of 10 in the previous survey.

The same issues have come up again that the previous survey highlighted, which are also the same issues I experienced in my 15 years at sea and which are endlessly repeated by crew who take my MHFA courses. Crew mental health is poor, with 47% of males and 64% of females saying their mental health has declined since joining the industry. Stress, anxiety, loneliness and burnout are still cited as predominant problems, along with poor leadership.  

Tim Clarke, the co-director of Quay Crew commented that yachting is ‘lagging way behind compared to land-based corporates who are providing their employees with training, resources and support’. 

This encapsulates our problems really well: training, resources and support. We know some of the challenges in these areas are unique to yachting and can seem impossible to change:


TRAINING – With more than half the respondents saying that better leadership would be most beneficial in improving mental health on board, we know we have a problem in this area. Toxic work environments can derive from leaders with inadequate management training, no mental health training and lacking in a sense of duty of care for their crew. 

RESOURCES – We have incredible standards to uphold and only limited crew accommodation. Standards are unlikely to suddenly improve, so until (if ever) boats are built very differently with more crew cabins, the working-hours problem will be impossible to solve. 

SUPPORT – The transient nature of yachting means that crew will always be away from their home-support networks when they are working which is impossible to change.  This means that crew will always have to develop a certain resilience to perpetual change and lack of control. 

But these seemingly eternal problems and their consequences for crew can all be improved upon with some intention, strategic thinking and implementation. 

Potential improvements

TRAINING – While we can’t change some toxic individuals in senior positions on yachts, we can improve workplace accountability for those in charge.  As one anonymous crew contributor commented, we need more ‘neutral shoreside support’, especially to hold problematic Captains to account. For everyone else, we can improve the leadership training for those well-intentioned leaders who are willing to learn, and for younger crew coming up.  If you are a HOD or a Captain, why not look into personnel management or leadership courses you can do independently?

RESOURCES – Without extra crew on board, we can’t really solve the daily working hours problem, but we can prevent the subsequent burn-out with more widely available rotation. A clear and direct correlation can be seen in the survey between decent rotation schedules and better mental health outcomes. 

SUPPORT – Obviously crew can’t bring their families with them, but we can strive to make their HODs emotionally attuned people who care for them and their welfare, and who provide support or a knowledgeable conduit to external support (e.g. ISWAN helpline, professional therapeutic services, addiction counselling, properly neutral DPAs). 

It broke my heart to read that only 7% of crew said they would speak to their HOD if they had a mental health issue; they should be the very people crew can go to first when they need help. If we oversee a department and wish to improve our industry, we get to be the change we wish to see and be the person your crew come to first. 

If you know you are lacking in skills or knowledge, you could look into what you can do to upskill in these areas.  Obviously, I always suggest Mental Health First Aid training – I teach it because I believe in it, but there are many other ways we can strive to better support to one another, including making sure we are mentally sound ourselves.

I strongly recommend you read this survey, show it to your colleagues, discuss it in your department meetings. This is a subject that affects all crew. Poor mental health doesn’t just mean a touch of anxiety or depression – although they can be crippling enough.

While the survey highlights that interior and female crew are reporting the greatest suffering, there have also been some utterly tragic male losses in our industry in recent years to suicide. One respondent said they directly attributed their family member’s suicide to industry failings. ISWAN say they have received four calls in the past year from suicidal yacht crew. We have a duty to listen, and a duty to act now.

I and many others will continue to campaign for systemic change in our industry and I know how incredibly resourceful and intelligent many yachties are. I know we can do better if we first acknowledge the problems we face and channel some of our resourcefulness into becoming part of the solution.

Thank you, Quay Crew and all the respondents, for holding a mirror up to our industry. Now it’s time we take a look in that mirror and get to work on what we see.

Crew mental health: industry response

About the author

Georgia Smith

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