Safety at Sea Starts in the Mind


Safety at Sea Starts in the Mind

The importance of psychological safety in seafaring roles cannot be overstated. By its very nature, working at sea in a small, highly interdependent group performing dangerous and demanding work requires a high level of psychological safety. In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of psychological safety, its benefits, and what can happen when maritime workers feel psychologically unsafe.

What is Psychological Safety?

According to a recent article in Safety4Sea, psychological safety is the foundation of open and effective communication within an organisation: “Psychological safety means feeling safe enough in a group or work environment to speak your mind, ask questions, or make mistakes without fearing negative consequences like ridicule or punishment.”

Are seafarers psychologically safe? The answer to that question may vary with each individual, but crew members working at sea can ask themselves a few questions to help determine how safe they are:

  • Do I trust my commanding officers?
  • Am I safe to disagree with or question superiors in a respectful way?
  • Do I feel safe voicing my ideas and opinions around coworkers?
  • If I have a problem, do I feel safe asking my superiors for help?
  • Will voicing my problems be met with empathy and support?
The Role of Psychological Safety at Sea

Psychological safety is critical to protecting individual seafarers and the crew as a whole, as feeling safe is fundamental to both good performance and career longevity. Without psychological safety, seafarers may become withdrawn and disengaged. Their stress levels can increase, leaving them feeling left out and unmotivated, their resilience and capacity to thrive increasingly compromised.

In a psychologically unsafe environment, people are less inclined to venture outside their comfort zone or propose new ideas, believing that “wrong” opinions or ideas can lead to negative consequences. Instead of seeing challenges as a chance to grow, they interpret them as threats, creating a cycle of fear and passivity.

Workers need space to learn from mistakes, and they also need to feel confident they will be taken seriously when problems arise. Numerous studies have concluded that a foundation of trust and safety creates more productive, satisfied employees.

The Domino Effect of Feeling Psychologically Unsafe

Imagine a seafarer struggling with depression. He isn’t sleeping or eating well, he struggles through each shift, but he doesn’t alert his superiors or ask for help because he doesn’t trust them to be supportive and understanding.

He ignores his symptoms and continues to work, but with less energy and alertness. He may fall ill, negatively impacting crew productivity, or find himself at risk for accident or injury, leading to even greater consequences for both himself and company – diversion and disembarkation, insurance and case management costs, lost productivity and more. He may eventually find his career prospects diminished or altogether ended, one more seafarer lost from an industry already facing a workforce shortage.

Now, picture an even more common scenario: A female crew member is sexually harassed or assaulted. She reports the incident, but it’s his word against hers and nothing comes of it, except now she is socially ostracised while the accused walks away, emboldened by his lack of consequences. In a survey by WISTA International, 66% of respondents said male colleagues harassed and intimidated women at sea, while 25% experienced physical and sexual harassment, and intrusions on their privacy. In another WISTA survey, just 7% of women who reported incidents of sexual assault and harassment to superior officers were satisfied with the outcome.

Here, we have the roots of a psychologically unsafe workplace. Women feel ignored, so they stay quiet, fearing reputational damage, reprisals and social ostracization for speaking up. In an industry desperate to attract and retain talent, making women feel psychologically safe should be one of maritime’s top priorities.

The Benefits of Psychological Safety

The benefits of fostering trust and psychological safety are far-reaching. When these elements are present, crew members enjoy better collaboration and teamwork, as teams work together toward a common goal. It can also boost innovation and problem solving, building a culture where crew members feel safe thinking outside the box.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it improves retention and recruitment. Top candidates want a positive and engaging workplace where they know they’ll be safe, protected and cared for. A culture of trust is fertile ground for identifying and solving problems early, reducing risks of every type – physical, psychological and interpersonal. 

By nurturing an environment of psychological safety, we can ensure that individual seafarers don’t just survive, but thrive, bringing their full selves to work each day. This is the essence of a resilient and sustainable workforce, and nowhere is this more important than on the high seas, where workers are so dependent on one another.

Subscribe to our VIKAND Pulse to receive the latest maritime healthcare news from VIKAND sent right to your inbox

Subscribe to our VIKAND Pulse to receive the latest maritime healthcare news from VIKAND sent right to your inbox

Subscribe to our VIKAND Pulse to receive the latest maritime healthcare news from VIKAND sent right to your inbox

Subscribe to our VIKAND Pulse to receive the latest maritime healthcare news from VIKAND sent right to your inbox
Subscribe to our VIKAND Pulse to receive the latest maritime healthcare news from VIKAND sent right to your inbox