It’s no secret that life at sea can sometimes be physically and mentally demanding. Being away from home for lengthy periods of time, manual labor, and the pressure of meeting strict deadlines can all have their challenges. However, for many seafarers that life is also incredibly rewarding and beats a 9 to 5 desk job hands down! But in the unique environment that working at sea presents, it is crucial for mariners to take extra care of their physical and mental wellbeing. And nowhere can that be more true than in the role of watchkeeper.
Shift work: from warehouses to watchkeeping
Anyone that works a shift, be it ashore in a warehouse or on a vessel as a watchkeeper will tell you that the change in shift patterns and the unsociable hours can be hard to get used to. But in shipping, seafarers are needed to work around the clock and the ship’s watchkeepers will need to maintain lookout 24/7, 365 while at sea. And working on and off around the clock with broken sleep patterns can start to have an effect on a seafarer’s wellbeing if they don’t take steps to balance it out.
The system generally used by merchant ships whereby watchkeepers stand watch for three periods of four hourly blocks means that watchkeepers with less experience can keep lookout during the hours that experienced watchkeepers will be on hand to help in the event of a problem. It is also consistent, easy to remember and allows a watchkeeper’s body clock to settle into some kind of rhythm. All of these things can help alleviate the pressure a little but there are still issues that need to be counteracted.
How watchkeeping can take its toll
Both long term night shift work and not getting enough sleep have a history of causing the onset of a catalogue of medical conditions. Everything from increasing the risk of some cancers to problems with metabolism and from depression to heart disease have been associated with working irregular hours and the knock on effect that can entail when it comes to getting a consistently good night’s sleep.
Maintaining safety at sea
Illnesses aside, one very real issue is that if seafarers are constantly tired due to watchkeeping shifts, they may not be as alert and focused as they need to be when they’re working. Put simply, performance and safety cannot be compromised and it is therefore crucial that any seafarer who is also a watchkeeper takes steps to help combat tiredness and ensure they’re feeling as mentally and physical agile as possible.
3 ways watchkeepers can combat on-the-job fatigue
Keep on moving
If hitting the gym the minute you finish a watch sounds like the very last thing you want to do, try blocking out some time around your shifts to fit in a workout. It really is one of the best things you can do: remind yourself that a healthy body equals a healthy mind and you WILL feel better after a training session. Finished your watch and just want to fall into your bunk? Up early and about to head out for your shift? Get into a routine where you set aside just a couple of minutes for some stretching or a few push ups beforehand.
You are what you eat
The problem with shift work, both onshore and offshore, is that it can be all too tempting to let good eating habits fall by the wayside. Studies have shown that irregular meal times can have a domino effect on your body’s internal patterns thus creating delays in blood glucose rhythms - which can then upset your normal reaction times and awareness. The trick is to get into a routine that works for you. Obviously this can be easier said than done when you’re not in charge of meal times or menus, but opting for the healthiest option instead of just grabbing something for a quick fix will help you feel like you have some control over your food intake.
Thanks to the habit of being glued to our smartphones, games consoles and tablets that many of us now have, it might feel like an impossible task trying to be sociable on board a ship. When you’re spending months at sea away from your friends and family, it’s borderline vital for your mental health and wellbeing. If there doesn’t seem to be anything happening, why not be the one to organise an activity? It might be a challenge but it shouldn’t be impossible to work a little bit of a social life in and around your watch patterns. And you’ll probably find that other seafarers in the same position as you will welcome the chance to make conversation and improve their own wellbeing onboard too!