Engaging with Seafarers At Sea

The Harvard Business Review has recently been looking at the effect of employee engagement on productivity. Does reaching out and talking constantly with employees get the best results, or does there need to be an air-gap?

Employee gap (2)
Ship to shore


It may seem obvious but management styles which work ashore may not always readily translate to the sea. The fact that people live as well as work on ships muddles matters greatly.

Increasingly concerns arise that shore managers do not interact well with seafarers. This is something which was flagged repeatedly in the latest Crewtoo Seafarers Happiness Index results.

Seafarers claimed that shore managers are too quick to ask questions, they send over far too many emails and are far too impatient when waiting for a response. The shore staff, seemingly ignorant of the fact of the watch systems and hours of rest onboard.

So how does this reflect when it comes to best practices in employee engagement? It seems fairly apparent that shipping companies and shore managers/executives have a lot to learn in seeking to support and get the best from those at sea.

Fads and trends


Although employee engagement has become something of a Human Resources fad, Harvard Business Review (HBR) recognises that it matters. Their research shows that higher levels of engagement boost employee wellbeing, performance, and retention.

They state that engaged business units tend to deliver better performance, as measured in terms of revenues and profits, and organisations with enthusiastic employees tend to have better service quality and customer ratings.

Which all sounds great – but what is “better performance” at sea? How can service quality and customer ratings tally with the reality of shipping. Ships are the secret, mysterious, unmentioned link in the trade chain.

Customers have very little engagement or interaction with the shipping process – the goods or product simply either gets to where it is meant to in the condition they expect, or it doesn’t. The big container lines are constantly asking their customers for feedback, but this is on issues such as sales, invoicing and information…nothing is about what happens on the ships.

Black Hole
Black hole


The fact that customers, charterers and stakeholders are never asked about performance is perhaps because they have no reason to have to understand what is happening onboard.

Shipping is an industry which focuses on simply compliance and competence – nothing more, nothing less. It is not really about pushing boundaries or finding ways to excel or pursue excellence. It is sadly a lowest common denominator business – and that is seemingly reflected in the lack of positive employee engagement with crews.

Relentless questions from the shore, and a barrage of demanding emails when officers should be on watch, relaxing or sleeping are not an ideal basis or foundation for improvement.

The realities of shipboard life are already pushing seafarers to their limits – by dragging them into the working processes and structures ashore too, then we are creating an even greater and unreasonable demand.

Too Much Work
Too much work


It is also plausible that too much, or the wrong kind of engagement can be a barrier to better performance. Especially if it’s taken to an extreme. As the demands on seafarers ramp up, then it becomes a case that they are too focused on getting along, and so they don’t care so much about getting ahead.

As seafarers become embroiled and bothered by shore-based management issues, it is increasingly all they can do to stem the tide of what is expected of them. More work becomes more work, and there is a spiral of demands placed upon officers.

The Seafarers Happiness Index also recently highlighted concerns that while crewing levels onboard were being cut, there seems to be large growth in numbers working in offices ashore.

This means yet more emails or demands from head office. Even more significant is the fact that many of these new shipping executives are not from a traditional maritime background, and very few have been to sea. So they can sometimes lack the empathy and understanding required.


According to the HBR, there are four potential threats that high levels of engagement pose to companies.

Status Quo
Status quo

Embracing the status quo. For most industries and companies real change only comes with restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo. There is very little sign of that in shipping.

Owners have a very powerful voice, and so are able to usually shape the requirements. While, as we said, the “customers” simply do not seem to really care or understand. The status quo remains – and change seems counterintuitive. Away from maritime there have long been companies that were deeply proud of what they were doing but they were not dissatisfied or paranoid enough to stay ahead of the competition.

Think Nokia, Kodak and Yahoo!. Needless to say, progress is generally driven by people who are dissatisfied enough to seek to change it. It is very hard to see how disruptive shipping companies will emerge.

The concept of breaking down the barriers between shipping services and consumers is not really practical. There is not an “Uber” model for shipping, as yet. Sadly even if it did emerge, it would likely mean the same old problems for seafarers.

Employee burnout

Pushing employees into burnout. When there are too many demands, it is easy for highly engaged employees to become so focused on jumping through the various hoops that they become disconnected from other important parts of their lives.

Ashore studies have found that highly engaged workers tend to suffer work/family interference more often, and that people who fail to take down time can end up damaging their own health. Even if companies would like employees to become spiritual workaholics, that prospect shows little consideration for employees’ long-term wellbeing – and even the company’s own long-term health. When engaged employees become burned out employees, on-the-job performance can suffer.

At sea this becomes even more complex and worrying. Seafarers simply do not seem to have enough hours in the day to get all their work done, their watch keeping duties boxed off and the paperwork complete. Throw in the need to sleep, eat, interact and perhaps even relax – then there is not enough time.

Seafarers are being pushed to burnout by the demands of the job – and that should be a massive concern for all parties. There needs to be action taken to ensure that seafarers’ downtime is protected and safeguarded.

Giving an unfair edge to certain personality types. Although few people acknowledge this, engagement is not just driven by situational factors: it is also the result of individuals’ personality.

The HBR research shows that employees who are naturally more optimistic, positive, emotionally stable, agreeable, and extraverted, tend to be more engaged – regardless of the circumstances.

It is striking that the traits of those working ashore in shipping companies are not always the same as those who work at sea. Given the tough nature of seagoing, seafarers tend to be far more pragmatic and critical – which is not always suited to the way things are done ashore.

It is all too often the case that a company’s engagement is modelled on the shore paradigm, at the expense of those at sea. An illustration of this is where a safety management system is developed by those ashore, with very little input from those who will have to use it. There can develop a tendency for shore staff to think they have all the answers, and often crews know they don’t.

Different Thinking
Different types of thinking

Undermining negative thinking. The skewing of a company’s approach to fit with more extrovert mindsets, and the subsequent tailoring of approaches to those who can simply walk away from their desks in the evening come with other issues and challenges.

All too often managers ashore can be blind to criticism, and think that their approach is always right. Such an atmosphere can mean an undermining or lack of appreciation of critical thinking.

Seafarers in the Happiness Index felt that their observations were often ignored or overlooked – and that the view from the ship did not always seem to fit with the more corporate approach, and so opportunities to improve can be lost.

In short, we need to take a more balanced view of employee engagement. Managers need to think about how to manage and motivate, and also how to harness the wisdom and experience of those at sea. A “one size fits all” approach to employee engagement is unrealistic, and it is increasingly important that work doesn’t provide too great a burden on already suffering seafarers.



About Rob Parkin 16 Articles
Rob has worked in the maritime communication and content industry for over 18 years, during which he has gained great experience and insight in to this essential and sometimes misunderstood service sector. Coming from a media background, Rob has developed a passion for the welfare and connectivity of those at sea. Rob is very excited about new technologies and media services that are heralding the beginning of a new digital chapter in shipping.