The Red Sea shipping crisis has received widespread media coverage in recent weeks, primarily for the impact on energy prices, supply chains and costs of consumer goods.

The implications of the attacks on ships in the Red Sea by Houthi militants for the global economy was the major news story, however there was little mention — if any — of the people working on the ships, and the impact of the conflict on their security and wellbeing.

There are around 58,000 merchant ships trading internationally, and an estimated 22,510 UK seafarers active at sea. Seafarers face constant dangers and uncertainty when out on the oceans, and piracy threats and war are now of increasing concern.

The latest Seafarers’ Happiness Index report from Mission to Seafarers, a regular survey that charts the happiness and satisfaction levels of seafarers, has shown a fourth successive quarterly decline. 

At the end of the first quarter of 2023, the index score was 7.1, which fell throughout the year, to land at 6.36 in the Q4 report. In this latest report, it was noted that concerns had been raised by respondents about the security situation in the Red Sea and its effect on trip length and general certainty.  

Other factors weighing on the index numbers included seafarers feeling overworked and underappreciated, social isolation, a lack of shore leave, and stagnating wages. 

The findings are an important measure of how the ‘key workers’ of the shipping industry are dealing with the myriad risks and challenges they face within their roles.

Maritime shipping is often dubbed the lifeblood of global trade; with an estimated 80 percent of all goods carried by sea. In the UK, we rely heavily on the delivery of medicines, foods, fuels, raw materials, and goods, yet most of us take for granted the volume of goods transported by sea, and the sacrifices made by those working on the ships. These include not seeing loved ones for many months, lack of access to a wide variety of fresh foods and other resources, and sometimes not knowing the details of their routes back home.

From mental health concerns to the constant threat of piracy and the dangers of natural disasters, the risks faced by seafarers are profound. 

“We now see rising concerns over the security risks facing seafarers, whether in the Red Sea or in high-risk piracy waters,” said Revd Canon Andrew Wright, Secretary General of The Mission to Seafarers. “Seafarers often feel the world’s crises first and hardest, as we have seen in recent years.” 

“It is very disappointing to see the downward trend in happiness over the course of 2023. If there was ever any complacency about the circumstances facing seafarers around the globe, these results surely dispel that. We know that some ship owners and managers are doing fantastic work to invest in the wellbeing of their crew, but sadly the overall picture remains concerning.” 

In our 2021 film, made in collaboration with BIMCO, we highlighted the risks and sacrifices inherent in the shipping industry to shed light on the unsung heroes of our seas.

Take a watch: Seafarers Deserve Support

Isolation and mental health

Seafarers endure prolonged periods at sea, often spending months away from family and friends. The isolation and confinement aboard ships can take a toll on their mental health. Limited recreational activities, lack of communication with loved ones, and the monotony of life at sea contribute to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, highlighting the need for increased mental health support in the industry.

Piracy and maritime security

Despite advancements in maritime security, piracy remains a persistent threat. Seafarers may encounter armed attacks, hijackings, or kidnappings at the hands of pirates. The psychological trauma resulting from these incidents can leave lasting scars on seafarers, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive security measures and international cooperation to combat piracy.

Long working hours and fatigue

The nature of the shipping industry often requires seafarers to work long hours, with irregular schedules and minimal time for rest. Fatigue can compromise their ability to make critical decisions, increasing the risk of accidents. Addressing issues related to working hours and providing proper rest periods is crucial for ensuring the well-being and safety of seafarers.

Accidents and occupational hazards

Working on a ship involves exposure to a variety of occupational hazards. Seafarers may face accidents such as slips, trips, and falls, especially during adverse weather conditions. The handling of heavy equipment, exposure to hazardous materials, and the risk of fire or explosions on board further contribute to the dangerous nature of maritime work.

The sustainability of the shipping industry

Beyond the issue of seafarer wellbeing, there is the huge subject of the industry’s sustainability, and what the future holds for shipping. According to UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development) the global maritime industry is responsible for facilitating over 80% of the world’s trade, but also generates 3% of greenhouse gas.

How the industry will thrive in the future will be shaped by several global macro factors, such as co-operation on climate change and geopolitical stability, but also by the pace of technological uptake by those working in the industry.

ITN Business’ upcoming programme, Navigating the Future Of Shipping, will feature editorial contributions from senior opinion leaders from the UK Chamber of Shipping and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), and will explore how innovation and technology are playing a vital role in the shipping industry, helping it to address the challenges and opportunities of the global maritime sector.