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Seafarers’ wellbeing a priority over festive season, says Hanseaticsoft MD

Alexander Buchmann, managing director of Hanseaticsoft Alexander Buchmann, managing director of Hanseaticsoft

With the festive season approaching the wellbeing of seafarers is something shipping companies should prioritise as it can be a very challenging time for those who are away from family and friends over Christmas, says Alexander Buchmann, managing director of Hanseaticsoft.

{mprestriction ids="1,2"} According to UK based mental health charity, Mind over a quarter of people (26 per cent) would not feel able to ask for help at Christmas if they were struggling emotionally and one in ten people consider taking their own life because of the festive period. Other research by the Sailors’ Society and Yale University highlighted that more than a quarter of seafarers suffer from depression – and many won’t ask for help.

Alexander Buchmann says one way that shipping companies can improve wellbeing on board is to provide personal internet access for seafarers. “Christmas can be a difficult time for seafarers who are working, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and depression. It’s often a normal working day at sea and for those with children it can be tough not seeing them open their presents.

“Providing personal internet access for all crew so they can keep in touch with family is something that can easily be done since more shipping companies now have access to the internet.  Being able to email, phone or use video calling apps such as Facetime can make a big difference to crew over the Christmas period.

“Having internet access can also mean crew are able to use apps to access mental health support or other groups and organisations that could help with a range of issues. Personal internet access should be a priority for those not already offering it, as it can help improve health and wellbeing at what can be a really difficult time of year.”

Futurenautics Maritime’s Crew Connectivity 2018 survey of over 6,000 seafarers, found 75 per cent now use the Internet at sea – an increase of 32 per cent or over half a million more crew since 2015.

A survey by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) highlighted that 60 per cent of respondents said that the provision of internet access to seafarers for personal use may have improved the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers and 69 per cent believe it is good for morale. 

Another way for shipping companies to improve wellbeing is to ensure crew are getting enough rest and stick to legal limits on how many hours they can work. Hanseaticsoft’s Rest Hours Module, part of its Cloud Crewing software solution, is helping companies to do this by reducing tiredness and improving the health and wellbeing of seafarers.

The Rest Hours module digitalises and centralises the process via cloud technology. It allows crews to enter their own rest hours rather than relying on someone else to collect and enter the data. This means they can access their own data and ensure the correct times have been entered.

“Looking after the wellbeing of seafarers should be on the agenda all year round, not just at Christmas. Working on a ship can be tough job but offering connectivity onboard can help combat loneliness and could provide a point of difference that could also help with recruitment and retention.

“With internet access shipping companies can also use cloud solutions to streamline onboard processes, allowing them to connect on and offshore teams and collaborate on every aspect of crew management and administration. This includes the Rest Hours module which is improving the wellbeing of seafarers, ensuring decent working conditions and preventing fatigue on ships.” {/mprestriction}

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  • New app to bridge the gap between seafarers, their families and support networks

    FrontM is set to launch a new app that will bridge the gap between seafarers, their loved ones, and vital welfare support services with the ultimate goal of helping seafarers find relief from feelings of isolation and loneliness. Digital Ship spoke with FrontM and the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) to find out how the app will mitigate seafarer wellness issues by facilitating seamless onboard connectivity.

    Seafarers today are faced with expensive and intermittent onboard connectivity that hinders their ability to stay in touch with friends and family, keep up to date with current affairs, and easily access welfare services and support. As a result, feelings of isolation, disconnection and loneliness are rife and with the global pandemic disrupting crew changes and repatriation, these feelings are only being exacerbated. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has referred to the outbreak of COVID-19 as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, which has further highlighted the physical and mental health challenges seafarers face as a result of extended periods spent onboard vessels. 

    Speaking with Digital Ship, Lisa Moore, VP commercial product management at FrontM, the company behind an edge AI software platform to drive digital experiences for the maritime and aviation industries, confirmed to us that over a third of seafarers (650,000) do not have access to connectivity at all. Where they do have connectivity, they are often competing against restricted bandwidth, while pay-as-you-use is simply poor value for money. Voice and video calls are data intensive and costly, with FrontM research finding that on average seafarers spend US $101 every month on crew communications. The upkeep is too expensive for most. Not only does this make it near impossible for seafarers to stay connected to friends and family, but it means that they cannot access welfare services offered by organisations such as the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). Ultimately, this leads to significant mental health challenges and high suicide rates. According to FrontM data, 5.9 per cent of seafarer suicides are due to fatigue, isolation and lack of contact with family and friends.

    According to Caitlin Vaughan, project manager at ISWAN, “Access to good communications should be a basic human right.” ISWAN believes that it is imperative for seafarers to be able to contact home and access welfare services at sea or wherever they are. “We need to know that they can access our helpline and resources as easily as possible. Seafarers contact us for a variety of reasons including for emotional support, practical assistance and to find out t where their nearest port welfare centre is, which is especially important now with COVID as normal time onboard is being extended.” Without good connectivity, making a quick phone call or finding out a simple piece of information is near impossible.

    Moreover, good connectivity can help build strong relationships between crew onboard. While some have voiced concerns around onboard connectivity and its potential to drive social segregation, Ms Vaughan assured us that, “It’s more likely that good connectivity facilitates better crew cohesion. It reduces the stress of worrying about what’s going on at home and it aids in more conversation between the crew as they can discuss things going on at home and events happening with their families.”

    Onship: the seafarer's trusty companion

    Realising that “there wasn’t a single solution that could offer a thrusted and conversed digital touch point to help address these issues,” Miss Moore explained that FrontM saw a gap in the market to create a service that would provide seafarers with a way to seamlessly search and access various services, without significant data consumption, which is often the result of searching across multiple platforms.

    “There are solutions like Facebook, Skype, Messenger, but these are quite data hungry and seafarers’ allocated data budgets don’t go far. We wanted to develop a holistic approach to provide seafarers with a trusted companion that no matter where they are, whether it's onboard a vessel, in port, onshore or at home, they can access the services that they need to stay connected and therefore healthy and happy at sea.”

    This realisation inspired FrontM to develop a super app called Onship, also known as ‘the seafarer’s trusty companion’. Onship works over any existing vessel satellite connectivity system, ensuring crew's connectivity budgets go further. Access to Onship is completely free, requires no background data usage and calls to any number including satellite cost 50 per cent less than the typical rate seafarers are paying today. The solution is underpinned by core communication capabilities such as instant voice messaging, group chat, custom news feeds (via Robbie the Virtual Reporter – see more below), video conferencing, health management and on demand healthcare services. “We aim to become a one stop shop so seafarers don’t have to navigate all the data across various platforms to access what they need to,” Miss Moore explained. “They’ll have one platform that they can use to speak to family members, to surf the web, to get support from ISWAN 24/7, all via the click of a single button.”

    One of the most notable benefits of Onship is its ability to connect seafarers with ISWAN’s wellbeing support services and its Seafarers Directory, which lists wellbeing centre locations. “We wanted to raise awareness of the support that exists through our organisation and to give seafarers easier access to these tools,” Ms Vaughan noted. While it is possible for seafarers to access ISWAN support through centralised services provided by employers, often this doesn’t permit much privacy. “They often have to go into a communal area and therefore can’t always speak freely to friends, family or support staff,” Miss Moore explained. With the stigma around mental health, accessing confidential support is paramount to seafarer wellbeing. “It can be very difficult to reach out and ask for help while feeling isolated onboard so it is crucial for seafarers to be aware of the confidential support they can receive from ISWAN,” Ms Vaughan explained.

    ISWAN was chosen as one of the first organisations to join Onship due to positive feedback from seafarers about the services provided. “Research showed us that seafarers feel positive about ISWAN and what they are doing in the industry today. It was important for us to give ISWAN a channel and help them expand their footprint too,” Miss Moore said. Adding to this, Ms Vaughan said, “We’re a small team so we need to be visible to help seafarers get the help they need. I think in general knowledge and awareness of the support that exists for seafarers might be more limited than we expect.”

    Miss Moore confirmed that as development on the app continues, FrontM will look at additional partnerships with other welfare organisations and charities to integrate with Onship. “We will also continue to shape applications with feedback from ISWAN and experts,” Miss Moore confirmed.


    A closer look at Onship

    As well as connecting users with ISWAN, Onship enables seafarers to use services they would have access to onshore.

    One feature is Robbie the Virtual Reporter that allows seafarers to access news and information on topics they are interested in, enabling them to stay afloat with current affairs. “The user can set up notifications to push the data through to them whenever they want it. If a shipping company were to deploy Onship to their entire fleet and entire workforce then we could install edge software which would then enable data like this to be cached locally for seafarers to access as and when required offline. The information is also stored on the device for access at any time,” Miss Moore explained.

    Another feature is HealthMariner, an on-demand healthcare service that enables seafarers to access medical advice from FrontM’s healthcare partner, VIKAND. Basic consultation to alleviate healthcare problems is provided via a nominal fee. Miss Moore confirmed that FrontM and VIKAND are working together to build a telemedicine service as part of Onship. 

    Seafarers can also access the innovative feature Snappie, which provides them with the ability to send friends and family members memories via personalised travel postcards and merchandise.

    Images and location data can be sent to loved ones to help them share their experiences at sea, and enable those at home to see what life is like for their loved one at any time.

    Onship also enables crew to communicate with one another over the local area network, requiring no data consumption, to warn other members about crew ailments or troubles. “They could set up a group on the app and use this to communicate risks or issues to increase awareness and help mitigate problems,” explained Miss Moore.

    Onship is a mobile-first application but is available for download across any and multiple devices. Many platforms are hosted on the satellite connectivity hardware, whereas Onship is a pure software solution, meaning it can be used on any, providing greater choice to seafarers.

    New app to bridge the gap between seafarers their families and support networks 2

    Above: Robbie the Virtual Reporter enables seafarers to access news and other information to help them keep up to date with global affairs

    An app not just for the seafarer

    Seafarers’ families also experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety as a direct result of not being able to communicate with their loved ones at sea. Onship has been designed to provide those onshore with peace of mind that their loved ones are safe and happy. “It is vital to bridge the gap between the families and so important for them to never feel alone. This is why we created the app, not just for the seafarer but their families too,” said Miss Moore. “We hear from a lot of loved ones about their concerns, so if this platform can offer a more straightforward solution for families to keep in touch, then that’s very important,” added Ms Vaughan. 

    Preparing for launch and ongoing plans

    For the last year, Onship has been through a range of tests and trials, with seafarer and existing partner feedback used to adjust and improve the service prior to launch. According to Miss Moore, FrontM has built up many strong relationships with seafarers with a number of them waiting to download the app as soon as it becomes available.

    As bandwidth availability increases, Ms Vaughan and Miss Moore both confirmed that their organisations will be working with others and alongside satellite providers to further drive down costs and make connectivity more affordable. Both companies will also be raising awareness around the importance of connectivity for maritime workers.

    “We really hope that this project helps every single shipping company to think about the services they provide to their crew. We are hopeful that they will take a step back and realise that communication is a basic human need and see the importance of this. A simple ‘hello, how are you doing today?’ is the difference between a seafarer getting up and feeling invigorated or going through the day feeling isolated, lost and anxious. I hope this app makes companies take stock and want to do more to help seafarers,” Miss Moore noted.

     Seafarers responding to the new app said:

    “Sometimes even the most basic things are tricky when you’re at sea. E.g.Letting the wife easily find out what time it is where I am, so she knows if I am working or free for a chat. Onship is fixing so many of these comms issues. Well done and thank you to the Onship team” - Sumay, First Officer.

    “We presently have a cap of 300MB if not on 4G coverage. But there is unlimited use on our ships’ computers. But that is not that private and to be honest it is difficult to have a personal chat about family and health matters. Messaging, VoIP and video calls are high on data use. I’m glad the Onship app can help fix this and if my children can call me on it that is even better” - Jackson, Ordinary Seaman.”


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