A ship is a ‘hole’ in the water that we put people into. It contains the complex work dynamics of any group working on a common task. A ship is also a ‘whole’ in the water; it envelopes the crews’ existence, not just occupationally, but socially and personally. Living in a series of confined small spaces and moving through huge spaces, the seafarer’s environment is unique and challenging. However working in the maritime is, in some ways, the same as working in any other sector – you have good days and bad days; some who cope well with the job, others who don’t; colleagues and bosses who are easy to work with, and those who aren’t. But there are also distinctive features of the sector - isolation from family and friends for long periods, irregular working hours, and the distinctive working culture of seafarers. In this chapter we consider how the psychological and organisational environment of a ship is related to the health and wellbeing of its crew. We seek to make readers aware of some key features of this relationship, rather than to provide a comprehensive account of the work in this area. We begin with a Case Study which illustrates some of the factors we will consider.

Case Study

Dmitri has one major task to carry out; taking his ship from Hong Kong to Rotterdam, but this is comprised of a myriad of sub-tasks. Each sub-task presents distinct challenges to performance – some are complex, some are straightforward; some are boring, others require intense concentration. His performance on these sub-tasks is dependent on the nature of the tasks, the equipment he uses (radar, electronic charts), the procedures he has been given, the resources available to him. These are all task-related factors. These also have implications for his psychological wellbeing – specific tasks can induce boredom or stress; the overall task necessitates a lengthy period at sea isolated from family and friends, responsibility for a ship, its cargo and crew.

But Dmitri himself also brings a lot to the task that determines his performance – he brings his training and experience; he has a personality that affects his way of coping with the demands of life at sea, and habits that help or hinder both his performance and his own wellbeing. Quite apart from his individual strengths and weaknesses Dmitri is vulnerable to the same individual human factors as anyone else – fatigue; stress; limitations of perception, memory and concentration. These are factors at the individual level. Also at the individual level are Dimitri’s personal challenges; his chronic stomach ulcers, his worry about one of his children who is struggling at school, his family history of heart problems. He also has great personal strengths, personal resilience, good humour, a strong loving bond with his wife and children and relatively few financial worries.

Dmitri carries out his work as a member of a team. He needs to communicate and coordinate with the other crew, engineers, port authorities, other ships, his own company management. This communication can be clear, concise and correct or it can be beset with misunderstandings, language difficulties, failure of communications equipment. He needs to play his part as a team member and as a leader. The team might be an effective one, communicating openly, sharing responsibility, working to each other’s strengths or weaknesses; or it might be dysfunctional, characterised by distrust, cliques, inequitable work allocation. Dmitri might be an effective or poor leader of this team. These are team-level human factors; they can represent a significant source of human error and of poor psychological health (e.g. de-motivation, stress, isolation).

Dmitri carries out his tasks in the context of a shipping company. His daily work is facilitated and constrained by the company. They provide to Dmitri the resources he uses to accomplish his task – the ship, the crew, the equipment, and the procedures. They provide the direct instructions he follows – which ports to sail to, and the time-frame. They have set an organisational context of explicit policies and procedures on a whole range of topics that establish the context in which he operates – policies on discipline, reimbursement, bonuses, health and safety, promotion. There is also an implicit set of values and norms that Dmitri has absorbed through his years in the company – how to treat your team, the relative importance of efficiency versus safety, what you report and what you don’t – the organisational culture. These are organisational-level human factors. They have a strong impact on how Dmitri does his job, how he manages the crew, how he runs his ship. This impact can be positive or negative for the various performance metrics and for the wellbeing of Dmitri and the other team-members.

Dmitri’s company, in turn, operates within an international industry which provides a wider context that has a direct impact on the working lives of Dmitri and his crew. Regulations are the most tangible influence. But commercial pressures are also present – affecting crewing levels and deadlines. Additionally, there is the professional culture of sea captains – the generally unspoken set of values, norms and attitudes to which Dmitri and his counterparts generally unconsciously adopt. These are the industry-level human factors that are increasingly being recognised as having a crucial influence on the individuals in the operational environment.


Having illustrated some of the different levels of factors that can affect performance and wellbeing in the sector, the rest of the chapter can only explore some of these, and these must be addressed at a very general level. As such our aim is to raise awareness of the relationship between how work is done and workers’ health, and some of the problems that can arise due to psychosocial issues on board ships.  Figure 1 illustrates our general approach to understanding Dmitri’s challenges, to considering the relationship between work, performance and health, and integrating a systems-based approach at different levels of maritime operations.

Human performance and psychological wellbeing have a complex inter-relationship. At times they seem in opposition – the drive for efficient and effective performance can increase stress. But generally they are understood to be positively related – healthier people perform better and effective performance contributes to psychological health.


This chapter will examine the impacts on wellbeing and performance that are imbedded, or ‘nested’, at different levels of work – the task, individual, team, organization and industry levels (see Figure 1).



 Figure 1. A Nested Model of the Psychosocial and Organisational aspects of Maritime Work: Synthesising the STAMINA model of human factors1 with the maritime environment2


Figure 1 illustrates how problems or opportunities at any level do not occur in isolation; rather they are nested in other levels of work and life, and can therefore influence and be influenced by other levels. We now consider some factors that are more salient to some levels but also others which cut across several levels at once. It is important to remember that in our ‘systems thinking approach’ things happening at one level can, and do, affect things at other levels. This is not necessarily problematic, as it also means that problems can be solved by addressing them at several levels.