It has been almost twelve months since the announcement of the first UK lockdown in response to Covid-19. Twelve months of economic uncertainty, frayed interpersonal relationships, and for some of us, personal loss. It is therefore of little surprise that the pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health, with an ONS survey stating that one in five people in the UK were suffering from depression in 2020, twice the number in 2019. However, this figure varies from demographic to demographic, with those working in high risk or frontline positions recording much higher rates. As has so often been said, the ports industry has continued to keep the country supplied with essentials in the face of the crisis, and so it can legitimately be said that port workers are key workers. Yet there has been no overarching review of mental health in the sector until now.
In late February 2021, Port Skills and Safety, in association with Mates in Mind, created the first ever national UK port mental health survey to our membership. The level of engagement was positive, with 343 anonymous responses from across the industry providing valuable feedback and requests on how to improve mental health in the industry. The data is now being sent on for more in-depth analysis so we can begin planning evidence-based improvements and will serve as the first benchmark for mental health in the industry established in PSS history. It is important to remember that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but what we have established here is a positive first step towards raising standards across the standard. Here is a summary of some of our findings.
- A significant proportion of participants experience symptoms that can be associated with mental ill-health.
Depression doesn’t just manifest itself as feeling somewhat low every now and then. According to mental health charity Mind, those suffering from depression and anxiety can experience a loss of appetite, fluctuations in their sleeping pattern, and even physical aches and pains with no obvious medical cause. According to our results, two thirds of participants noted eating or sleeping too much or too little during the last six months, while 30% experienced unexplained aches and pains. Of course, these alone do not necessarily denote a problem with mental health and emotional wellbeing and can individually be attributed to external factors. However, if experienced together, or with other symptoms such as lethargy, feelings of isolation, or an increased consumption of alcohol or cigarettes, this can be a signifier that someone may be suffering from depression or anxiety.
- There needs to be more trust placed in line managers.
In our professional life, most of us must report to someone, be it customers, shareholders, our colleagues, or line managers. However, this close interaction with people in positions of authority can have an impact on a person’s mental health, depending on the state of that relationship. In our survey, just shy of 11% said they would have a conversation with a line manager or mentor about mental health; Nearly 14% of participants who stated they wouldn’t reach out to anyone for support at all. This could be due to worries that confiding in your line manager may impact your job prospects or as also evidenced in our survey, that managers do not have the skills necessary to recognise the early signs of mental ill health in their workers. With so many other practical concerns for managers to handle in any given day, it may simply be impossible for line managers to consistently monitor mental health. A common solution to this issue that was raised in the comments of the survey could be the appointment of a dedicated mental health on-site specialist or the training of a select few mental health first-aiders.
- We need to raise the awareness of mental health policies.
Ports operators have provided services that offer support for both physical and psychological challenges for decades, such as Employee Assistance Programmes and Occupational Health schemes. However, events in the last few years have brought the necessity for increased efforts in sharp relief. The recent Maritime UK mental health pledge was signed by multiple ports and organisations and is a fantastic first step towards presenting a unified effort on this front. However, while there is still work to do to ensure that employees across organisations are made aware of the range of provisions available to them. Of the participants, approximately 44% said they didn’t know if their organisation had a mental health policy in place. This is further highlighted in the comments as many people do not know how to secure support or feel, rightly or wrongly, that appropriate measures aren’t put into practice.
- Nothing can replace the impact of a personal conversation.
Personal interactions have become a rarity for many over the last twelve months as successive lockdowns have prohibited us from seeing friends and family. Zoom can only go so far, and texting and phone calls are a poor substitute for a physical presence. Yet humans are inherently social creatures and the personal bonds we form do much to help alleviate poor mental health. Out of a multiple-choice question, 70% of our survey sample said they would prefer a face-to-face conversation if they wanted help with their mental health. In the comments, people repeatedly requested the space, facilities, and personnel to talk about their emotional well-being on a personal level. One participant said that they take part in a lunch time meet and eat session which has worked very well for their mental health during the pandemic. If conducted safely and in accordance with current Covid guidelines, this could be just one method of providing those who want to reach out with the support they need.
Ill mental health takes many forms and is entirely human. We all have a state of mental health that exists on a spectrum, thriving some days and struggling on others. There is no shame in this, and the stigma surrounding this subject is slowly being eroded to be replaced with a greater level of understanding. What we hope our survey has done is create a snapshot of the landscape of mental health in ports and a foundation for future change and improvement. Later this week, we’ll be looking at the Employer Mental Health survey that ran concurrent to ours and hosting a webinar discussion on the integration of business and mental health schemes. If you suspect you or a loved one may be suffering from poor mental health, please see our list of contacts below.
CALM - 0900 58 58 58 (Daily, 5pm to midnight) / www.thecalmzone.net
Men's Health Forum - www.menshealthforum.org.uk
Mind - 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm) / www.mind.org.uk
Samaritans - 116 123 (24-hour helpline) / www.samaritans.org.uk
Rethink Mental Illness - 0300 5000 927 / www.rethink.org