Managing stress, even in small spaces

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A suitable case for stress management


by Sally Pace, CEO, Connect Healthcare Collaboration

Here are some unsettling statistics. The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey reported that “3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%).” This means approximately one-quarter of a vessel’s crew is likely stressed out and unmotivated to perform their best.

It keeps going. The participants across all industries also reported emotional exhaustion at a rate of 32% and physical fatigue at 44% – which is an increase of 38% year over year. Now, think about the marine industry, where like the clinical industry, many employees are working abnormal shift hours under sometimes physically exhausting conditions.

No doubt, stress has become a prevalent bi-product of the pandemic and has emerged centerstage in the last year with the rise of mental health-related issues. But it is most certainly not a condition that is uncontrollable. What sets the marine industry apart from others is that, for much of your workforce, you quite literally have a captive audience whereby you can improve stress levels, if only while your employees are on the clock.

Diet and Lifestyle. Diet and lifestyle have a tremendous impact on stress. It goes hand in hand with the adage, “garbage in, garbage out.” But with limited food options from time to time while on the waterways, it can be challenging to stay on top of healthy eating.

“One boat captain I work with had a history of heart disease and wanted to work on weight loss,” says Lauren Roberson, a licensed nurse practitioner and head of CHC Advocacy. “This captain decided he was going to implement a salad bar once a week on his boat. On the flip side, I frequently have conversations around poor habits that creep up once a member gets on a vessel.”

Roberson’s team works as care coordinators to help maintain health and wellbeing while controlling health plan costs.

“When presented with grocery lists and an open option, many crew members will say that they don’t know how to make health choices. So, we worked with one marine company to color code the grocery list. In this instance, green for ‘eat all you want’ options, yellow ‘eat in moderation’ options, and red ‘best to find an alternative’ options,” says Roberson. “This takes the stress off of the captains from having to be the heavy. We know that the crews that are paying attention to these colors are making wiser choices and are reporting improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol therefore reducing the physical stress and risk of heart disease.”

Of course, it’s not just diet that leads to stressors on the body. Lack of exercise can play a role too. If there is no exercise equipment on a vessel, don’t let that be a roadblock. Help your crew find ways to exercise that require nothing but body weight. A simple web search can reveal hundreds of simple, quick spurts of exercise that can be done in small spaces with no need for expensive equipment.

Environment. Company culture and environment have a significant impact on employee stress, mental health, productivity and job satisfaction in any industry, but the effects within the marine industry are significantly heightened due to the requirements of the job.

“Our vessel employees live on the vessel away from their families for 28 days at a time,” says Jessica Snyder, director of human resources at the Southern Devall Group. “They are in a captive environment on a vessel with around eight other crew members, so trying to match personalities and working styles is essential to building and maintaining a positive culture and environment. Our employees spend half of their lives on the vessel, so cannot always be with their families for birthdays, holidays and little league games. From a leadership perspective, we have found that increased communication, recognition and physical presence goes a long way. Our crew members know that they can call and talk to leadership about anything, whether it is work-related or personal, and that they will always be received with a listening ear. We have also found that including spouses and children in company events has been very beneficial to creating a more inclusive and familial environment with our crew members.”

Opening those lines of communication to the crew’s families has been one of the most beneficial programs this organization has implemented to help ease some of the mental and emotional burden that comes with working in this industry

“We also reiterate information on working with our EAP program and that this is also provided to their families as well at no additional expense to the employee,” Snyder adds.

Unexpected crew changes as a result of either physical or mental illnesses on the boat. Certainly, one of the biggest impacts to productivity is when a vessel has to be docked and an unexpected crew change occurs. Roberson says that this is one of the most frequent challenges presented to her team as they work with HR leaders.

 “A call will come in from a captain or a crew member. Our advocacy team then works with the HR team to assess and address the issue,” says Roberson. To minimize disruption while providing that employee with the best care possible, Roberson and the CHC Advocacy team recommend the following:

  1. Determine if issue is related to mental or physical stress
  2. Assess if telehealth is a viable option
  3. If not, identify a facility nearest next docking station
  4. Pinpoint providers who can meet same day along the river/waterways system
  5. If same-day appointments are not available, consider utilization of urgent care facilities
  6. Arrange for medication to be picked up at next stop

As it relates to the unexpected changes, Snyder stresses the importance of adaptability.

 “Approaching these events with as much flexibility as possible is key to reducing stress and increasing productivity. Having multiple avenues, such as telehealth and employee assistance programs, help reduce unexpected crew changes significantly,” she says. However, she adds, when it is necessary for someone to depart from the vessel unexpectedly, strive to approach the disruption from a human level rather than a business level. Communicating understanding, concern, and offering to help provide resources lets crew members know that they are not alone.

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