There is still much to be done to address the issue of poor mental health among port workers, finds Kate Jones
Five years ago, in 2014, port worker Remco Span’s sister committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Some months later, Remco, now 44, began to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He works in the Netherlands for a ferry company, in a ferry terminal where there are incoming and outcoming trains for discharging containers to go to the UK, and one day, while working on the rail service, he collapsed.
“I just, in my mind, saw what must have happened,” he reflects.
From that moment, every time Remco had to work on the rail service, he had a negative experience, triggered by the environment in which he was working. Remco is a union representative, meaning he has a closer relationship with his HR manager than other employees, and at one point, she asked Remco how he was doing following the death of his sister. Remco told her about the problems he had been experiencing, and she told him to speak to the company doctor about what he had been going through. In the Netherlands, all businesses have their own doctor.
Following his appointment with the doctor, Remco made a follow-up appointment with the doctor’s company’s mental health service. He had 10 sessions with the service, and the ferry company worker says that they “helped [him] through”. However, when Remco had done 10 sessions (the maximum being six or seven), the service advised a follow-up — but Remco’s company didn’t want to pay for it, directing him to go to his own doctor under his own health insurance. The port worker ended up seeking treatment in this personal capacity.
“You build up a good relationship with your therapist, and that had to stop,” he says of the change in support he went through.
Mental health is clearly a priority for the ports sector. Richard Steele, chief executive of Port Skills and Safety, the UK’s professional ports health and safety membership organisation, says that one area of opportunity for the ports sector “is very much around mental ill health and positive mental health, and creating workplaces that promote positive mental health and diminish mental ill health”. Mental health is an area where an impact on the sector’s health and safety can really be had, he claims.
“People who are experiencing mental ill health are less likely to make the best judgements and decisions,” he says. “That then can have an effect on their risk taking.”
Mr Steele notes that an opportunity is being missed if mental health and wellbeing support is not right. “It’s relatively new territory for us, but we’re learning in the same way that many other industries are learning,” he says. “The construction industry, for example, has put a lot of time and work into this and it has paid dividends, and we are looking to kind of grab some of the best ideas from other sectors and work those into our people. Our people deserve the learning that’s been gained from elsewhere.”
Mr Steels adds that industry partners are being sought for collaboration to try and enhance awareness and identify things like mental health first aid, as well as the kinds of services and providers that are able to support employers in helping their people to be as mentally healthy as possible in their work life. But how easy is it to promote good mental health practices at all levels of the port industry when its culture seems to prevent open conversation about psychological ill health? Remco says that in the male-dominated port business, it isn’t common to talk about mental health issues.
“When I’m telling it to somebody else … it can [be the case] that I’m a bit emotional about it in the first instance,” Remco says of his sister’s suicide, “and that’s not really appreciated in a male-dominated area.”
A man’s world
A similar picture was painted by a former port worker in the Netherlands in his late fifties, who asked not to be named. In 2011, he was made redundant from a long-held port job in which he claims the workload was too high. Additionally, he was involved in negotiating redundancy pay when his job ended, a process he describes as “very stressful”. Some years later, his wife recognised that he was suffering from burnout, and he sought help from a psychiatrist.
“It’s a man’s world, and you don’t talk about mental problems or physical problems, because [the feeling is] always: ‘Be a man’”, he says of the port environment. “Since I’ve worked in a completely different environment, I see that’s not the right thing to do.”
The ex-worker claims that discussion of mental health issues doesn’t happen in ports to avoid being viewed as weak. Mental problems suffered by both himself and colleagues were not recognised by his port, he says, and when he approached higher-ups about mental health, the response was: “‘You will pay for it, and when you can’t do your job any more, be free to go elsewhere.’”
Colin Bassam is manager at Port Training Services, an organisation based in the UK’s Port of Blyth that provides training for the port, marine, warehousing, logistics and heavy industrial sectors. He says that although there is currently a societal focus on mental wellbeing and opening up about issues, in the ports industry, which is still “very macho”, stigma remains. Yet, male suicide rates are over three times higher than rates for females in most high income nations, according to 2005 World Health Organization data. In Mr Bassam’s eyes, port workers are not given enough mental health support.
“As a port, we would spend millions or thousands servicing a crane: changing its oil, … giving it a good check-over before it starts … but nobody focuses on the operator,” he says. “What have they been through that night before? … They need to do a pre-start check on them.”
Taking hold of the situation
Of course, it’s not all bad practice in the ports industry when it comes to mental health. At the Port of Southampton in the UK, “Mental Health First Aiders” have recently qualified, with the port saying that they are “proudly promoting positive mental health by increasing their knowledge to raise awareness of mental health issues and illnesses to support our employees”.
In port operator PD Ports’ magazine Wave, the organisation said it was rolling out a wellbeing programme across the business to help raise awareness of mental health issues and “look to remove some of the stigma previously associated with such issues”. Over the 12 months following the time of publication, the organisation wanted at least one mental health first aider on all of its sites/operations, and the company also said at this time that it was running a course for managers that would seek to address and reduce mental health issues at work.
At Port Everglades in Florida employees have access to resources like employee assistance programs to use to anonymously tackle issues in the workplace. Additionally, the Seafarers’ House at Port Everglades is open to the port community — it previously worked with stevedores following the deaths of three longshoremen in an argon gas leak. The port’s county also has a 24-hour phoneline that people with mental health issues can call anonymously.
“Comparatively speaking, the availability of resources is much greater for those in a port environment [than seafarers],” notes Glenn Wiltshire, deputy port director.
Mr Steele says that “port organisations work really hard on health and safety and mental health and wellbeing”.
“What we’re trying to do now is find new ways of approaching this,” he explains. “It’s about giving them the tools to get better.”
But more can always be done, and Mr Bassam thinks that the fundamental issue for dockers is the work-life imbalance. “The work-life balance sometimes goes the other way towards ‘it’s all work’, and that has an adverse effect on them,” he says.