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Dealing with Bullying and Harassment at Sea


“ The 2010 Bullying, Discrimination and Harassment Survey was completed online by 539 members of Nautilus International, viathe Union’s website www.nautilusint.org.  42% of respondents said they had personally experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment at work in the past five years— around twice the figure for all workers in the UK and Netherlands."



 Seafaring has long been considered a tough occupation  due to the masculine nature of the profession and the rough conditions that prevail at sea. Seafarers are often perceived  as  tough “people” in the field,   but contrary to this biased perception  recent findings of a study of more than 1000 seafarers report   that 25 percent  of the seafarers have experienced depressive symptoms  over a two week period while 45 percent did not ask for help  (sailors society ).Seafarers are not  invincible to adversities; they are  just as vulnerable  to psychological distress as the general  population . 


Over the past decade, considerable empirical evidence report that workplace harassment and bullying are prevalent , occur much more frequently than presumed but tend to be under reported. It has been cited that 35 to 50 percent of American employees have experienced bullying at some point in their working life (Lutgen and Sandvik et. al., 2007).  Bullying at sea is no exception! In the past year, ISWAN processed  128 cases  of abuse involving a total of 420 seafarers and  this figure may be misleading since seafarers  may be afraid to report  bullying or harassment incidences onboard  (https://safety4sea.com/iswan-reports-increase-of-seafarers-asking-help-in-2016/). Unequivocally,   seafarers are at risk  for   bullying , harassment and mental health problem therefore,  existing misconceptions about the profession  can only take a toll on their wellbeing at sea. 


Defining Bullying and Harassment


Harassment includes any inappropriate conduct with the intention to cause humiliation, intimidation, embarrassment or feelings of uneasiness to another person. Bullying is a form of harassment that involves the misuse of power or position  , it may be vindictive, cruel or malicious, persistent and unpredictable.  Bullying differs from joking around with friends as part of bonding, bullying entails a power dynamic where the instigator feels powerful over  another person ( the target)  with intent to hurt, humiliate or instill fear to that person. (http://www.ics-shipping.org/docs/default-source/Other-documents/guidance-on-eliminating-shipboard-harassment-and-bullying.pdf?sfvrsn=4).


Succinctly, workplace bullying  refers to the persistent mistreatment from others  that is threatening , humiliating , intimidating  leading to  detrimental effects on the individual’s psychological and physical health.    In general stressful experiences impair brain areas  (prefrontal cortex) responsible for goal directed behaviors such as attention regulation, focusing and problem solving  and strengthen areas of the brain ( amygdala) responsible for emotional reactions leading to psychological distress, anxiety and dysphoria.  Psychological distress is  associated with both risky and impulsive behaviors (Giogi et. al., 2016)  and constitutes  a major causal factor for  physical illness and trauma compared to other sources of work stress (Wilson, 1991). Absenteeism  rates  cited for victims are 1.2 times higher compared to other employees (Kivimaki et. al., 2000) with anxiety and depression being the most frequently reported mental health conditions.  


Unquestionably, harassment or bullying  is always detrimental  and counterproductive whether it manifests as  verbal aggression, ill-treatment, cyber-bullying or sexual discrimination.  It often goes under reported out of fear,  and when reported  it  may be distorted or denied  reinforcing the vicious cycle of  harassment and abuse.


Defining Bullying Behaviors

  • Making verbal or physical threats

  • Making derogatory remarks

  • Ridiculing or belittling a person

  • Spreading rumors

  • Being over critical even about minor mistakes

  • Making remarks about a person’s religion, race, color  or nationality

  • Make hostile or personally intrusive telephone calls, emails or letters

  • Make unreasonable demands

  • Threatening another person about their job security

  • Lose temper for trivial reasons

  • Physically intimidate another person

  • Assign menial or demeaning tasks that are not appropriate to the job 

  • Use sarcasm or making jokes that hurt another person

Over the past decade,  a number of organizations have focused on the subject of harassment in the maritime sector, by organizing campaigns to raise awareness, integrating fair practices and implementing guidelines for effectively dealing with the issue . Despite these efforts bullyingcontinues to be a challenging issue in the profession  because it is tricky ; it happens in private,  often by a person in authority with intent to induce  fear to the victim.    Working at sea can make seafarers more vulnerable to harassment and bullying  due to prevailing working conditions, the isolation ,   the tough  nature of the profession  and the fear of further victimization or repercussions ,if bullying is reported since  victims may labeled as troublemakers or have their contracts terminated.

Companies and management  are the primary  active agents of change   by adopting a zero tolerance approach  to dealing with bullying and harassment at sea : 

  • Establishing  clear policies and procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying onboard. 

  • Disseminating company’s policies regarding harassment to everyone onboard ( in native language of crew members).  

  • Organizing ongoing awareness programs, training sessions, campaigns, videos, conferences and other media.

  • Establishing channels of reporting  and actions to be taken when a complaint is filed

  • Ensuring privacy and confidentiality to encourage disclosure

  • Establishing clear job roles, and expectations and responsibilities

  • Investing in ongoing trainings 

  • Applying fair and transparent processes for allocating tasks, job roles etc.

  • Educating  everyone for  early warning signs :  when a seafarer looks sad,  lonely , scared, isolated,  not motivated, low performance, complains of physical symptoms, avoids social interactions etc.

  • Implementing emotional intelligence programs to encourage self awareness, social awareness and conflict resolution.  Team building  sessions,  inspirational leadership trainings and  cultural diversity working groups

  • Organizing activities to encourage social interactions onboard

Awareness campaigns, guidelines and practices decrease incidences by establishing strict regulations against bullying and  helping people come forth and disclose incidences nonetheless, the industry is in need of  more effective approaches that could include  the implementation  of emotional intelligence, leadership , cultural diversity intelligence  programs  that have been applied in school  or work settings with  outstanding results .   


Penelope Robotis


Head of Psychology Dept.



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