By Tineke Zoet
Two weeks after I was relieved as a Junior Officer from a multipurpose vessel, the ship collided with another vessel, capsized, and sank only miles away from the coast.
I had spent about 3 months onboard the ship as a Junior Officer working with a mixed culture crew. When I first arrived onboard, I could already sense that there was a toxic work atmosphere.
‘When I first arrived onboard, I could already sense that there was a toxic work atmosphere.’
A week or so before I was going home a new First Officer joined us. He and the Captain were both from different nationalities and knew each other from previous journeys and were known not to get along. To avoid conflict, they had therefore made a silent agreement not to see each other or speak to each other unless absolutely necessary. It is safe to say that this would not have resulted in any improvement in the already toxic work environment after I could finally leave the ship and go home. There was no team spirit as everybody stuck to their own cultural group. Communication outside the groups took place only when strictly necessary. I was the only female officer onboard with only two male officers from my own cultural background. As they were on duty when I was not, we hardly saw each other. As a Junior Officer, this made my stay on board a very lonely experience. In addition, as the atmosphere on board was so tense, I always had a feeling I needed to keep my head down to stay out of trouble.
At the time of the accident the First Officer who was on the bridge at the time of the accident was found guilty of failing to act in time to avoid the collision. The fact that the Captain was not called when things were about to go wrong was also mentioned as a big contributing factor. The official accident report stated that it was not clear why no action had been taken by the Officer on the bridge as there was still enough time to alter course and avoid this collision.
So why didn’t he call the Captain for assistance? Was it pride or embarrassment that resulted in him not to ask for help, even though the Captain specifically told everyone onboard to call him when in doubt? We can only speculate as to why. Asking for help in some cultures is a sign of strengths while in others it is seen as a form of weakness.
‘This accident is however unfortunately not a unique example of how a toxic work culture ends in disaster.’
This accident is however unfortunately not a unique example of how lack of teamwork, communication and cultural differences can result in a toxic work culture and ultimately end in disaster. Toxic work cultures are not just found at sea but also ashore and have been known to result in equally disastrous consequences.
The maritime industry is a wonderfully diverse industry where people from all over the world work together fulfilling complex tasks, having to overcome age gaps, cultural and religious differences and language barriers with little time to adjust or settle in. Adding to that, the element of being away from home for long periods and the current pressure brought on by the COVID pandemic makes working in the industry more challenging than ever. It has become more important than ever to create awareness of these challenges which is essential in building a strong foundation for a healthy work culture.
The benefits of a healthy work culture.
‘A healthy work environment is not just a key ingredient for company safety but also essential for a company to be truly successful.’
From my own experience working at sea, I have seen how work culture can be a dominating underlying factor in poor work quality and in the most extreme case, accidents such as the collision mentioned above. Studying accident reports for my work as a Maritime Human Factors Specialist at the University of Strathclyde it became shockingly clear how often toxic work environments emerged as an underlying contributing factor in all the reports I analysed. We can draw the conclusion that a healthy work environment is not only essential in preventing accidents, but also a key ingredient for a company to be truly successful. A healthy work environment directly contributes to employee’s happiness, mental health and job satisfaction, which increases sense of team spirit, productivity, quality of work and their loyalty.
How can a Maritime Life Coach help?
‘Echoing Sustainable Human Resource Management objectives, the most important start to achieving a healthy work environment is to generate a work culture of mutual respect.’
So how is a healthy work environment achieved, particularly for an industry as complex as the maritime industry? Echoing Sustainable Human Resource Management objectives, the most important start to achieving this is to generate a work culture of mutual respect and understanding where people feel appreciated, feel that their contribution counts, and their skills and talents are utilised. This all boils down to one key word and that word is awareness. Awareness of values, skills and limitations of yourself, people around you and the organisation you work for. What makes you and others around you tick? How to utilise strong points and overcome limitations? Awareness is an incredibly powerful tool for success which I as a qualified Maritime Life Coach help people to achieve by either working with them one to one or in teams. I help people explore their own strengths, values, limitations and how to deal with difficult situations. This will all help to unlock their full potential, build personal resilience, increase confidence, reduce stress and form positive work relationships.
Who am I – I help professionals within the maritime industry to achieve their career goals by overcoming personal challenges and anxieties as to increase self-confidence and build positive relationships within the work environment.
Please also find me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/buoyancycoaching/