Study Examines Mariner Stress, Anxiety During COVID

During the period of COVID-19 restrictions on vessels, older mariners reacted better to stressors related to the restrictions than younger mariners.

That was one conclusion of a recent study based on an online survey of 1,384 mariners that looked at how the COVID-19 restrictions affected risks of anxiety and depression. The study authors said it is the only study to date focused exclusively on the mental health of U.S. mariners under COVID. Many studies have looked at stressors among foreign mariners stranded on vessels during COVID, some for years.

The study was a collaboration between researchers from the University of Washington and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. It was published in the International Journal of Environmental Reserarch and Public Health under the title, “Workplace Determinants of Depression, Anxiety and Stress in U.S. Mariners during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The study was based on an online survey designed to be completed in about 15 minutes. The survey drew 1,686 respondents, of whom 1,384 met the study’s criteria of being U.S. credentialed mariners who sailed during the period from January through July 2021, when COVID restrictions were in place. Results were anonymized and did not include any personal identifiable information. The survey was given in an open-source relational database format called REDCap, for Research Electronic Data Capture, a standard protocol used by the National Institutes of Health.

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Respondents were spread throughout vessel types, with 36.6 percent working aboard workboats, 27.1 percent aboard government or public vessels and 22 percent working aboard ocean-going cargo ships.

Among survey respondents, 20.4 percent had indicators of risk for a major depressive disorder; 22.4 percent had indicators of generalized anxiety disorder; and, overall, 37.9 percent scored above the general population norms. Top concerns among mariners were being away from families and having a family member contract COVID while they were away. The most common adverse experience related to their work was crewmembers on ocean-going ships being denied leave while in port, with 23.9 percent having to stay aboard four months or more with no shore leave.

Older mariners had generally lower scores on indicators of the risks of major depressive disorders, generalized anxiety disorder or perceived stress. The study’s authors cautioned that may be because of a “healthy worker bias,” in that more mentally fit workers are more likely to stay in the industry into their 50s and 60s.

Another finding was that stressors were higher according to vessel type. Mariners sailing on government or public vessels had “significantly” higher likelihood of stress and anxiety.  Licensed officers had fewer stress indicators than cadets and pilots. Mariners on passenger vessels had lower reported stress risk factors, although their sample population was small.

The study recommended continued efforts to provide mental health services to mariners, whether through phone access, the internet or downloadable apps. They cited studies finding that not enough sleep or work contributed to more stress. Increased access to training around mental health for mariners themselves would also encourage them to recognize signs of stress in themselves or workmates.

The study concluded that maintaining mariner mental health not only leads to better safety outcomes, but “is crucial not only for the occupational health of this critical industry, but also for maintaining global and domestic supply chains.”

The study can be accessed at