At the height of the pandemic, the micro world of yachting was overtaken by webinars on everything from employment rights and cyber scams to the demise of charters in the Med. Behind the scenes, we shared a more human face, with many business calls becoming a deeper discussion about our lives, the wider industry and the future of the planet. Unsurprisingly, the topic of crew mental health also came to the fore and, during one such call, Lynne Edwards of Luxury Hospitality shared a candid view on the yachting industry’s way forward.
How have you coped with the lockdown?
I believe the only way to get through coronavirus is to create a positive state of mind despite the challenges. As human beings, all of us will go through different emotions depending on the situation we're in, but the key word is ‘acceptance’. We have little or no power to change the situation as individuals, so the quicker we get into a state of acceptance and adapt to what is happening, the better.
This is a precious time where we've all been forced to stop and re-evaluate and I believe, when we come out of it, we will be a much more conscious, thinking body of people. We will have different perspectives of what is important, and an appreciation of all the things we have been taking for granted. I think it's a really important moment for humanity.
What has given you pause for thought?
Quite apart from the pandemic, the wellbeing of crew is a huge issue as the yachting industry has changed so dramatically. The pressures and expectations on young people who join the industry are enormous and often underestimated. Many of them crumble. Some find themselves drinking more alcohol than they normally might or turning to drugs like cocaine in order to cope with the pressures of staying awake for long periods of time, or to suppress appetite and remain cheerful. Eating disorders are also common, particularly among interior crew, because the industry is very image driven and they are expected to look a certain way - some owners are even paying young girls still in their 20s to have facial enhancements such as Botox.
It can be a very artificial world that people are entering into, so it's extremely important that crew stay grounded and remind themselves of their purpose for being there.
In a recent training session, we asked crew why they got into the industry; why they are on a particular boat. They all went completely silent. I explained that if their purpose is to earn a lot of money then say so. Perhaps it’s to support your family, to travel, to buy your first property, set up a spa, buy a flower shop. Whatever it might be, don't be afraid to say: yes, I want to make money – there will always be a greater purpose behind this!
They were completely stuck on our question because nobody wanted to admit that the job wasn’t their chosen career path above all else. They experienced cognitive dissonance, believing the motivation to be ignoble, which was blocking their energy and preventing them from fully engaging with what they were doing.
You can be the best technical service stewardess in the world, but if you are not looking after yourself, you can’t look after other people and you cannot deliver exceptional service. When you focus on your purpose and incorporate at least some of the things that nurture your soul during your working life, then your cup remains full and you give from the overflow. This protects your own energy and you remain vital. I had to learn this the hard way, so I am determined to teach this to others to help them avoid making the same mistakes!
Currently I don’t do much technical training, much as I love it, because my real interest lies in people and how they’re coping with their life experiences.
What about some of the trickier situations that crew encounter – are they equipped to cope with that?
Unfortunately, there are crew as young as 18 years of age who find themselves in situations which they are not at all equipped to handle, and sadly these unusual situations can quickly become normalised.
One of the topics we cover in our Insight training is psychological safety. This is about being accepted and respected for being oneself, without fear of negative consequences. We’ve seen a rise in incidents of sexual harassment and bullying in recent years and ‘green’ crew in particular need to be introduced to ways of setting boundaries to keep themselves safe – physically and psychologically. Personally, I don't think all management companies and charter brokers are taking sufficient responsibility for the behaviour of their clients towards crew because they tend to focus more on the bottom line.
This is a billionaire's world where anything goes. Since we know this, perhaps management companies and charter brokers should clearly define ‘reasonable behaviour’ in their contracts. There has to be a line drawn somewhere and until we are able to rid the industry of these problems then we need to equip crew in dealing with it.
Some people may be emotionally equipped to deal with certain behaviours under certain circumstances, such as when they first join a boat and everything is new and exciting. But then if you consider the example of a young girl who's been working back-to-back for two months, is exhausted and hasn't been able to get hold of her family, her boyfriend is on another boat, she’s tired and emotional and then she's asked to serve a drink to somebody whilst they are having sex, or asked to perform a sex act herself, it won’t end well. She could end up doing something she doesn’t want to do because she’s not thinking clearly or feels pressurized, and when it hits her later, that’s when you've got a problem – particularly if she doesn’t feel safe about reporting the incident.
These scenarios are less common in other industries where people are properly protected from damaging situations. Also, land-based employees mostly live away from their workplace and have time to recover some sort of perspective and equilibrium. Working on board a superyacht is a unique situation because people are living and working and eating and socialising, all in that same limited space – away from friends and family.
There are two issues here. Firstly, who is going to take responsibility for it? Is it the captain? Should brokers introduce clauses about reasonable behaviour whereby a stewardess can refuse to do something she doesn’t want to do without recrimination? For example, should she be allowed to leave those drinks outside the door?
Secondly, we have to instill in crew the fact that they do have choices. Nobody is forced to go onto a yacht and stay there when they are profoundly unhappy, and it starts to affect their mental health. There are, of course, many well-managed yachts where this sort of thing never happens, so it's up to crew themselves to do their own due diligence, so that they can make sensible choices.
Crew agents and Management companies generally know what's going on and which boats have a bad reputation. Fortunately, this is a minority, but the greater problem concerns reporting. If a crew member reports an incident and is fired, rather than go back to the recruitment or management company, they might accept a pay-off as they don’t want to be labelled a troublemaker and jeopardise their careers. I believe this would change if we had stricter codes of conduct and safe reporting systems in place.
We must equip people to deal with this unusual industry; that's the crux of it. I believe our industry leaders should encourage crew to consider personal leadership development. Furthermore, the crew should take proper training to safeguard their wellbeing and psychological safety and be given access to guidelines on where to turn if they need help.
And this applies just as much to men as to women working on board?
Of course. There are incidents of male deckhands who have had charter guests, owner’s wives and female crew come on to them making them feel extremely uncomfortable. A good looking, fit, healthy deckhand or engineer working with a group of feisty young girls could feel very intimated. On one hand it’s important for both male and female crew to be able to set boundaries and on the other, it’s important to be able to read the signals. We are all a product of our life experiences and that what is acceptable for one person may be unacceptable for another.
All of this confirms the importance of profiling tools such as LH Dynamics to create team cohesion - not just the fit among the crew, but the fit with the owner and the overall operation. If you try to put a square peg in a round hole it disrupts the dynamic of the whole team and a misfit will eventually cost the owner far more in repatriating and replacing crew members.
What about the fit between the captain and the owner?
This is a very important relationship and the right fit is vital to the whole program. Naturally each yacht owner will have a different perspective - some are very naive about the industry and just see their yacht as a venue for having fun, or as a status symbol. In reality, there are some owners who have very little interest in crew wellbeing so that’s where the captain comes in.
It’s part of the captain’s role to communicate the importance of crew wellbeing in order for the owner to be able to enjoy their yacht. No matter how much money you have, you want to feel nurtured and you want a nice atmosphere on the boat, and if the crew are not happy this simply won’t happen.
Older captains have the benefit of more experience, but it seems to me that some of the younger captains coming through the ranks are taking a more holistic approach to crew wellbeing. Millennials and Gen Z, who currently make up a large proportion of yacht crew have a different perspective on life than previous generations. They connect with other people in very different ways, partly due to social media and apps like WhatsApp and Instagram. When I was a young stewardess we didn’t even have mobile phones or Google (!!) so we operated in very different ways. I believe it’s crucial to good management to have a clear understanding of the traits of the current generations in the superyacht industry in order to optimize their potential.
How do you address emotional health at LH?
At the start of all our training courses all our students undergo our personality profiling system, LH Dynamics, to evaluate each individual’s inherent energy and highlight their strengths and challenges. This helps them to understand how they each function alone and as part of a team.
It’s also an effective communication tool as it helps them to understand that different people receive messages in different ways, they transmit messages in different ways and they process things in different ways. Knowing how best to communicate with different profiles in the team means you can adjust the way you interact or ask someone to do something. For example, if you’re talking to somebody who has strong ‘Blaze’ energy, as many service crew do, you might have to do a little small talk before getting to the point. If somebody has ‘Steel’ energy, more typical of engineers and captains, they just want to know what to do and get on with it.
It’s also vitally important that crew share their profiles with their colleagues so they can understand how they each function as individuals. Someone might be highly creative but hate doing spreadsheets. It’s not that they are shrinking away from things they've been asked to do; they literally can't do it. They don't enjoy it. So why not give that task to somebody who is really good at it? Understanding this allows us to build a cohesive team which greatly improves performance and creates a happier working environment for everyone.
During our Insight course we also explore what's called QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer. It’s all about gatekeeper training and how to spot the signs when someone is feeling suicidal. What language are they using? What behaviours are they adopting? Are they giving away prized possessions? Are they self-isolating suddenly? Then we discuss the best ways to speak to someone who may be in difficulty or feeling suicidal.
You’re also involved with Life is for Living – what is it and who is it for?
It’s a support group for crew that we established in Palma two years ago - I would love to see a group set up in Antibes too. It’s managed by a very dynamic, heartfelt group of people but we are not counsellors, we direct people to the help they need, or we simply listen if that's what someone wants.
We have a Facebook group so people can interact on there, and we’ve created a list of contacts for legal and medical support which is available to everyone.We also set up two safe houses in Mallorca so if someone just needs a hug and a cup of tea they can physically go there too.
We’ve held two events so far. The first one addressed crew members’ experiences with depression, suicidal tendencies and sexual assault and many of those who attended bravely stood up in front of 150 people and told their stories. The second event, which was attended by around 50 people, looked at the effects of substance abuse on the brain and on mental health. The next event may be targeted at captains, introducing them to ways of spotting signs of distress among their crew and how to deal with it.
The scheme is well-known on the island and organisations such as ISWAN, Nautilus, Mission for Seafarers and the PYA are aware of it. It’s independent of LH but they have been a tremendous supporter from the outset.
What’s the way forward for the yachting industry?
As an industry I believe we need to take greater responsibility for the wellbeing of crew by defining what is ‘reasonable behaviour’ on board. We also need to equip crew to deal with certain situations specific to our industry and give them the confidence to say no.
We also need to overcome the stigma around mental health so that crew feel safe to ask for help when they need it. Speaking to a couple of big insurance brokers, I learned that claims around mental/emotional health have increased significantly in recent times and people now receive more time off and more treatment than ever before, but the incidence is also increasing and many crew still aren’t aware of the help available, or how to access it.
Finally, in terms of training, we need greater awareness of how to spot the signs before things reach crisis point and courses such as STCW and HELM should also include more pertinent advice around crew wellbeing – it’s just as important to be psychologically safe as it is to know how to put out a fire.