Why aren’t there psychologists on board cruise ships?

Dec 12, 2017

As a former crewmember that has worked for several cruise lines, I can relate to the constant high stress situations that crewmembers must endure on a daily basis. There are so many foreseeable challenges that crewmembers must face when starting a life at sea on the other side of the planet, but there are also some unforeseen ones that can really disrupt what could’ve been a great contract.

Everyday, there are hundreds of soon to be crewmembers that spend weeks preparing for their first contact on ships. They’ve been interviewed for their positions, passed their medical exams, received their travel visas, and depending on the type of work they will be doing, they’ve completed all of their training.

They will spend days trying to decide what to pack into their suitcases which will be their only real tether to everything they’ve ever known. The anxiety of moving to a place you can’t even fathom is enough to take the new crewmember’s stress levels to new heights. Thoughts go through their heads. What do I need? What don’t I need? What will fit? What am I missing? What if my bag doesn’t make it? It doesn’t fit. Not really knowing what to expect is really scary, even scarier is realizing that once you’ve given your bag to the baggage handler at the airport, that’s it. For many new crewmembers coming from Asia, this will be their first time getting on a plane, traveling to a place where the language spoken is not their native language, and travel duration is a lot longer than ever imaginable. A new crewmember can expect travel times to be as long as 48 hours if there are delays, and longer commutes. Those 48 hours can feel like days, with adrenaline pumping, and exposure to new foods, interactions, languages, and situations they could’ve never dreamed of.

cruise ships docked at the port of Nassau

Following all the travel, the new crewmember will almost certainly be exhausted. Depending on the cruise brand they are joining, they may have an opportunity to get some much-needed rest in a hotel room. However, their primary concern will be contacting their loved ones via Skype to let them know they’ve survived their journey so far. If they don’t get the opportunity to talk to their loved ones, there’s a high probability of them not getting a wink of sleep in the new alien environment they are in.

Furthermore, many of them may not have the correct power converters for their outlets and lack the money to buy them. It really can be very stressful and the fun hasn’t even begun yet. Generally, 5% of crewmembers bags won’t make it to their final destination on time, however, most of the time, their bags are found. This can create a heightened level of stress because their entire life is in that bag. Upon arrival at the port, the new crew member will see their new home for the first time and will realize how big the ship really is, but before they can join the ship, they need to answer a slew of questions, provide paperwork, visas, medical details, and contracts. If they can’t present all the necessary paperwork at that moment, they may not be able to board the ship. Depending on which document is missing, they may have to spend a few days in port or sometimes travel back home.

It is critical that new crew members understand what they need to provide to authorities at all times. Once they’ve been granted access to the ship, this is when the real stress of sensory overload begins. Nothing can prepare you for the hustle and bustle you are about to experience, from the maze of the ship’s layout, to the location of your cabin, the mess hall, internet café, gym, emergency stations, life raft/lifeboat, uniform details, work locations, buddy/guide, training classes, materials, and the general format of the ship.

You will meet dozens of people from different nationalities, experience odd odors, and smells, taste foods that taste simply strange. It really is a whirlwind of stimulation that you will be unprepared for. You may be given a few hours to relax, or you may be thrown directly into training, lifeboat drill, and starting your new job. All of this could happen non-stop depending on the individual situation, and your frame of mind could be so out of whack that you’re struggling to process it.


Depending on the crewmember, they may be in a state of shock, there may be some anxiety to perform, fear of termination, and even delight, but most of the time the new crewmember is running on pure adrenaline. The problem is that there’s no opportunity to take an assessment of what the new crewmember’s state of mind is, never the less, no one truly knows what he or she has been through in the last 48 to 72 hours.

Often times the new crew member will have an opportunity to meet the ship’s Human Resources Director/Manager and often times the ship’s doctor as a formality to review policy, but there’s truly no one there to really take an assessment of the crew members mental state. I personally believe that this critical oversight really is an opportunity to verify whether the crewmember is truly onboard and to determine if they are in need of rest. Even crewmembers joining for the 20th contract should be evaluated; because your mental state on the first day you join a ship really will determine your experience for the rest of your contract. Most cruise lines will tell you that while they don’t have a psychologist onboard their ships they do have a Human Resources Manager/Director.

The challenge is that often times this person follows a hierarchy of needs, the needs of the company, needs of the ship, needs of the operation, needs of the crewmember and depending on the cruise brand, this individuals may have many additional responsibilities making it difficult to truly listen to the crewmember. Now I don’t want to put you in a negative frame of mind. The Human Resources Director/Manager is critical to the cruise operation and the welfare of all the crewmembers. Many of them really have empathy for their crewmembers and would make you proud, but rarely do you find one who is a psychologist.

They may have a background in psychology, but they will almost always put the company’s interest first. There is also the ship’s doctor and support staff. The problem is why they often do have backgrounds in psychology; their primary job restricts them to the physical injury of both guests and crewmembers. The job can really present serious challenges and often times makes it difficult to really give the attention needed to ships that have upwards of 2000 crewmembers.

So without an individual in the role of a psychologist who’s sole purpose onboard is caring for the mental states of all crewmembers onboard, the cruise industry is at risk. See there are many factors that can play a adverse effect on crewmembers and they don’t have to be new to the ship to experience them. Norovirus outbreak, family illness or death, rough weather, shipboard emergency, bad roommate, horrible new boss, stealing, cheating, disciplinary action, workplace stress, loneliness, alcohol, weight gain/loss, are just a few of the situations that can occur onboard a ship that can throw a crewmember’s mental state off balance and cause them to behave irrationally or become dangerous to either themselves or others.

If I had a nickel for every time I had a crewmember in my office in tears, I could’ve retired 10 times over. Simply put, a psychologist is necessary. Now many cruise lines will tell you that they have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) in place where a crew member can speak to a psychologist over the phone, but I’m of the belief that nothing beats a real life person within proximity to talk to. 

A proper psychologist can determine someone’s mental state through body language, involuntary movements, tone of voice, perspiration, and other means. In the end, nothing beats having an available psychologist to speak to onboard a ship.

Written by Sean Sassoon

Sean Sassoon is former Manager of Training for Maritime Operations at Carnival Cruise Line and Sr. Learning & Development Specialist - Fleet Trainer Supervisor at Princess Cruises. The goal of his article is to help as many people as possible. Whether it's those who want to work on ships, currently on ships, or have left ships, making the most informed decisions. He strives to empower those around him to do better and to reach higher. Sean has over 15 years of training experience guiding over 85,000 crewmembers to success from over 100 nationalities worldwide in the cruise industry and hundreds of businesses scattered throughout North America. He is guided by a very simple work ethic, your success is my success. 

He holds a Master of Business Administration from Nova University and a Bachelor of Arts from Florida Atlantic University.  Currently, he is working as a Real Estate Associate at Keller Williams Realty, Inc.

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