Mental health risks, stigma, and improving support in the trucking industry

Mental health risks, stigma, and improving support in the trucking industry

In Canada, the transportation industry employs 318,000 professional truck drivers. Ninety-seven per cent of these drivers are male. Many high-risk activities in this sector include operating a large commercial vehicle in various traffic and weather conditions, securing and tarping loads (working at heights), the transportation of dangerous goods, and often working alone for long periods of time.

Indeed, professional truck drivers face a stressful environment, and trucking poses several risk factors when it comes to mental and physical health issues. Research suggests that drivers are at increased risk of several occupational-health-induced conditions.

The very nature of the driving profession—for example, working alone for long periods of time away from family and friends, the pressures of “just-in-time” deliveries, traffic and weather conditions, disrupted sleep patterns, lack of exercise—can create increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

In fact, mental health disorders are more prevalent in the trucking industry than in the general public.* In a 2012 study, common experiences in trucking were found to be, but not limited to, loneliness (27.9 per cent of drivers), depression (26.9 per cent), and anxiety (14.5 per cent).†

In turn, mental health distress can lead to further fatigue, anger, trouble focusing, and increased risky behaviors such as alcohol or drug use. These factors increase a driver’s probability of being involved in a preventable incident.

 

The Role of Mental Health Stigma in Trucking

Professional truck drivers sometimes bear the image of being “tough,” “macho,” and less likely to be affected by mental or emotional stresses. It’s true that trucking has a majority male demographic and professional truck drivers are a very hardworking group; it’s also unfortunately true that mental health disorders are still often seen as a weakness throughout society.

This negative perception, also known as stigma, doesn’t always allow for open discussions about mental health, regardless of occupation or gender. However, mental health stigma is especially strong in trucking.

Men are often less likely to voluntarily talk about mental health and their emotions, as they view it as a sign of weakness, believe they may be judged, or are embarrassed by it. What’s more, the perception that disclosing an issue or problem—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicidal thoughts, for example—could result in a driver being deemed unfit for duty and can also be a huge barrier to drivers receiving proper mental health care.

Professional truck drivers don’t typically have strong mental health support systems. Bottling up emotions and personal issues due to negative stigma or inadequate mental health support and policies only further contributes to worse mental health.

The urgent need to improve mental health support for truck drivers Fortunately, over the past two decades, there has been a lot of progress toward removing the stigma around mental health disorders in the community and in workplaces. Yet, there still remains a lot to be done.

As we know, throughout the pandemic the trucking sector has been deemed essential and truck drivers have carried on their critical work. This has underscored the numerous work and societal pressures that professional truck drivers face, including chronic overstress, pressure to meet deadlines, long hours, and isolation. It has also highlighted the critical need for better mental health support for this group.

The trucking industry urgently needs better policies and practices to minimize the trucking profession’s potentially harmful effects on driver mental health. These improvements would have a positive effect in improving driver health, the company culture and its bottom line, as well as public safety.

 

Start a Conversation About Mental Health and Keep it Going

In the past, employers may have viewed mental health as a personal issue and not one to discuss with employees. But the topic should not be ignored at work, for the worker’s, business’ and public’s health. Supervisors and dispatchers should find a way to connect with drivers, as they can play an important role in identifying early signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

Starting a conversation about driver mental health is a simple way to begin building mental wellness into your workplace health and safety culture. But simple does not always mean easy. That’s why IHSA has released two new safety talks to support recognizing and managing mental health in the transportation industry.

One is targeted to assisting dispatchers and supervisors with drivers’ mental health and one is targeted to the employees themselves.

Solutions and controls are explained in each of the mental health and wellness safety talks. If drivers are experiencing feelings of isolation, loneliness, or depression, they should always reach out to someone and not try to get through it on their own.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4 pm to 12 am ET).

 

For More Information

IHSA is committed to working with and supporting the transportation industry to provide the needed training and resources for mental health and well-being in the workplace. That’s why IHSA has developed a number of online educational resources to assist workplaces with strengthening their road safety plans, including tip sheets, safety talks, policy templates and more. Please visit ihsa.ca/roadsafetysolutions to get started on improving your health and safety plan.

 

* Francisco Pereira da Silva-Júnior, Raquel Saraiva Nunes de Pinho, Marco Túlio de Mello, Veralice Meireles Sales de Bruin, Pedro Felipe Carvalhedo de Bruin. Risk factors for depression in truckers. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2009 Feb; 44(2):125-9.

† Shattell M, Apostolopoulos Y, Collins C, Sönmez S, Fehrenbacher C. Trucking organization and mental health disorders of truck drivers. Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 2012 Jun 29; 33(7):436–44.

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