Drivers’ unique working conditions—being on the road—has the potential to negatively impact both the physical and mental health of this important employee group. These unique factors also increase the responsibilities of an employer to consider aspects of life that might otherwise be thought of as “personal”.
There is an increased need for industry employers to address the health challenges that may result from choosing this occupation. A good first step is to understand what types of health challenges may be encountered.
Physical Health Factors
There are many factors that negatively contribute to a driver’s physical health in the course of their daily job duties. For example, sitting for long periods, lack of access to healthy food options, and limited opportunity for exercise. These stressors are even more prevalent for long-haul drivers. Some of the physical factors to be aware of are:
Life on the road does not lend itself to nutritional, healthy eating. Whether making their food choices based on limiting stops, duration of stops, ease of eating while driving, or taste, making the most nutritional decision can be very difficult for truck drivers.
Healthy options are limited on the road in general and they are virtually non-existent at the places where drivers already stop for fuel. The options also typically take longer to eat and can be much messier and more dangerous to try to consume while driving. As a result, many drivers experience unhealthy eating habits and diets that are high in sodium and devoid of fruits and vegetables. A US based survey, conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety, indicated that long-haul drivers, when compared to the average adult worker, are twice as likely to be obese. This puts the very workers who form a cornerstone of our industry at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, heart disease, cancer, joint and back pain, and stroke. We can assume that the same applies for many of our Canadian drivers.
Being in any position for a prolonged time can have detrimental effects on the body. Long-haul truck drivers spend several hours in the same seat with very little opportunity to switch positions or stretch. Consequently, drivers may complain of general discomfort, muscle cramps and suffer from lower back pain. The impact of driving a truck on the body can extend outside of cab as well, resulting in long-term effects from poor ergonomics such as: imperfect posture, stress, tension, and lingering numbness in the extremities.
For more information on ergonomic impacts for drivers, see the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety’s Fact sheet on Driving and Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Disorders.
Lack of Exercise
Exercise is an important ingredient in overall wellness. According to the World Health Organization, an active lifestyle has been linked to the prevention of noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several cancers) and contributes to improved mental health. Other sources, such as the Government of Canada, site lower incidences of type 2 diabetes and a more robust immune system as benefits to an active lifestyle.
Exercise is a valuable countermeasure against many of the negative effects truck drivers face due to the nature of their work. Unfortunately, the rigours of long-haul trucking, coupled with the pressures of delivering on-time, can combine to keep exercise way down on a driver’s list of priorities.
Sleep is an important contributor to an individual’s overall well-being. In addition to allowing the body to recover and rest, getting enough sleep has been linked by Johns Hopkins University to improved cardiovascular health. Moreover, sleep deprivation has a number of negative impacts including, but not limited to, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, as well as decreased alertness and concentration. For long-haul truck drivers, finishing the trip is often prioritized over getting sufficient sleep. Helping your team understand the importance of sleep will have benefits for the drivers themselves as well as the company at large. Tired drivers have slower reaction times, become more easily distracted, and are at greater risk for being at fault for accidents. When it comes to sleep, employee wellness is company wellness.
Proactive Health Care
Being on-the-road can mean skipped doctor’s visits or other proactive medical appointments that can help prevent long-term or chronic illnesses – such as massage therapy or chiropractic appointments. These skipped visits may result in otherwise preventable illness, ailment, or disease.
Mental Health Factors
In Trucking HR Canada’s publication Gearing Up for Workplace Mental Health, research suggests that drivers are at risk of several occupational-health-induced conditions. These include, but are not limited to, loneliness (27.9%), depression (26.9%), chronic sleep disturbances (20.6 %) and anxiety (14.5%) (Shattell M., Apostolopoulos Y., et al, 2012).
More detail on some of the contributing factors to driver’s mental health are outlined below.
Life on the road even with access to technology can be lonely. In addition to the inherent isolation faced by long-haul truck drivers, the return home does not guarantee an end to the loneliness. The pseudo-nomadic lifestyle of a long-haul driver can negatively impact their sense of community belonging, being away frequently from friends and family, which can result in poor health outcomes.
For instance, in Sense of Community and Belonging and Health in Canada: A Regional Analysis the authors conclude, “that there was a strong and consistent association between health and sense of belonging, even when controlling for geography and socio-economic status. In particular, mental health and life stress were strong determinants.”
Commercial truck drivers work in a high-stress environment. Their job requires them to meet tight schedules for deliveries. With so much time alone on the road, the stress of a tight timeline can become internalized by drivers. Moreover, it’s not just company-imposed stresses that can occupy a driver’s mind. Financial difficulties, health concerns, and domestic issues can all be exacerbated by a life on the road. With very little opportunity to find a safe outlet for these stresses, they can take a serious toll on a driver’s mental health.
Substance Abuse and Addiction
Whether a contributing factor to poor mental health, or a by-product of it, substance abuse has a significant negative impact on employee wellness. In one worldwide study reported by Reuters Health researchers found, “widely varying estimates – based both on drivers’ own reports and on drug testing – but overall use of mind-altering substances was high and linked to poor working conditions.” Drivers looking for an escape from the stresses of their lives may turn to opiates or marijuana, while others seeking a chemical boost may abuse amphetamines. Though uncomfortable, it is important for logistics companies to recognize the presence of addiction and substance abuse on the road.