How to Approach Mental Health in Trucking

mental health in trucking

By: Catharine Conway, FleetOwner

Some 550 million workdays are lost annually due to stress on the job. Truck fleets, however, can leverage available resources to better understand the mental health of their drivers and employees—and ultimately encourage retention.

In the last 10 years, the stigma around mental health has disintegrated as more and more people are talking about its effects, revealing how mental health is an essential part of everyday life. But in trucking, that hasn’t necessarily been the case.

Kirleen Neely, CEO of Neely Counseling Center, experienced firsthand the lack of resources within the trucking industry for mental health. Neely’s husband worked in transportation for more than 15 years, and when she saw a gaping hole in the industry, she decided to fill it.

During a recent Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) webinar, Neely was joined by Max Farrell, CEO of WorkHound, who shared data from WorkHound to discuss how approaching mental health effects such as burnout and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be a critical element to any company’s retention strategy.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than $500 billion is drained from the U.S. economy because of workplace stress. The APA states that not only are 550 million workdays lost annually due to stress on the job, but 60% to 80% of workplace accidents and 80% of doctor visits are attributed to the same symptom.

APA also reports that for every $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. So, what can companies do to see this kind of return? First, they need to understand how conditions like burnout and SAD are impacting their employees.

Burnout

Burnout is a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion increased mental distance or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

To better understand burnout, companies can present Maslach’s Burnout Inventory (MBI): General Survey. The survey scales 16 different items, including exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. While this tool is not used by WorkHound, it can be observed when reviewing driver feedback.

“The MBI is the gold standard of measuring burnout,” Neely said. “The [trucking] industry needs data—this kind of test is self-administered and brings a wealth of information right from the source.”

Exhaustion

According to drivers, home time and missing out on family time leads to exhaustion—feeling chronically tired even when drivers are not physically tired. More specifically, loneliness and loss of family while on the road are primary stressors related to exhaustion.

To overcome exhaustion, WorkHound recommends getting drivers home on a regular basis, as well as paying attention to drivers who are exceptionally exhausted. When drivers are far away from resources, such as primary care physicians and other mental health resources, having those provided by the company can aid in coping with distance and loneliness.

Cynicism

Nearly half of the drivers who submitted critical comments to WorkHound are in this dimension of burnout. Of the critical comments, 44.9% were about people or communications. These feelings can be identified in feedback about interpersonal conflict, departmental conflict, challenging communication styles, feeling disrespected or undervalued, or the lack of psychological safety.

One driver reported to WorkHound that “management in the front office and production don’t care to make things better as a team. [They’re] not serious about the pandemic as the front parking lot is full of trash and used PPE is everywhere.”

What can companies do to prevent that cynicism from creeping in? WorkHound suggests ensuring market alignment with wages, promoting respect for drivers, hosting in-person or virtual events where drivers can get to know their co-workers, requiring new employees to spend time on the road with drivers, and scheduling extra time with new customers or stressful accounts to ensure expectations are aligned for both drivers and customers.

“When you have something to say and someone blows you off or when you feel like your voice doesn’t matter, we all have to feel like what we have to say matters otherwise cynicism creeps in,” Neely said. “Caring about what someone has to say even if you can’t change it can make a world of difference.”

Inefficacy

The third dimension of burnout—inefficacy—makes drivers feel unproductive or incapable of performing duties due to a lack of skills or resources. Contributing stressors to inefficacy are confusion over the continuously changing government regulations and the COVID-19 lockdown, being lied to by recruiting departments, and lack of professional growth opportunities. Once drivers feel ineffective or unproductive, they’re more likely to seek a new employer, job, or career.

To overcome this dimension of burnout, companies must set clear expectations for success. This can be done by providing training resources to demystify government regulations, as well as social support to establish the company’s belief in their employees’ success. Some of these resources could include training seminars, stress-relief programs, wellness programs, skill development training, and company events.

“Every day, we are impacting people’s lives,” Neely explained. “By helping people understand that what they do matters and why it matters and showing them how they are a part of a big picture, they can see a path to their next step.

“All of us have aspirations, whether you’re a driver or dispatcher, secretary, etc.,” Neely continued. “When you can see the path of your career in front of you, you have something to work towards and know why you matter.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD, otherwise known as winter or seasonal depression, usually occurs during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. While the most difficult months are typically January and February, the disorder tends to improve when spring arrives.

Symptoms of SAD are depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, appetite changes, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating and processing information.

How fleets can help their drivers:

  • Create opportunities to communicate by reaching out to drivers daily just to check-in.
  • Encourage drivers to stop and take a walk.
  • Modify delivery schedules and shift deadlines.
  • Support the need for drivers to take leave for treatment.
  • Look for opportunities to bring people together during the holidays.

“We tend to get in our heads about the approach to mental health, but there’s no right or wrong way,” Neely explained. “Just be genuine, be authentic, and people will receive you. Some people stay silent because they don’t know how to approach someone. By just approaching someone is better than nothing.

“Senses exist for a reason—if you feel like something is off, something probably is,” Neely said. “By just showing up for someone can help them feel seen. Over-communicate instead of under-communicate.”

Neely explained that one argument against mental health in trucking is that “it’s the nature of the job.”

“SAD and burnout are not just in trucking—it’s everywhere,” Neely said. “But in other industries, there are more resources for help and policies in place to help them. A lot of companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs), but they’re underutilized. What are you as a company getting from it? What more can it bring to your employees? Some companies think they’re expensive, but they’re actually more affordable than they realize.”

Conway, C. (2021). How to approach mental health in trucking. FleetOwner. https://www.fleetowner.com/operations/drivers/article/21182888/how-to-approach-mental-health-in-trucking

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