Editor’s note: Written by Dr. Jeff Nalin, a licensed clinical psychologist. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
The top factors that contribute to mental health issues include financial worries, a lack of social support and job stress. Count long-haul truckers in for all three.
While most studies have focused on the physical safety of drivers, more recent attention is being paid to the mental well-being of truckers. Multiple studies indicate that nearly a quarter of truckers suffer from mental health issues, including experiencing higher risks of depression and suicide than workers in other occupations.
Today’s truckers deal with difficulties far different than those faced by their predecessors. Deregulation of the industry has resulted in fierce competition, which has lowered wages and increased freight hauling. Our nation’s deteriorating roadways and infrastructure contributes to driver stress. They increase crash risk and are a source of costly vehicle repairs. It’s tough to be a trucker.
Even the future of trucking as a reliable occupation may be in peril. Environmental and efficiency concerns are spurring talks of replacing trucks with drone deliveries and truckers with driverless vehicles. While these changes won’t put truckers out of a job in the near future, the trends still create worry about job security. Anxiety generated by employment insecurity and the feeling that one’s work has lost importance is a prime contributor to experiencing occupational burnout.
These relatively newer stresses are compounded by the solitary nature of long-haul trucking. Truckers spend a large amount of time alone, away from friends and family. In one study, nearly a quarter of truckers reported that their relationships were negatively affected by their time on the road. In another study, nearly 30 percent of truckers expressed feelings of loneliness.
Then, there is the persistent issue of lack of sleep. Around 13 percent of drivers report that they get less than five hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Failing to obtain quality sleep is known to increase mental health risks, including increased experiences of depression and anxiety. Feeling a need to stay awake for long periods of time is also cited as a factor in the high reporting of methamphetamine abuse among long-haul truck drivers.
The future of the trucking industry is not entirely predictable, and the conditions of the road are outside a driver’s control. Yet there are some immediate, practical steps that truckers can take to mitigate their occupational stressors.
- As noted, sleep deprivation is a primary culprit in both physical and mental health risk. A study of seasoned drivers has good tips for truckers struggling to find enough time for quality sleep. Techniques for maintaining a good sleeping pattern include creating consistent driving schedules, taking breaks earlier in the trip and reducing tobacco and caffeine intake. Furthermore, safeguards are in place for truckers when it comes to employer demands that conflict with this basic need for sleep. Employers cannot demand that truckers operate outside of established regulations for hours of service, and truckers can assert their rights in this area.
- When it comes to social support, maintaining quality relationships is vital over the long run. Technology makes it easier to keep in touch with loved ones. Not only can smartphones be linked to dashboard communications – freeing a driver to speak safely over the phone while still making valuable time on the road – but they also can be used for video communication when the truck is parked. Several phone applications enable face-to-face video interaction. While not a perfect substitute for physical presence, research has indicated that long-distance relationships benefit from this added component to communication.
- Video conferencing also is increasingly being utilized as an effective tool for mental health therapy. For nomadic truckers, distance is no longer an obstacle in receiving valuable mental health services. Some therapists even specialize in the needs of truckers and their families. The internet is a valuable resource for finding customized support in this area.
- Truck drivers need to be aware of the consequences associated with substance abuse within the industry. Drugs can initially contribute to motivation and positive feelings, but the long-term effects make the user more tired and depressed. That’s because ingested chemicals suppress the compounds the body creates on its own to support mental health. This can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling the need to consume even more of the drug, resulting in drug addiction and dependence. Customized treatment is available for truckers seeking to rid themselves of this danger.
- Finally, truckers need to know that they are not alone in their struggles. Truckers have a reputation of being tough. This self-image of strength sometimes dissuades long-haul drivers from seeking help when it is genuinely needed. As awareness of the particular mental health needs of those in this industry increases, so do available support resources.
Editor’s note: Dr. Jeff Nalin is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of Paradigm Malibu, a treatment center for teens and their families struggling with psychological, emotional, behavioral and addiction issues.