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Drivers' mental health: how to support your employees

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

Recent years have seen vast improvements in mental health awareness in the workplace. Whilst it is essential that businesses are attuned to the specific mental health concerns of their drivers, it is even more important to understand how to support them. As a fleet or operations manager, driver safety is always a primary concern, and so empathising with the many mental health challenges drivers may face requires sensitivity, understanding and care.

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What affects mental health?

There is little doubt that working on the road can be a stressful and testing way to make a living. As well as the general on-road frustrations everyone faces, occupational drivers often face long and unsociable working hours, often throughout the night. Not only can this disrupt a person's body clock, but it also means that drivers have very little time to spend with their friends and family who work regular 9-5 hours, or even to check in with their work colleagues.

Being on the road can also tend to lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, with poor diet a major problem due to service station and truck stop food options and time constraints. This, combined with sitting behind the wheel for hours on end and very little human interaction during the work shift can all affect a persons' mental health. 

Whilst recent years have seen vast improvements in mental health awareness at work, it is essential that fleet operators are attuned to the specific mental health concerns of their drivers, but it is even more important to understand how to support them. As a fleet manager or business owner, driver safety is always a primary concern, and empathising with the many mental health challenges drivers may face requires sensitivity, understanding and care. 

The responsibilities regarding drivers’ mental health

All employers have a duty of care to their staff while at work, so it is incumbent to take active steps to ensure that drivers’ health – physical and mental – is regularly monitored. 

Fleet operators should request annual health declarations from drivers, and this needs to be handled sympathetically and with great care. Some medication used to treat mental health conditions can affect drivers’ performance and their reactions when behind the wheel, and it is obviously important that employers are made aware of this. 

However, people are often too proud and often reluctant to share this, so employers must stress that drivers can discuss these matters openly and frankly, and that they will receive a sympathetic ear. 

Operators like Linfox have conducted studies with Monash University to provide insights that help keep drivers safe at work and ensure they are accessing the treatment they need when injuries occur.  

Mental health and its affects on driver performance

Poor mental health can very often translate into poor driver performance. Those drivers burdened with mental health problems, at least where they are undiagnosed or are not being properly treated, are quite likely to be distracted in their work, which in turn can put their physical safety at risk. 

This adverse effect on driver safety can lead to incidents on the road, even collisions, and increase the potential for injury or damage to vehicles, leading to substantial repair bills as well as insurance claims. However, what's even more important is the well-being of their drivers.

Drivers who are anxious, stressed or unhappy may be more prone to driving rashly and aggressively, or even more irritable. Concentration at these times tends to be low, which is very dangerous to them as well as other road users - it is the employers responsibility to speak with staff and drivers about their concerns. Keeping an open door policy, or even an informal chat at the local cafe. Taking the time to speak to your employees really does make a huge difference and sometimes you may find that just saying their concerns out loud will take a big weight off their shoulders.

That said, some employees may find it very difficult to talk about their feelings and so they might deflect at first, potentially resulting in increased absenteeism, where drivers simply take sick days off and don’t show up for work. The most important thing is to make it clear to your employees that you are there for them, you are available to talk to and hold no judgement, you just care about their well-being. As long as you are doing your best as an employer to really take the time to listen to them and appreciate how they feel, that is the most important thing. 

Can you drive with mental health issues?

Like all medical conditions, mental health can affect your ability to drive safely. All motorists are required to consider psychiatric conditions when driving.

Depending on the condition, your ability to drive can be severely affected. Things such as changes to your judgement and decision-make, sleep disturbances and side-effects of medication all considerably affect driving behaviour. 

If a driver's condition is unstable or an inability to drive, seeking a doctor's advice is important. 

Encouraging drivers to be open about mental health

Developing an internal culture of openness and honesty is extremely important. Drivers who feel able to discuss anything with their manager, supervisor or employer, even personal problems, without fear of reprisal or derision will be far more likely to do so.

A transparent culture can do a great deal to lighten the load of mental health problems affecting drivers. Creating an open internal culture means that mental health issues are likely to be dealt with appropriately sooner, which can prevent unnecessary stress as well as potential reputation damage to the firm itself. Plus, once one person opens up it is far more likely that others will do so too. 

Driver training is one way in which fleets could proactively address mental health issues. By making drivers aware of mental health matters through continual training, firms can encourage their driving workforce to address issues they have either experienced themselves or witnessed among their colleagues.

Telematics systems can also provide important insights into driver performance. Deteriorations in driving standards may be an indication that an individual is experiencing mental health problems. Employers can then work out how best to broach the topic, but they must do so with tact and care.

Progress on mental health with fleet operations

The evidence suggests that there is still much work to be done on this front. The joint Linfox and Monash University report identifies four different profiles of health service use among truck drivers. About half (55 per cent) of drivers use only a few services, some (10 per cent) use a lot, a quarter (25 per cent) use mainly physical therapy and another group (10 per cent) seek treatment for mental health. While drivers are seeking help, more awareness around what services are available is important.

The 10 per cent of drivers accessing mental health services are over 24 years of age from the lowest socio-economic background and employed by smaller operators. These drivers showed a different pattern of health care use compared to other drivers. Ninety-two percent of mental health services were provided more than 14 weeks after acceptance of a workers compensation claim, potentially reflecting a missed opportunity for early intervention. This is in contrast with other health care services such as GP visits and physiotherapy, where peak service use occurred within the first three months after injury.

This indicates that employers and fleet operators have a great deal to learn so that they are able to properly address mental health problems among the driving workforce. Firms have a responsibility to ensure that managers and drivers alike receive the training they need, in order to foster genuine openness on mental health.