Truck drivers once ranked among America’s unsung heroes. Until the pandemic put the men and women who deliver the goods and materials that keep communities afloat, little attention was paid to the stress, anxiety, and conditions that chip away at truckers’ mental health.
The shuttering of rest areas, bathrooms, motels, and other truck driving infrastructure during the pandemic raised alarms about excessive hardships faced by CDL professionals. But long after the U.S. economy reopens and normalcy returns, truckers will continue to do an essential job that justifies far greater attention to mental health and wellness.
Trucker issues must remain in the national conversation, and drivers should get the support they deserve.
Mental Health Disorders Suffered By Truck Drivers
It’s an open secret that the truck driving landscape lends itself to isolation, uneven sleep, and forces CDL professionals to operate a vehicle weighing upwards of 40 tons in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. Couple those realities with being away from loved ones and general companionship for extended periods of time, and you have a perfect storm for impacted mental health and wellness.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study of 316 truckers operating within a 100-mile radius of Greensboro, North Carolina. Providing drivers — ranging in age between 23 and 76 — with a confidential survey comprised of 82 questions, the health organization’s finding did not surprise what industry insiders already suspected.
- 27.9 percent struggled with loneliness
- 26.9 percent suffered some form of depression
- 20.6 percent indicated problems associated with chronic sleep disturbances
- 14.5 percent had symptoms of anxiety
- 13 percent identified other emotional problems
“Professional truck drivers work in stressful conditions that favor unhealthy lifestyles and medical disorders. Their overall health, and especially their mental health, is very often worse than the general population as a consequence of long driving shifts, disrupted sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, social isolation, compelling service duties, delivery urgency, job strain, low rewards, and unsystematic medical control,” an NCBI report states.
Although professional drivers average an annual salary of more than $45,000 and many experienced fleet drivers earn over $80,000, the rigors of trucking underscore the reason why the country has a long-standing workforce shortage. Organizations such as the American Trucking Associations report that the driver shortage swelled to 60,000 in 2018. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics ranks heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers among the high growth occupations year over year. While job security will certainly not be an issue for qualified CDL drivers, unnecessary stressors must be addressed to help attract drivers and allow them to enjoy healthy, productive careers.
Recognizing the telltale signs that truck drivers are experiencing a decline in mental health and wellness has been something of a challenge. Trucking culture has long-standing ground rules that drivers possess a tough-as-nails mentality. “The trucking industry work environment emphasizes stoicism, independence and emotional control which favors symptoms of low mood or distress (anger, risk-taking, memory and concentration deficit, anxiety, depression, insomnia),” an NCBI report states.
That industry attitude may have been born out of necessity, given the rugged nature of trucking jobs, but it also results in drivers masking stress and creates a self-care barrier. That’s why it’s essential for truck drivers, fleet supervisors, and other trucking industry professionals to remain mindful of symptoms.
These are common warning signs, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior, or personality
- Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- Intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Although NAMI points out that one or more of these potential mental health symptoms may not necessarily mean someone has a severe condition, it’s critical to seek support. This has, traditionally, presented a substantial challenge for truckers who buy-in to a culture that places a high value on mental toughness and self-reliance. Few would dispute that by virtue of hauling goods and materials over thousands of miles in adverse conditions automatically qualifies CDL holders as resilient. But industry insiders - including freight hauling organizations - are tasked with dispelling myths truckers do not face the same mental health challenges as other workforces.
What Trucking Companies Can Do To Improve Mental Health Support
It’s important to note that the trucking industry does not necessarily require a radical culture shift. But the time of ignoring significant problems must end if truck drivers are to enjoy the personal rewards of a job well done. Trucking companies may not be able to alter roadway infrastructure, but they can make a difference. These are ways trucking companies can help reduce mental health problems.
Remain Open To Co-Pilots
Social isolation contributes to the leading mental health issues suffered by truckers — loneliness and depression. Truck drivers are often expected to go entire weeks away from friends and family members, sleep at rest areas, truck stops, or alone in roadside motels. This is an absolute recipe for diminished wellness. When trucking companies are flexible about their rider program policies, allowing truckers to have a co-pilot or a spouse who signs off on a waiver, long-term solitude can be eliminated. Many trucking organizations are hesitant to allow third parties in rigs. But flexible companies are more likely to see greater driver retention and less burnout. They’re also doing the right thing in terms of mental health.
Check For Sleep Apnea
The NCBI reports that 20.6 percent of drivers struggle with sleep disturbances. But a study backed by the American Trucking Associations and FMCSA found that upwards of 28 percent of truckers suffered from at least mild sleep apnea. This physical disorder places undue mental health stress on drivers. The study identifies the following telltale signs.
- Loud snoring
- Morning headaches and nausea
- Gasping or choking while sleeping
- Loss of sex drive/impotence
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Irritability and/or feelings of depression
- Disturbed sleep
- Concentration and memory problems
- Frequent nighttime urination
Trucking companies have the ability to publish these warning signs and enforce sleep apnea screenings. Many believe it would be in the long-term benefit of its driving force for them to do so.
Encourage Homestyle Comforts
Drivers may not be able to sleep in their own bed after hours of service, but companies that allow and encourage meaningful personal items provide some level of comfort. Quality bedding, blankets, pillows, and other items from home, may reduce loneliness by providing a sense of comfort and connectedness.
Mental Health Resources For Truck Drivers
Being on the road does not mean truckers are cut off from reliable mental health support systems. Wireless technology allows drivers to work with private therapists via apps such as Face Time, Zoom, and other video conferencing platforms. Having a professional to discuss mental health and challenges while on the road can make a substantial difference in terms of wellness.
It’s also important to consider national resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for emergency support. This resource can connect struggling drivers with specialists familiar with what you may be going through. These may include counselors who work with veterans, grief, substance abuse, and people of faith, among others. There are also vast online support systems and locators that can be accessed with a Google search.
Professional truck drivers made a Herculean effort to keep America’s food supply chains open and deliver essential products during the time of the pandemic. Truckers are no longer unsung heroes, and our valued women and men of the road deserve quality care and improved conditions.