Managing Truck Driver Burnout

COVID-19 aside, trucking was already stressful before the pandemic started. But now with mental health no longer a “dirty little secret” and a wide variety of supports available, burnout can be avoided, if not managed a lot better these days. 

By Carter Hammett

Sometimes it just happens to the best of us. We reach that tipping point in our psyche where everything shuts down after working so hard just to keep things afloat. 

That friends, is called “burnout.”

In any given week, 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to a mental health issue, and the cost of a disability leave is about twice the cost of a leave due to physical illness. A recent U.S. study showed that truck drivers are more prone to depression and anxiety than other occupations due to the volume of time spent alone and away from home. These were among other risk factors that include obesity, diabetes, increased drug and alcohol use and sleep apnea. At a time when driver recruitment and retention is top-of-mind for many employers, mental health supports can assist employers with better managing their driver workforce. 

Recent surveys indicate that 75% of those in trucking feel their work is too stressful, and 71% say the same thing about their lives in general. And it’s been well documented that that psychological disorders and mental health issues are disproportionately higher in the trucking industry than in the general public.

According to Trucking HR Canada, drivers are at risk of numerous occupational-health-induced conditions. These include, not limited to, loneliness (27.9 per cent), depression (26.9 per cent), chronic sleep disturbances (20.6 per cent) and anxiety (14.5 per cent.) Dispatchers, driver managers, HR, and safety and compliance staff are also at risk for occupational-health-induced conditions. Getting help for mental illness shouldn’t be any more different or difficult than any other health concern, but there’s always been a huge roadblock that prevents people from seeking help: stigma. People need to realize that when 25% of the population will experience some form of mental health issue at some point in their lives, you are not alone . Fortunately, over the past two decades, employers, health care providers and others have been working to remove this stigma and to change attitudes about mental health — in the community and in workplaces. 

Lately, COVID-19 has just added another layer of stress of an already stressful job. Drivers are key players in the logistics chain and since the majority of supplies depend on truckers to keep things moving, the pressure only becomes exacerbated . 

According to verywellmind.com, “burnout” is a fairly new term, attributed to Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He stated that burnout was “the extinction of motivation or incentive especially when one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

Furthermore, burnout is “a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job) and feelings of reduced professional availability.”  

The stress that comes from burnout is largely attributable to your job, but variables ranging from negative thought patterns and belief systems to perfectionism and lifestyle can all be contributing factors as well.

Does any of that ring a bell? 

Oddly enough burnout doesn’t appear in the edition of that bible of psychiatric disorders, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the latest edition of which was produced in 2013. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously or go without recognizing the signs, which include:

Alientation from work-related activities: drivers may become cynical about their working conditions and the infrastructure their job offers them. They may begin to numb out or start feeling emotionally-distanced from the work they’re doing. The cumulative result of this can have a significant impact on how tasks are carried out.

Emotional Exhaustion – burnout causes drivers to become unable to cope, fatigued and drained. The job itself becomes an energy vampire leaving drivers facing great difficulty when it comes to completing the simplest of tasks.  

Physical Symptoms can include stomach aches, intestinal issues, headaches and migraines.

Other signs can include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Lower immunity
  • Muscle pain 
  • Loss of motivation
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Self-doubt

While burnout shares overlapping characteristics with depression, people living with the latter often feel negative about all aspects of life, not just their occupation.  Depression’s characteristics can include feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide as well as cognitive and physical symptoms.

Much can be done to combat burnout. For one thing, employers can start to recognize that good mental health is essential for one’s well-being as well as that of a solid workforce. They can provide awareness to their staff, including phone numbers and resources for drivers to reach out when they feel help is needed.  Drivers also need to recognize that they are not alone. About one-in-five people will someday experience some form of mental health crisis its essential to embrace the fact that the crisis is real and there’s no shame in asking for help. Campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk Day and the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Not Suicide, Not Today commercials, just emphasize this over and over again. 

There’s also, some practical, common sense drivers can take to monitor their own self-care, especially if feeling like they have any of these symptoms. These include:

Take Your Vacation – the downtime truckers receive is precious since time on the road means time away from friends and family. Developing a healthy work-life balance becomes essential in order rest, regroup and recharge.  

Keep a Regular Schedule – Easier said than done in some cases, but try to follow a regular schedule if at all possible. When this infrastructure is applied to your own schedule you not only have time to perform all the tasks required of you, but you’ll be able to recover lost sleep and maintain a consistency and productivity that might otherwise lose on the road. 

Take Advantage of Technology – With videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp and MS Teams, truckers have no excuse for not keeping in touch with friends and family on the road. While not overly popular, E-logs can also help drivers from overworking as they exist so drivers can enjoy a peaceful break.

For people who prefer more structured approaches consider some modalities that have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Two of these are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness. 

Buoyed by the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zin, Mindfulness is a “mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique,” says the Oxford Dictionary. Techniques like meditation, body scans and visualization are key components of this application, and they work. 

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been proven to have some success in treating road rage while a 2008 study in India—where death is as a high 14 per 1000 vehicles—has seen some success as well. 

CBT is based on the premise that thoughts and emotions influence behaviours, and offers a wide variety of interventions that correct a wide range of issues including distorted thinking, negative beliefs and destructive thoughts about driving and replace these with healthier and constructive thoughts. This form of therapy is effective in treating issues across a number of domains and is becoming both increasingly popular and accessible. It’s short-term and practical as well. 

For drivers living in Ontario and Manitoba (so far) a new app called AbilitiCBT can be accessed for free. The app includes 12 modules, each one complemented by free access to coaching from a social worker. 

There’s a host of apps that drivers can access from most places and some of these include:  

Allstays
The developers of Allstays know how difficult the trucking lifestyle can be, so, they created this app to ensure that truckers can get some much-needed rest at clean, affordable stops. Truckers can use Allstays to search for a stop where they can get showers, gaming activities, laundry, foods and other services that they need while taking a rest from the open road. Remember the stresses truckers initially faced right after COVID broke out? This app would have been a mighty useful at that time! 

Headspace is a ridiculously popular app that’s been downloaded millions of times. Free to join until you’ve completed the entry level module, there’s a multitude of themes ranging from sleep 

Another free app is Calm.  It offers meditations, soundscapes, sleep stories and a host of other methodologies to keep your brain happy and calm.

These are just a handful of solutions that truckers can tap into. They emphasize personal responsibility and self-care, which are essential ingredients for avoiding burnout and maintaining a sense of balance and wellness. There’s also no shame, repeat, no shame, in admitting that you have a problem, reaching out and asking for help. The reality is, burnout is an avoidable condition for all truckers. It’s time to stand up and turn stigma on its head by starting the dialogue. After a while you just might start loving your job again. 

Why Workspace?

Mental Health Resources:

  • Bell Let’s Talk– Bell Canada 
  • Big White Wall
  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety 
  • Canadian Mental Health Association 
  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health 
  • Gearing up for Workplace Mental Health– Trucking HR Canada 
  • Government of Canada: Mental Health in the Workplace 
  • Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health 
  • Guarding Minds at Work Τ Healthy Trucker 
  • Healthy Minds at Work 
  • Mental Health Commission of Canada 
  • Mental Health First Aid Canada 
  • Mental Health Works 
  • Mindful Employer Canada 
  • Mood Disorders Society of Canada
  • Truck Driver Burnout Guide: Driver Burnout: The Guide – WorkHound

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