Mental Health Hazards: Resources for the Trucking Industry

By Dave Elniski

“It costs nothing to be kind to somebody”.  These words, spoken by trucking mental health advocate and podcast host David Henry in his video for the Bell Let’s Talk program summarize a key theme in addressing mental health hazards in the workplace.  The theme is kindness and compassion, and it is found at the core of any initiative aimed at improving mental health.

Workplaces around the world will continue to grapple with the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come.  But the current pandemic did not create psychological danger in a world that was previously psychologically safe.  Instead, industries that struggled to address pre-pandemic psychological hazards are now facing considerable additional challenges, and the trucking industry is no exception.

The demand for truck drivers is high, thanks to strong consumer spending on goods in North America.  But as the industry works to meet this challenge, the demand on those drivers and other workers within the industry grows higher.  In an industry characterized by isolation, long hours, and high stress, companies need to address mental health concerns and not expect workers to remain psychologically healthy without employer support. 

What can employers do?

Trucking companies, and especially those with long-haul operations, face unique challenges in addressing hazards related to mental health.  Furthermore, it is difficult to equitably address these concerns amongst all staff when some workers report to an office during predetermined hours and other workers spend days or weeks away from home, facing considerable uncertainty on a daily basis.

According to the Government of Canada and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “only 23% of Canadian workers would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a psychological health issue.”   What employers should take away from this statistic is that direct questioning of employees and management’s perception of worker psychological health and safety are unlikely to give an accurate picture of the company’s overall mental health status.  And since trucking is an industry that experiences high turnover and difficulties in recruiting talent for key positions, a proactive mindset towards mental health in the workplace can help an organization remain competitive.

One of the first initiatives an employer should consider is the implementation of an Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP).  EFAPs are benefits programs that are paid in full or in part by the employer and provide the employee and their family with access to resources for a variety of physical and mental health concerns.

The Nova Scotia Trucking Safety Association (NSTSA) and the Trucking Human Resources Sector Council (THRSC) Atlantic have collaborated on a program to bring EFAP benefits to employers of all sizes – including owner-operators.  Offered through Homewood Health, this trucking-focused EFAP offers a wide variety of counselling and coaching services specifically aimed at preventing mental health disorders and reducing staff turnover.

Trucking HR Canada is another organization that can aid employers in the adoption of best practices related to improving workplace mental health.  In addition to providing the trucking industry with labour market information and training services, Trucking HR Canada recognizes the efforts of fleets that implement excellent human resource policies and practices through their Top Fleet Employers program.  In their document Gearing Up for Workplace Mental Health, they present best practices related to improving and maintaining mental health that are in use by some of their Top Fleet Employers.

By reading up on what other organizations are doing to improve mental health in their workplaces, fleet managers will find that many companies are implementing initiatives.  The adoption of an EFAP and openly addressing the psychological concerns in operations will put a carrier in a position to help and retain workers.  Those fleets that do nothing may eventually find themselves unable to meet their labour demands.

What can workers do?

In terms of implementing systems and policies, the employer must be the one to act when addressing mental health concerns.  But workers themselves play an active role both in managing their own mental health on their own and within the workplace.

The first thing a worker can do in improving their workplace’s mental health is to return to the opening quote of this article: be kind to others.  We are often indifferent to those around us when we are caught up in daily activities.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if our indifference leads us to miss many opportunities to be kind then we should reflect on our priorities.

While indifference to others may be at times excusable for a busy worker, being rude and mean are not.  Mean-spirited workplace pranks, bullying, and inappropriate language are not acceptable in today’s workplaces, and while employers bear the burden of ultimate responsibility for the culture at work, workers who negatively influence culture can themselves become hazards to the psychological safety of their coworkers.

Another important way workers can help is to be receptive to their employer’s positive initiatives.  When a workplace implements an Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP), some may take a cynical approach and look for problems in the program or doubt the employer’s intentions.  An open mind to new programs and policies coupled with a willing attitude to participate is a way workers can directly benefit from the efforts of their employers.

Change to a new system or program is a stressor even if it is well-intentioned.  This can be especially difficult to longstanding workers who may perceive the change as an implication that they and their work habits are somehow flawed.  Newer workers can help in these transitions by being patient with those who are struggling in good faith to embrace new dynamics.  Longstanding workers can help – and even test – their employer by being open about their fears and uncertainties.

Finally, workers should not be afraid to leave workplaces that are unhealthy and dysfunctional.  It is reasonable to expect work to be imperfect and employees need to see things in perspective.  But, not all employers will commit to the wellbeing of their workers or to improving mental health.  Workers in the trucking industry are in demand and have value; it’s a free market, so there is nothing wrong with seeking employment at better places instead of trying to make an unworkable situation work.

Summary

Employees and employers together have the ability to shift the culture of their workplace in a positive direction.  Mental health can be talked about and employer support can exist without disrupting operations.  As we make our way through this pandemic, trucking can participate in the growing dialogue around healthy minds at work – and it can be part of the movement that creates a better psychological future for industry workers at all levels.

References

1 – “David K. Henry”, Our Initiatives, Bell Let’s Talk, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://letstalk.bell.ca/en/our-initiatives/team/david-k-henry

2 – “After freight demands propped up trucking in 2020, industry braces for post-vaccine world”, Fleet Owner, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://www.fleetowner.com/news/economics/article/21152636/after-freight-demands-propped-up-trucking-in-2020-industry-braces-for-postvaccine-world

3 – “The Weary Road Ahead: Contronting Driver Mental Health Threats”, Safety for the Long Haul, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://safetyforthelonghaul.com/2021/06/10/the-weary-road-ahead-confronting-driver-mental-health-threats/

4 – “Psychological Health in the Workplace”, Government of Canada referencing the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/health-safety/reports/psychological-health.html

5 – “Trucking Sector Employee and Family Assistance Program”, joint publication from the Trucking Human Resources Sector Council Atlantic and the Nova Scotia Trucking Safety Association, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://9cdeb509-3469-47ef-9688-cb6c849e490e.filesusr.com/ugd/e00d1e_f3940a211d8144f4be10b68e7ae10414.pdf

6 – “About”, Trucking HR Canada, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://truckinghr.com/about/

7 – “Gearing up for Workplace Mental Health”, Trucking HR Canada, accessed August 15th, 2021, https://truckinghr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/THRC_Report_MentalHealthGuide-WEB-FINAL.pdf

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