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Truck driver mental health a victim of ‘toxic masculinity’

Canada’s truck drivers are facing more than their share of mental health challenges in an industry dominated by men and isolated jobs.

“Suicide and mental illness should be a significant concern for those responsible for the health and safety of truck drivers,” said Kathy Martin, mental health and wellness specialist with the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA), in a presentation for Ontario’s Fleet Safety Council.

“Trucking has double the rate of depression versus the general population.”

(Photo: istock)

Mental health professionals with the organization say “toxic masculinity” within the trucking industry is making matters worse.

There’s an expectation that men don’t cry, and it creates unrealistic expectations around macho ideas, explained John Kellie, a health and safety consultant with IHSA. Schoolyard-like behaviors such as taunting and teasing extend into the workplace, too.

“Rubber Duck was a fictional character,” he said, referring to the lead character in the movie Convoy.

Then there are the realities of longhaul trucking to consider. There are the hours of isolation, loneliness and time away from home. It’s difficult for longhaul truck drivers to maintain meaningful relationships, or keep regular appointments with counsellors and physicians, Kellie said. To compound matters, men are less likely than women to seek help – and they account for more than 96% of today’s truck drivers.

In a 2012 study by Shattell and Apostolopoulos, truck drivers were found to be at a higher risk of loneliness (27.9%), depression (26.9%), chronic sleep disturbances (20.6%), and anxiety (14.5%), he added. Left unaddressed those can have significant health consequences.

“Is it just part of what trucking has always or will always be?” Kellie asked. “I hope not.”

Covid-19 and mental health

Covid-19 has made matters worse. Nearly four out of five people responding to a survey conducted by Oracle said the pandemic has worsened mental health, Martin said. That affects happiness at home, deprives sleep, and harms physical health.

Unlike physical health, which is monitored through recurring driver medicals, mental health can be an afterthought, she said. “Without treatment, we know statistically it often gets much worse.”

“We all need to educate ourselves on the facts and challenge our preconceived attitudes.”

This involves fighting the stigma around mental health, which can discourage those with low self esteem from seeking treatment, she said.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has identified several questions to ask to determine if a workplace is contributing to such stigma. Does an action or attitude stereotype people with mental health conditions? Trivialize people with mental health conditions or the condition itself? Offend people with mental health conditions? Or patronize people with mental health conditions by treating them as if they are not as good as others.

How often do people suggest depressed coworkers should “shake it off”, or dismiss issues raised by “this snowflake generation” Martin asked.

“Is it just part of what trucking has always or will always be?”

– John Kellie, IHSA

There is a price to pay for failing to address these challenges. PwC estimated Canadian businesses annually lose $6 billion in productivity because of absenteeism and presenteeism linked to mental health challenges. And the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that 82% of surveyed organizations ranked mental health conditions among the Top 3 causes for short-term disabilities.

Effective management strategies can involve reviewing psychological hazards and HR reports, and completing direct observations and self-assessments. Martin also stressed the need of ensuring workers know about employee assistance programs and other available resources.

Fleet managers should consider how they address worries that truck drivers express about crossing the mountains for the first time, or climbing back behind the wheel after a serious collision, Kellie said. And how do they contribute to time pressures? How often have drivers heard, “No excuses, this is a hot load.”

The isolation and anxiety increase when drivers are told there’s no available backhaul, so they’ll have to head further west and reset their hours at a truck stop rather than returning to planned activities with friends and family, he said.

“How does your management team react to these typical challenging trucking situations?” he asked.

“There is a potential for a mental health issue in your workplace,” Martin said. “There’s all more that we could be doing.”

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