Carrying the load: health impacts of truck driving

As part of ongoing work to help improve the lives of truck drivers across Australia, a survey was undertaken to truly understand the physical and mental pressures truckies have to manage on a daily basis. Here, Deals on Wheels speaks with Dr Caryn van Vreden from Monash University to hear why greater research into different aspects of truckie health is necessary

It’s a common complaint – you’ve been on the road for hours and your back is playing up again, or you want lunch but the only option is fast food, or for the fourth time that morning you get cut off by another car driver in a rush. The endless stresses and strains from being behind the wheel can build to become a daily burden of physical and mental stress exacerbated by tight time pressures, a lack of facilities and abuse from the general public.

At Monash University’s Driving Health project, research has been undertaken to build a picture of the health and working life of truckies in Australia to understand the pressures they face, with the final aim of developing programs to improve driver health. Part of this research involved an online survey of 1,390 Australian truck drivers to generate a snapshot of their physical and mental health.

Driving Health is a three-year project that started off analysing workers’ compensation data to look at the overall health of transport workers. It was found that truck drivers are at much higher risk of being injured or killed while on the job than other transport workers or employees in other male-dominated industries.

Deciding to focus on why this was the case, the Driving Health team spoke to truckies across Australia to get a clearer picture of their overall health and mental wellbeing.

The survey results were stark, if maybe unsurprising. A quarter of respondents reported being overweight and over half obese. Three in 10 reported three or more chronic health conditions and poor general health. Back problems were the more commonly diagnosed condition, followed by high blood pressure and mental health problems, while 44 per cent of drivers reported chronic pain.

“We know from a lot of research in the transport and trucking industry, and other industries, that physical and mental health go hand in hand, and that was shown in our results as well,” says Dr Caryn Van Vreden, project coordinator in the Driving Health team at Monash University.

“Drivers with a larger number of diagnosed medical like diabetes or a mental health issue, or musculoskeletal issue, were more likely to have severe psychological distress. It’s important to look at these things together because none of it works in isolation – it all works together to impact the overall health of a driver. So, without good physical health, it’s almost impossible to have a good mental health state.”

As well as being the largest survey undertaken to date of Australian truck driver health, this was the first to look at the differences between long-haul (driving more than 500km a day) and short-haul drivers. This showed that short-haul drivers were more likely to suffer from severe psychological stress, while long-haul drivers were more likely to be obese and report pain lasting for over a year.

“We looked at both long-haul and short-haul because we know that things like time spent on the road, time spent away from family, access to food – these things differ between long-haul and short-haul drivers,” explains van Vreden when asked why it was important to understand the differences between the two.

“We found that short-haul drivers tended to fare a bit worse with mental health – they had higher psychological distress – whereas long-haul drivers were more likely to have pain or musculoskeletal problems and that reflects the conditions under which they work.”

She says that this comes down to the common problem of long-haul drivers spending a long time on the road in a confined cab with not much time or available facilities to get out and stretch or do some exercise. The increased level of mental stress experienced by short-haul drivers could be due to being stuck in urban traffic all day, dealing with abusive members of the public and bad driving from other road users.

“Drivers were really motivated to speak to us,” says van Vreden when asked about the response from truckies to the survey.

“I think they are really aware of what the problems are in the industry and what needs to change. 

“We decided to do this survey online so we could reach as many drivers as possible. It ended up being one of the largest surveys for truck drivers in the country and we think that it’s really because they have a lot to say.”

Challenges of the road

As well as the well-known difficulties of attracting younger drivers into the industry, previous work undertaken by the Driving Health team showed that that suicide is the second leading cause of death in younger drivers. This was backed up by this survey, with results showing that younger drivers and those with multiple diagnosed medical conditions are at increased risk of severe psychological stress.

“Obviously, older drivers who have been in the game longer have learnt how to manage those day-to-day problems that come along with truck driving,” says van Vreden as to why this is the case.

“They might have fewer familial obligations, so younger drivers might have a young family, children at home, that they don’t get to see. But [older drivers] are also more experienced – they have been in the industry long enough to deal with the day-to-day stressors of scheduling, long hours on the road and the public.

“The thing that younger people might not realise about being a truck driver is that it’s an extremely skilled, very tough job with high demands but, realistically, it is also underpaid and undervalued.”

As to why drivers are also less likely to access mental health services, she says that it’s partly cultural, with male-dominated industries being less encouraging towards talking about mental health problems, but also due to a lack of tailored services.

“Part of our research found that truckies need to talk to somebody who understands what they are going through, so someone who may have been a truck driver themselves or has worked in the transport industry,” she says.

“It’s only now that we are seeing a lot of really great initiatives popping up for the transport industry with regards to mental health. 

“Healthy Heads in Trucks and Sheds is one example where they are trying to provide a space for truck drivers to go and talk about their mental health problems to people who know the industry and know where they are coming from.”

When asked what, overall, many drivers find the most difficult to manage, van Vreden says that, although it is different for every driver, she commonly finds that a lack of physical activity is a key issue.

“Physical activity is one of the hardest things for them to access because it’s hard to find the time, there are little to no facilities on the road, and when they do have a bit of time, they might be more likely to catch up on sleep,” she explains.

“Diet is also really hard as there is a lack of good, healthy food on the road for drivers, but they have a little bit of control around what they may be able to carry with them in their cabin if they are lucky enough to have refrigeration in their truck.

“Loneliness and metal state is an interesting one because we did ask drivers in a follow-up survey how much time they spent working alone. The majority of drivers spent most of their time working alone, but only a very small percentage of them reported experiencing loneliness. And we find that this is because they have quite a good support network – especially long-haul drivers who are constantly communicating with each other over the radio, so I think it’s the physical aspect that’s the most challenging.”

Interestingly, however, even though such high levels of medical issues and mental stress were seen in respondents, truckies also reported high levels of work ability.

“We definitely found it surprising,” she says of the seemingly contrasting information, “but we think it’s because truck drivers are really resilient people and … it’s a ‘she’ll be right’ culture. [Truckies] are resilient – they get on with the job regardless of whether they might have lower back pain or an injury because so many of them work with long-term pain.

“It’s the nature of pushing through, which isn’t a good thing for their health but there is that attitude of pushing through the pain and getting on with the job that makes that work ability value so much higher. They rate themselves with high work ability because they can still do the job despite being in physical discomfort and sometimes mental discomfort.”

Improving driver health

The final stage of the Driving Health project, using the survey data as well as phone surveys and interviews with drivers and their families, was to develop a Driving Health Allocator Training Program (DHAT). This is a free resource aimed at allocators and the supervisors and managers of truck drivers to help them understand how they can better support and improve the health and wellbeing of drivers in their company.

“As part of our research we found that most of the interventions and programs that are out there focused on health are targeted at the drivers themselves and are placing the burden on truck drivers to improve their health,” says van Vreden.

“And what we tried to do in the last phase of the project was to target the direct managers of drivers – so supervisors, allocators, etc. – to educate them on the different things that influence driver health and to see if we could implement an intervention at that level.”

She says that DHAT has been created to support other truckie-targeted initiatives that are improving access to health services.

“We are definitely seeing really great initiatives from people like OzHelp’s Health in Gear, who actually go to truck stops and service stations with their Truckie Tune-Up program. They have a nurse on staff to do health checks and they’ve got ongoing personal support that can be provided by telephone, and also online resources. So, apart from intervening at the level of the manager, we really think this approach of going to truck stops and interacting with drivers one-on-one will be a useful approach.”

What next?

“What we’ve highlighted in the research is that, when you’re looking at the trucking industry, it’s not a one size fits all and that you have to look at truck drivers and their individual working factors to know what you might need to intervene with,” says van Vreden of how a focus on truckie health could be expanded in future.

“For example, you could target mental health programs to short-haul drivers or maybe a mindfulness course, or something that you can do to deal with the stresses of the public and the road.

“In terms of the research perspective we’ve also found that there have been a lot of initiatives and programs implemented in the past but very few of them have been evaluated properly. We don’t have a lot of information about what works and what works well. We can work on that to develop new programs. So, from our perspective, evaluating existing programs and interventions would be really useful
as well.” 

For more information on the Driving Health project and to access the DHAT program and a series of free seminars, visit:

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