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The loneliness of the long-distance lorry driver
The theme for 2022’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘loneliness.’ ATT Director Adam Christopher reflects on poor mental health in the logistics industry.
While the issue of skills shortages in the logistics sector became heightened by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic – leaving an estimated shortfall of 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK – it is a problem of some years standing. An aging workforce (the average age of a road haulage driver is widely cited as 55), a lack of investment in recruitment and retention and a deficit of digital skills in the sector have contrived to leave companies with significant gaps across warehouse operatives, back-office staff and, critically, drivers.
Talking to drivers participating in ATT’s EPIC logistics safety leadership programme, it’s clear that many love life on the road, find an opportunity to earn ‘good’ money and usually stay in the industry for many years, if not a lifetime. However, statistics suggest that it’s also a job associated with high rates of poor mental health. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) drivers of large goods vehicles are 25% more likely to take their own lives than the national average.
Amidst the bold banter and confident bonhomie amongst drivers which you might anticipate, it’s easy to forget that this is a profession which is highly skilled, can be dangerous, carries a heavy weight of responsibility and usually under the pressure of a deadline.
‘Tramping’ can take drivers away from family and friends for weeks at a time; one driver told me, “If I get to spend a night at home in the week, that’s a bonus.” Even though drivers must take regulation breaks – the fitted tachograph ensures compliance – shifts can stretch to 15 hours with day shifts typically beginning at 5 or 6am and finishing at 8 or 9 at night. As most drivers are paid relative to the miles they’ve covered, there is a strong financial incentive to undertake longer journeys.
While many drivers install George Foreman grills and 24” televisions in their cabs to create a ‘home-from-home’, welfare provision on the road is often poor. Factor in the inevitable challenges of maintaining a balanced diet, working in a primarily sedentary, if sometimes physically demanding job and long periods of isolation, and it’s not surprising that drivers’ physical and mental health can be impacted.
In episode 2 of our podcast, Exposure to Danger – ‘what makes us vulnerable on our roads?’, I spoke with HGV drivers Barry and Rob. They shared their concerns about the responsibility they held for the safety of others on the road and the profound, long-term psychological effects of being involved in a fatal incident. Stigma still persists around mental health and in male-dominated industries it can be more of a challenge to say you are struggling or ask for help.
In 2019, the charity Mates in Mind called for action to tackle the high rates of stress, anxiety and depression in the logistics industry. For drivers like Barry and Rob, loneliness on the road can compound the pressures and anxieties they face. There has been a lot of media coverage of companies offering “thousands of pounds” to attract recruits to an industry where 10,000 drivers retire each year.
Financial incentives aside, employers need to invest in creating an industry-wide culture which encourages workers to speak up, ensure they’re listened to and provides the support they need whether that’s an extended rest break, well-paid paternity leave or salary structures which don’t depend on drivers working longer and harder and engaging in risky behaviours to boost their wages. Although they receive little public approbation, these drivers do literally keep the UK economy on the road.