Psychological health is a major concern for the national transport industry, according to Dr Elizabeth Pritchard from the Monash University School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. “Male truck drivers aged under 35 are almost twice as likely as the wider male population to suffer serious mental distress,” she says.

Pritchard is a research fellow with the Driving Health project, a three-year investigation aimed at developing strategies to improve truck drivers’ health. She says a number of factors make truck drivers more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and other stress-related mental health issues.

“Complexities include the highly regulated demands of the job and the way truck drivers are paid: if they’re paid per kilometre, there is pressure to keep driving to earn a wage,” says Pritchard.

“Then there are family demands: being away for five or six days a week, working 14-hour days or sometimes longer, missing out on family life, then having to transition back into the family for one or two days before leaving again. This can lead to relationship strains.”

Pritchard says additional stressors include drivers being treated poorly by others on the road and being first on the scene in an accident, “in some instances without receiving any counselling or psychological support to deal with the trauma”.

Then there’s lack of sleep in noisy parking bays and often hot, cramped conditions, poor access to healthy food and a sedentary lifestyle. When you add the implications of COVID-19 – either too much work or not enough, as well as worrying about those left at home – it’s a combination that can make mental health a challenge for many.

Positive solutions

The Driving Health project is aiming to improve drivers’ health, both mental and physical. Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Monash University, Linfox, the Centre for Work Health and Safety and the Transport Workers Union, the project is midway through the second of its three phases, and is currently conducting in-depth interviews with truckies and their families following online surveys of 1,400 drivers.

“Generally, people know what is good for them to do, but many factors are inhibiting their ability to do it,” says Pritchard. She offers the following tips for maintaining good mental health on the road:

  • Find someone to talk to when things get under your skin. Some have a night-time phone group of drivers they chat with as they are driving to keep awake and provide camaraderie. Others talk to their partners. Some companies have counselling assistance programs or chaplaincy services.
  • Focus on the positives of being a truck driver: the freedom, the scenery, meeting new people and independence.
  • A healthy diet is vital for physical and mental well-being. It can be hard to eat healthy food on the road, but choose to reduce sugar and fat intake in at least some of your meals.
  • Take a walk. Even if you’re exhausted, a five- or 10-minute walk during your breaks can help decrease pain and stiffness, increase energy levels and improve your mood.
  • Get regular physical check-ups (you can see a doctor in any state or territory while on the road), including tests for hypertension and diabetes. Physical and mental health go hand in hand.
The Driving Health project is looking for truck drivers to tell their stories in confidential interviews: email to find out more. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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