Wellness for truck drivers is a hot topic in today's transportation industry.
I'd even go so far as to call it a wicked problem, meaning that you can't just write a check to make it go away. Improving wellness for truck drivers will take financial investment, for sure, but also a commitment to cultural change within organizations and the industry.
But before we start talking tactics, let's throw it in reverse and examine why there's such a struggle to improve driver wellness:
The health stats about drivers are downright scary. A study released last year by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that 88 percent of long-haul truck drivers had at least one risk factor (hypertension, smoking, and obesity) for chronic disease, compared to only 54 percent of the general U.S. adult working population.
The same study reported that 27 percent of long-haul drivers sleep six or fewer hours per night and that 34 percent have nodded off while driving. These unhealthy behaviors create safety risks for drivers themselves and the people with whom they share the road.
Basically, the scope of this issue is massive and intimidating to everyone in transportation. There's a lot of work to be done.
The cab of a tractor is, relatively speaking, a small space. It's optimized for long periods of sitting. And there's little argument that sitting and a sedentary lifestyle are a one-way ticket to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
When drivers do get out of their trucks, it's often at truck stops or rest areas that lack healthy food options. It's up to drivers to make their own "fitness centers" and exercise plans in locations without cardio equipment and weights. In short, it takes discipline and creativity to stay healthy on the road... which means unhealthy decisions are easier to make.
Many fitness experts recommend buddying up to achieve health goals. If your pal holds you accountable for skipping a workout or binging on fast food, you're more likely to avoid those unhealthy behaviors.
The thing is, drivers are kept away from their family and friends, who might otherwise help them stay on task when it comes to working out and eating right. As a driver, there's not a guy or gal in the cube next door who you see day in and out (and who might help you stay accountable).
These small interactions build a social support structure that helps workers (hopefully) stay on track and stay in a good mood. Workers who lack social support may not have that sense of accountability that's so critical to wellness goals.
Similar to lack of social support from co-workers and family is the relative absence of supervisors and leaders — the top-down leadership that can make or break program success.
Seeing is believing, and drivers likely don't see their bosses model healthy behavior. They don't see their bosses participating in company-sponsored wellness programs, even if they do exist. Even if leadership is making a good effort to publicize a wellness plan, when drivers are tough to reach because they're not around, getting lots of participation in a wellness program is an uphill battle.
What's more, it's likely many managers stick to talk of business (i.e., cargo conversation) and rapport never is built. The result is that drivers and their bosses feel awkward having a "personal" conversation about health because they don't spend time with each other. This challenge to making a connection is just another result of life on the road, for better or worse.
As of May 2014, drivers are required to get a physical examination by a doctor on the National Registry of Certified Medical Professionals. Drivers who aren't in good health may be prohibited from driving, which is bad news for their own cash flow and the trucking firms that employ them. On a similar note, there soon could be federal regs about testing for sleep apnea.
Trucking firms are having a hard enough time with recruiting and retention. A reputation for illness and poor health among the ranks won't help attract the next generation of talent to the driver's seat.
Time to take a deep breath. It's not hopeless! Yes, driver wellness is a wicked problem, but the game is yours to change, and we have the resources to help. A good start is watching the playback from our webinar, Building a Driver Wellness Program That Sticks. (You also can click the button below to get more details on the session.)
What do you see as the wickedest problems that make improving truck driver wellness so tricky? Please share in comments.