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Career Focus

Night Ride Home Part 2

By CARTER HAMMETT - April 17 2019

Continuing the discussion about mental health and trucking 

According MHCC, the average age of a Canadian trucker is 47 years old. By the age of 40, more than half the population have, or will experience a mental illness. When you realize the sobering fact that many drivers are absent from their homes and support systems for long periods of time, accessing psychological support seems rather unlikely. 

In an industry where 97% of the workers are men, and that sector is largely seen as “hyper-masculine,” female truckers are at a distinct disadvantage says Ellen Voie of Women in Trucking, a United States-based agency that promotes the participation of women in transportation.

“I see a lot of anger from drivers,”she says via email.  “They seem to feel victimized and lash out because of it.  For example, on Facebook they swear at one another, call each other names and use it to humiliate others.  I see it on Twitter as well, as people seem to feel the need to denigrate others.  It’s sad that social media is used to harm others (doesn’t sound very social, does it?)

“I also think there is a higher level of loneliness with the driver community. They are often alone for so many hours, they have a lot of time to think and if they are focusing on negative situations, it only makes matters worse.

“It’s hard for drivers to be away from their family and friends for extended periods of time.  Also, a lot of interaction drivers have with their companies is not always positive.  They are reprimanded if they are late or don’t complete their paperwork on time.  They don’t have the good interactions as often as the bad ones, so it makes it seem as if no one is supporting them.  They also have so many regulations that govern their life, from hours of service to cameras and satellite tracking devices, they are always being monitored.”

Burley concurs. “In the trucking industry you get it from both ends,” he says. “The dispatcher typically has a stack of 200 envelopes of work that needs to be done. They don’t care what the weather is, nor does anyone else, including the end-user. They’re just expecting a delivery and don’t care about the weather. All they care about is, you’re late.”

Burley points out that longhaul truckers have it the worst. “You could be on a route from Mississauga to Halifax and your phone rings. It’s your wife and she’s crying that your kid’s in the hospital or the water tank broke. All that stuff from home comes with us,” he says. 

There are some elements that occur on the road people don’t often talk about. One of these is suicide. A trucker will be driving along a stretch of highway when a suicidal driver in an oncoming vehicle decides to ram into the truck in a suicide attempt. They are often successful. People have been known to jump from overpasses into the oncoming path of a truck. Others will walk along the side of a highway and throw themselves in front of the truck. One can only imagine the stress caused to the driver.  

Drivers involved in this type of incident whether as a participant or even witness can be triggered into a state of stress and anxiety which can lead to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among others. And absence from any support systems for weeks at a time may deter then from seeking help to cope with these issues, which can compound over time or manifest as unhealthy behaviours.

The S-Word 

So, with all the facts squarely on the table, why does the sector seem to stay mum on how to assist their “trucking family?”

The answer to that can be summed up in one word, says Linda Corkum: Stigma.

Corkum, executive director of the Nova Scotia Trucking Safety Association (NSTSA) says that her association’s main goal is trying to get people talking.

“We’re trying to break down barriers in a male-dominated industry and get people speaking about the subject,” she says. 

But too often drivers who do want to talk about their struggles are met with phrases like, “suck it up” or “deal with it.” And unfortunately there’s lots of “small-to-medium sized companies that don’t have medical plans or employee assistance programs to support their employees; that’s part of it,” she says.

In response to some of these absences, NSTSA offers a training program called The Working Mind. Based on the Mental Health Continuum Model, The Working Mind is an evidence-based education program designed to address and promote mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness in a workplace setting. The program is offered in two formats, a full-day option geared towards managers and supervisors and a half-day version aimed at workers.  

The program—which includes some cognitive behavioural approaches–aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness, while increasing awareness of mental health and offers resources to maintain positive health and resiliency. Overall, the goals of the program includes improving the productivity of employees while encouraging employees to seek help for mental health issues .

The progam also teaches self-management skills. 

“Through the mental health program, there’s certain techniques truckers can use to manage their situations,” says Corkum. “For example if they were in a situation where they saw a collision they could try a breathing technique where they hold their breath for several seconds. It’s a calming activity they can use while driving. You can also do it in everyday life.”

Another element the program creates is a “framework where truckers can express themselves in a comprehensible manner, that’s safe and people understand.” The framework is organized around colour with each colour representing a varying degree of wellness, from healthy to ill. For example, a trucker might say ‘I’m feeling yellow today,’ and people will understand, says Corkum.

The Other S-Word: Solutions

“Supervisors need to know how to talk to the driver,” says Corkum. “How do you have that difficult conversation? They need to recognize the signs and symptoms that show up.

“We’re making a real difference in the industry,” she says.

But that’s not the only tool available to assist workplaces. Companies are starting to wake up and seeing mental health as a very real issue and offering solutions to help supervisors and workers alike. Earlier this year, The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety redesigned an online toolkit to help workplaces take action on psychological health and safety.

The toolkit, Guarding Minds at Work (www.guardingmindsatwork.ca), is designed to “ assess and address psychological health and safety in the workplace and is available to all employers in the public or private sector at no cost. The tool provides employers with an eight-step process to conduct a thorough audit of their organization’s mental health using worksheets, surveys and reports that evaluate psychosocial risk factors in the workplace.

“The tool offers human resource professionals, managers, supervisors, union representatives, and small or mid-sized business owners a practical resource to focus on psychological health and safety in their workplace, undertake appropriate interventions, and measure the effectiveness of their actions. Guarding Minds at Work can also be used to help organizations as they implement the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, The Standard is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work. The first of its kind in the world, the Standard provides a framework to help all types of organizations guide their efforts with productivity, financial performance, risk management, organizational recruitment and employee retention. For more information on accessing the standard, visit www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/national-standard

On March 19 of last year, while this story was being written, Trucking HR Canada announced a new project:

Trucking HR Canada, with support from the Ontario provincial government, announced a new project focused on mental health in the trucking and logistics sector.

Spanning two years, the new initiative will work to increase understanding among trucking and logistics employers on the importance of psychological health in the workplace; and, develop practical and relevant resources and tools to support employers in addressing employee mental health.

“Mental health in the workplace is an important, emerging priority among trucking and logistics employers,”  said Angela Splinter, CEO of Trucking HR Canada. “This project enables us to focus on the development of tools tailored to the needs of trucking and logistics’ employers in supporting workers dealing with mental health issues.”

Gerald Burley was lucky. Entering the field a decade ago, he landed a trucking job that kept most of his deliveries local, thereby avoiding issues often experienced by long-haul counterparts. However, he still struggles with depression on a daily basis, yet no longer takes medication to manage it.

“It’s not always about a pill,” he says. “You have to find the right combination of factors. I’m not a believer in western medicine. For me, food is medicine and I manage my condition through a combination of diet, exercise, mind set, thoughts and smiling. I have my music and my pets.

“Everyday I do something to help myself. I listen to my music or sometimes I sit here in absolute silence, or I’ll use essential oils and aromatherapy. This is the way I meditate. We all have to find what works for us.”

“Companies have to get staff trained to recognize changes in people,” he says. “ We need to start those conversations with people, ask questions like, how are you doing today? 

A simple question like that might actually save someone’s life.

Carter Hammett is the Employment Services Manager with Epilepsy Toronto. He holds a Bachelor of Community Studies degree along with diplomas in journalism, social work and adult education. His work has appeared in National Post, Toronto Star and Toronto Sun, among others. He is the author of three books including Benchmarking: A Guide to Hiring and Managing Persons with Learning Disabilities (ALDER, 2005) and most recently, Book of Disquiet: Dispatches From the Disability Frontlines (2015). He can be reached at carter@epilepsytoronto.org.


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