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Behind the wheel: Protecting the mental health of professional drivers

Behind the wheel: Protecting the mental health of professional drivers


Long hours, a heavy workload with tight deadlines, fatigue, isolation and loneliness can all contribute to the mental health toll for those who drive for work. Becky Spencer reports.

My dad worked as an HGV driver for around 50 years. During that time, when he was out on the road, as a family we worried about him being involved in a road traffic accident and had concerns about the physical toll the job was taking on him, particularly in later years.

One thing we never considered was that his job could be having a negative effect on his mental health. The thought that spending days or weeks alone, away from his family, stuck in endless traffic jams and dealing with tight delivery deadlines could possibly have an effect on his mental health never crossed our minds. And mental health was certainly not a topic he would even think about discussing. He just quietly got on with the job.

Thankfully, times have changed and it is now widely recognised that professional drivers, whether they drive a lorry or a van, face issues daily that can potentially have a negative impact on their mental health. Yet stigma and misunderstanding  still surrounds mental ill health and stops drivers asking for help when they need it.

And the need is great. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around four in ten cases of work-related ill-health in the transportation and storage sector as a whole (which includes road haulage) are due to stress, depression or anxiety.  And a recent survey of 1,000 van drivers found two-thirds had felt overwhelmed by their work at least once a month in the last year, and a quarter admitted experiencing mental health issues.

It’s not difficult to understand why their work could affect the mental wellbeing of professional drivers. Long hours, a heavy workload with tight deadlines, fatigue, isolation and loneliness are commonplace. And that’s on top of coping with traffic congestion and roadworks, and having poor access to good quality rest and welfare facilities.

The difficulty is getting drivers to talk about it.

Initiatives such as BeAMate (which is supported by the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and HSE’s Working Minds campaign), CALM Driver and #Cabversation  are all trying to change this. All these initiatives share two common goals – to raise awareness of mental health issues among lorry and van drivers and to make it easy for drivers to access help. BeAMate, for example, encourages drivers to use an anonymous, confidential text service  if they need help or support with issues including anxiety, stress, loneliness or depression. The service is staffed 24/7 and drivers simply need to text BeAMate to 85258 to get the conversation started.

#Cabversation, launched by service station operator Moto in partnership with the mental health charities MIND and SAMH, is encouraging HGV drivers to  connect with other drivers while taking a break at service stations, and CALM Driver, a collaboration between Driving for Better Business, National Highways and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), is distributing free driver information packs for employers to place in their vehicles, which include contact details for CALM’s free and confidential helpline and webchat for anyone who needs to talk about the issues they are facing.

These initiatives are all great, and have already secured the support of both large and small fleets and courier companies. However, what’s really needed is a sector-wide cultural shift so that all employers recognise that supporting drivers’ mental health is not just the right thing to do but also makes good business sense, helping to keep operations running smoothly and drivers safe and healthy on the road.

Start the conversation

Mental health illnesses  will affect 1 in 4 of the population at different times and in different ways. Creating a workplace culture where talking about mental health is seen as a positive for the business and for staff is key to getting drivers to open up about their mental health without fear.

Drivers need to know it is okay not to be okay, and it’s fine to talk about that, and, importantly, that help is available. Of course, creating a culture like this starts from the top. Management must lead the way. All employers have a legal duty to prevent work-related stress and support good mental health by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. HSE’s Working Minds campaign recommends employers focus on five steps:

  • Reach out: Check-in on drivers regularly, individually and as a team. Ask them how they are and if there are any work issues that are causing them problems. Let them know it’s okay to say they are struggling and that support is available. Encourage drivers to check-in on each other too.
  • Recognise: Let drivers know you recognise that the job can be stressful and talk about the potential stressors such as deadlines, workload and long hours on the road.
  • Respond: Discuss what action can be taken and agree solutions with drivers. The earlier a problem is tackled the less impact it will have.
  • Reflect: Monitor and review any actions taken and feed back to drivers.
  • Routine:  Make it routine to ask drivers how they are, so that talking about mental health becomes the norm in your organisation.

The Working Minds website has a wealth of resources to help employers with these conversations, including  specific information aimed at those in the transport sector.

Poor facilities

One issue that is consistently raised by professional drivers in surveys about their wellbeing is the need for better rest and hygiene facilities when on the road. Having access to decent facilities and safe and secure parking improves the quality of drivers’ rest, which is essential for good mental health. And it appears that the Government has been listening.

Through the HGV parking and driver welfare grant scheme, the Government pledged to match-fund industry operators to improve roadside facilities (e.g. showers, rest areas and restaurants) for drivers using the roads in England and improve security at sites. The first round of funding (around £20m) has already been allocated. All work on improving facilities will be completed by 2025.

The Government’s focus on drivers’ welfare is part of a push to encourage more people to consider HGV driving as a career.  Opening up the conversation about mental health in the sector can only help with this, and will show drivers – new and old ­– that they are valued.


Becky Spencer is a writer and editor on health and safety and accident prevention at work, in the home, during leisure activities and on the road. She was previously Managing Editor of RoSPA’s occupational safety & health journals and is currently editor of the European Association for Injury Prevention & Safety Promotion (EuroSafe) newsletter.


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