Health and wellbeing: looking after your 'industrial athletes'

driver behind the wheel of their truck

How well do you know your drivers? You probably look at their telematics data and timesheets to make sure they’re doing their jobs properly, but would you be able to tell if they were suffering from fatigue, stress or depression?

Fleet management has been transformed by data. But, when it comes to the business of wellbeing, a more human approach is needed.

Vehicles are inherently safe until you add drivers and, like all human beings, drivers are affected by all of the pressures and stresses they are exposed to both in their job and also in their lives outside of work. 

These factors will affect how they do their job. They’ll impact on a driver’s attitude to risk, their relationships with other road users and customers, and their health and self-esteem.

“We all go to considerable effort to ensure our vehicles are properly equipped and specified for the job in hand, so why don’t we have the same ambition for the single most important component in it – the driver,” asks Mark Cartwright, head of vans at the FTA.

The stresses and strains put on a driver both mentally and physically are often overlooked, as fleet managers and business owners focus on key performance indicators and profits.

But, the driver is not only delivering goods or providing a service, they are also representing your business and their wellbeing should be a priority if you want to ensure they deliver not only the best customer service, but also the safest driving performance.

Cartwright believes that drivers should be regarded as “industrial athletes”, where their health and wellbeing is integral to their training and lifestyle.

Improving wellbeing can sometimes take just a handful of small changes within a business, but, before acting, you need to understand the key elements that affect wellbeing.

Diet and Hydration: putting the right fuel in

If a driver is not eating and drinking properly it can affect their performance behind the wheel and on the job.

Research by the British Dietetic Association (BDA) found that up to 60% of eating and drinking takes place in the vehicle. 

“That’s a lot of your daily intake. If you aren’t eating healthily at work, you aren’t eating healthily overall,” says Susan Bury, dietician and nutrition consultant. 

More than half (56%) of van drivers consider themselves overweight, but data from the Mercedes-Benz Vans Business Barometer suggests most van drivers undertake a higher-than-average amount of physical exertion during the working day. Bury says it is down to food.

“The brain needs a variety of nutrients to work at its best. The same as your vehicle, your body needs the right nutrients,” she says.

It’s important to get the four key food groups throughout the day. Bury says the biggest challenge is fruit and veg.

“Drivers should have five servings per day as a minimum. Advise them to have them at every meal,” she says. 

“These foods are associated with less depression and less anxiety but also protect against diseases and, crucially for those driving, improve cognitive function.” 

A fleet manager can’t be expected to control what their drivers eat, but Bury says there are a number of things that can be done to educate drivers and also give them the opportunity to do the right thing.

“Breakfast should be the number one meal of the day. It tops up your energy store after sleeping. The worst thing you could do is get into your vehicle in the morning without a breakfast. You can’t be alert if you don’t have fuel,” Bury explains.

Her advice is simple; tell drivers to get up a bit earlier and make time for breakfast, or give them the opportunity to sit down and eat before going out on the road.

Lunch breaks should also be factored in. Often drivers will skip lunch or eat on the move as they rush between jobs. This means they often eat foods that are unhealthy for convenience.

Bury says drivers should be encouraged to stop and get out of the vehicle for at least 30 minutes during their shift, enabling them to have a proper meal. Canteens and depots should also offer healthy options and avoid vending machines with sugary snacks.

The BDA survey revealed that drivers are likely to avoid drinking to avoid stopping to use the toilet.

Bury says you should drink eight cups of fluid during a shift to stay hydrated, yet 27% of drivers drink between five and six cups and 19% drink four or five.

She adds: “In simulator tests, drivers who were dehydrated performed twice as many errors. The research concluded that mild dehydration has the same effect on the brain as being drunk.”


Fatigue: running out of charge

Most of the public health advice in the UK focuses on exercise and nutrition but the thing that is forgotten, for the most part, is sleep. 

There is a lot of new research on how a lack of sleep affects the heath, alertness and productivity of employees and Marcus de Guingand, managing director or The 3rd Pillar of Health, says sleep is crucial to a person’s psychological and physiological wellbeing.

“If we don’t get sufficient good quality sleep, we suffer from daytime drowsiness. But, more serious for drivers is micro sleeps. They can last from half a second to two seconds. If you are travelling at 70mph, you could travel up to 60 metres with no alertness and no control of that vehicle.”

Research consistently shows that people aren’t getting enough good quality sleep before their work day. 

“It is affecting people’s ability to do their jobs and those people are at higher risk of a sleep disorder,” says de Guingand.

In numerous studies, short sleep is associated with increased illness. That includes everything from minor ailments, like colds, to chronic illness.

There is also a significant impact on performance. Sleeping for less than six hours per night for a week can impair driving performance as much as being drunk, says de Guingand.

Around 20% of incidents on UK roads are related to sleep deprivation and fatigue-related accidents tend to be much more serious, as those who are sleep deprived have less ability to react and take evasive action.

“People think it is unacceptable to drive while fatigued. But fatigue is not generally seen as a particularly high risk area by the general public. People will drive while drowsy, which translates into people falling asleep at the wheel,” de Guingand says.

With around 10% of people who use a car for work admitting to falling asleep at the wheel in the past 12 months, de Guingand highlights the fact that common counter-measures for tiredness, such as opening the window or turning up the music, are all shown to be ineffective in laboratory tests.

“The best counter-measure is obtain sufficient quality sleep prior to a journey,” he says.

There are Working Time Regulations and Hours of Service rules but there are issues with using these as a fatigue counter-measure, says de Guingand.

“They fail to account for undiagnosed sleep disorders, poor sleep habits and people with small children. They assume people turn up to work well-rested and don’t consider commuting times.”

One of the issues that is often forgotten is the impact of pay grades and pay structure.  Dr Paul Jackson, head of impairment research at TRL (Transport Research Laboratory), warns that businesses could be inadvertently encouraging drivers to hide fatigue or incentivising them to work fatigued, by offering overtime, higher pay rates on rest days and encouraging them to work on days when they should be recovering. 

“Those rest days are about recovery, preparing them for the next block of duties,” he says.

One option to combat the dangers of fatigue is for a business to introduce a fatigue reporting system that allows employees to report when they are suffering from fatigue or where they have a concern about fatigue.

Jackson says the easyJet airline has a non-jeopardy reporting system, so employees can call in and be taken off shift with no questions asked. 

“Most people will raise concerns proactively, rather than waiting until the last minute. There is a concern that people will take advantage. Some will, but you can’t penalise people for being open and honest,” he adds.


Stress: learning to bounce back

Driving for a living is stressful. Not only do drivers have to contend with other road users, traffic and navigation, they also have to deliver goods or provide a service at the end of a journey.

While the causes of stress are difficult to mitigate, learning how to cope when things become challenging is the key to a healthy mind.

Andy Neale, founder of NFE Group, says: “At some point people are going to need to be able to cope with something and then they will need to bounce back. That’s resilience.

“When we get stressed, the heart sends a message to the brain saying ‘we need help’.

“We react to stress now the same way as we did thousands of years ago. 

“We are hardwired to make stupid decisions in stressful situations. We are conditioned to hit hard or run quickly. The thinking centre becomes inhibited.”

To reverse this process, Neale says you have to be prepared to trick the mind and move your emotions. This is done by breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds for up to half a minute and visualising yourself in a happy place.

Stress might not be easy to recognise, but there are signs that a workforce is suffering from it.

 “A workforce that is characterised by fatigue and stress tends to be characterised by poor morale,” says Jackson.

An increase in sickness and people regularly leaving the business is a good indicator, according to Jackson.

He advises fleet managers to visit the Glassdoor website, which allows employees to anonymously review their working conditions and see what has been posted about their company.


Mental health: breaking down barriers

The working environment in the fleet and freight industry has a lot of things that can negatively impact mental health. 

The job often involves high competitiveness, scrutiny through the use of telematics, long hours, deadline pressures, shift work and social isolation.

“It means we have a group of people that are at a much higher rate of developing poor mental health,” says Rebecca Posner, behavioural psychologist at TRL.

A study in the USA found 27% of HGV drivers had a prevalence of mental health conditions, compared to just 5% for the general population. 

“We have a very male-dominated industry,” explains Posner. “One of the biggest problems is that they see mental health as a sign of weakness. Effectively, as a result of the working environment, we have a group that are more likely to develop poor mental health conditions and are more likely to live with them for longer because they feel embarrassed or ashamed or don’t know how to deal with them.”

A study quantified the impact of severe depression on driving behaviour and found that it had the same effect as alcohol at the legal limit.

Cardiff University carried out a separate study and found that those with higher levels of positive wellbeing and appraisal demonstrated more positive driving behaviour; engaging in fewer violations such as indicating hostility to other drivers or missing warning signs. 

Those with higher levels of negative wellbeing and appraisal reported a higher propensity to commit violations.

Posner says: “Not only does positive wellbeing and appraisal actually reduce the likelihood of drivers engaging in these behaviours, but negative wellbeing goes the other way. 

“We need to break down the barrier around mental health, it is not a weakness. 

“Companies have first aiders, but how many have mental health first aiders? Sometimes it needs someone to spot the differences and start a conversation. 

“If we can break down those barriers, we can create a workplace where no one is ashamed of having a mental health deficiency and seeking support. If no one speaks up and we don’t put the tools in place to deal with it, then we won’t move forward.”

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