Keeping Australia’s truck drivers moving

Two new reports from Monash University’s Driving Health Study highlight the large and disproportionate health crisis facing Australian truck drivers, finding high levels of obesity among the 1,400 truck drivers surveyed, and more than half of them reporting psychological distress.

Truck driving is the most common form of employment for Australian men, accounting for one in thirty-three males. As an industry, they kept Australia moving throughout the pandemic, ensuring vital supplies were delivered across closed borders to cut-off populations. The study has revealed a critical need for additional support services to ensure their ongoing health.

The Driving Health Study is run by the Insurance Work and Health Group within Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, in partnership with Linfox, the Transport Workers Union and the Centre for Work Health and Safety. The study is the largest survey of Australian truck drivers to date, and two reports have been simultaneously released.

Report six reveals that half of the drivers surveyed reported some level of psychological distress. Mental health is a particular concern for younger drivers, with one in five suffering from severe psychological distress, almost double that of Australian men of the same age.

Report seven, based on in depth interviews with drivers and family members, lays bare the immense pressure and abuse drivers are experiencing on a daily basis. Drivers interviewed report being described as the “lowest in the food chain,” and many name public perceptions towards them as contributing to the daily stressors of their already intense work environments.

“We get blamed for the accident whether it’s our fault or not.” Truck Driver

Dr Ross IlesLead researcher Dr Ross Iles says, “Truck drivers are mostly men, and we know men generally don’t talk about mental health. Initiatives such as Healthy Heads in Trucks and Sheds and Steering Healthy Minds come from the industry acknowledging mental health is an issue that needs addressing. What this research shows is the real size of the issue, especially for younger drivers. While there is an opportunity to help drivers to cope with the pressure of the job, long term solutions have to address the conditions drivers are operating under.”

Chronic pain was identified as a key health challenge, with two in three participants with pain reporting it lasting more than three months. One third of participants had been diagnosed with three or more chronic health conditions, such as back pain, high blood pressure and mental health conditions, four times greater than in the average Australian population. The survey of nearly 1,400 drivers found that drivers with more than two chronic medical conditions were more likely to have severe psychological distress, have worse general health and lower work ability.

One in every two participants was obese, compared to one in three Australian men of a similar age. Lack of availability to healthy food on the road, strict regulations, irregular shift-work and rigid time constraints often impede the ability of a driver to manage their exercise, diet and sleep.

“The biggest issue with drivers is just food and the availability of fresh, good food on the road…what people tell us to eat, and what is available on the road, it’s very hard to get…” Truck Driver

Driver and family member interviews found seven key areas that impacted a truck driver’s physical and mental health:

  1. Access to healthy food, exercise and sleep
  2. Stressors of being on the road
  3. Quality of personal relationships
  4. Conditions in the workplace
  5. Regulations and policies drivers have to follow
  6. Access to parking and rest facilities
  7. Attitudes of people about truck drivers

To be healthy and stay healthy at work a balance is required across these factors.

Dr Elizabeth PritchardResearcher Dr Elizabeth Pritchard conducted the interviews used in the seventh report. She says: “It’s incredibly difficult for individual truck drivers to influence these seven factors. We need to understand the barriers and enablers here, and make changes to how we as a society value our truck drivers. The demands they have to deliver loads on time regardless of delays, and the consequences that entails, are huge. We need to support them more for a better future.”

The next step in the Driving Health study will describe telephone interviews with over 300 drivers in more detail about lifestyle factors that impact health. Next year the research team will examine interventions to improve truck driver health. Helping drivers to be healthy and stay healthy at work needs to consider all the factors contributing to wellbeing. Most importantly work needs to be done in collaboration with truck drivers, industry, government and the public.

Dr Iles said, “This year has shown us the critical role that truck drivers have in keeping Australia moving. They frequently experience isolation and separation from loved ones, and the nature of long-haul work in particular offers limited opportunities for incidental physical activity and good nutrition. This reveals a need for additional supports to ensure they can do their work safely – it’s our turn to keep them moving.”

Click here for more news from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine