Driving Change: Tackling PTSD in HGV drivers
Despite the crucial role that the UK’s Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) driving industry plays in keeping the nation’s supply chain moving, many HGV drivers are experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD). The high stress culture and demands associated with long-haul truck driving places drivers at risk for mental health and sleep disorders, and thereby, increased risk for accidents, injuries, and fatality. As part of a collaboration with North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) alongside the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Welcome Break, this Guest Blog post looks into the pressing issue of PTSD and C-PTSD within the HGV driving profession and the urgent need for specialised support.
Mental health conditions pose a growing concern within the UK’s HGV driving industry as it’s has been estimated that around one in four HGV drivers suffer from a form of mental illness, but only 22% of those diagnosed have felt comfortable enough to confide in their supervisors or managers about it. This reveals a significant issue of underreporting, and it’s quite possible that the actual number is higher, given the large number of drivers across the country. Many attempt to cope without seeking professional help or treatment, which often leads to the worsening of their conditions and unnecessary suffering.
There are various reasons why people may hesitate to discuss their mental well-being, such as difficulty arranging appointments around working hours and locations, or being concerned about being able to take medications and drive, however, 95% of workers calling in sick due to stress give a different reason to their manager highlighting the persisting stigma surrounding mental health. While society has made strides in openly addressing mental health concerns, this issue is particularly pronounced in male-dominated industries, such as transport, where men constitute approximately 80% of the workforce, making it challenging for them to reach out for the support they need.
The nature of the HGV driver’s role can be isolating, and along with stresses around soaring costs, tight schedules, low pay, long hours, and long periods of time away from family, significantly, they are also constantly exposure to potentially traumatic events. Moreover, it’s important to note that mental health challenges can be further aggravated by inadequate physical well-being resulting from infrequent exercise, unhealthy dietary habits, and insufficient quality sleep – issues that are prevalent among HGV drivers. While there is no single cause for PTSD and C-PTSD, these conditions can arise from various factors, including:
- Road Accidents: While precise UK statistics are challenging to obtain, in the USA, it’s estimated that roughly one-third or more of HGV drivers may encounter a traumatic road accident during their professional careers.
- Witnessing Trauma: Drivers who witness violent road accidents can also experience the symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD. Memories of these traumatic events may result in anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and flashbacks.
To provide an example of this, a member of an American “Women in Trucking” Facebook group shared a distressing experience of witnessing a Road Traffic Incident that left a lasting impact. Seeking advice from fellow members who understand the challenges of the road, she asked how they cope with such common yet haunting incidents.
In response, fellow drivers shared their own stories of flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories following traumatic road incidents. For these drivers, being near the scene of a accident or witnessing risky behaviours in fellow drivers triggered PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms. Exhaustion compounds these challenges. There are times when drivers feel pressured to push their limits, due to tight shift restrictions or being far away from a safe rest stop. Overcrowded truck stops sometimes leave tired truckers with no choice but to continue driving despite their exhaustion.
The Link Between PTSD and Road Safety
Drivers experiencing stress and burnout, or mental health conditions such as PTSD or C-PTSD are significantly more susceptible to experiencing daily fatigue, struggling with concentration, and becoming short-tempered, potentially escalating to road rage, and so it’s clear that compromised mental health among drivers poses significant dangers, including potentially fatal ones.
For these reasons, the importance of acknowledging and addressing mental health issues within the transport industry cannot be emphasised enough.
Initiatives and projects to support HGV drivers mental health
In 2017 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety) produced a document entitled “Occupational health and extended working lives in the transport sector”. It identified serious issues for HGV drivers especially those working into older age.
In 2019 North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) combined forces with the Welcome Break Rothwell Truckstop on the A14. This facility offers over 200 dedicated spaces for HGVs, reflecting their commitment to providing essential resources for hardworking drivers.
From both a health and safety and public health perspective, HGV drivers are a significantly hard group to reach. The opening of the Truckstop, with the co-operation of Welcome Break, gave NNC an opportunity to make contact with this workforce to look at what could be done to improve both their physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Along with NNC’s partners including the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Welcome Break, they now advise and support drivers visiting the site. This work helps to improve the health and wellbeing of the HGV drivers and supports the wider transport community by encouraging drivers to look after their health and prolong their driving career.
The intention of this project is to raise the awareness of drivers as to how they can improve their own physical and mental wellbeing by firstly getting them to recognise potential health issues, simple dietary and exercise changes and where to go for support. It is also raising awareness within the “Truckstop” industry that there is real potential to make their offer more engaging with drivers to get key messages to this hard-to-reach community.
A health and wellbeing promotional event was held at there at the end of October 2022, timed to be part of the RHA’s ‘National Lorry week’. This event included stands from multiple partners:
- Public Health providing alcohol, weight loss and smoking cessation resources.
- NNC engaging with HGV drivers on site, encouraging questionnaires to be completed, giving away incentives and handing out Z-cards. These are wallet size cards of information, including QR codes to access videos and details of nationally available resources to support health and wellbeing which were created by NNC. The videos used were provided by Pristine Condition International Limited who were extremely supportive in providing the videos in QR code format.
- The Road Haulage Association with the Road Show HGV offered free resources and their medical team D4U.
- The University of Northampton carried out cholesterol blood tests, blood pressure monitoring, weight checks and wellbeing surveys.
- Kettering MIND also attended engaging with drivers and offering support and information.
- The ‘Living Well Taking Control’ team provided diabetes prevention information.
- NHFT’s sexual health outreach team
- Northamptonshire Sport introduced a competitive element with rowing machines and a batak reaction timing machine with prizes provided by Welcome Break.
Drivers were encouraged to complete a questionnaire based on their’ current health and wellbeing and how this could be improved. The questionnaire was made up of multiple questions including
- Does your job make your long-term health conditions difficult to manage?
- What do you currently do to stay healthy?
- Do you have any other feedback for Rothwell Truck Stop?
100+ responses were received, a positive atmosphere was maintained throughout the event, and a proficient level of engagement achieved. Partners involved all benefited from the event through the interactions and data gathered. They have expressed keen interest in future involvement.
The majority of the drivers who took part were aged between 46-65, this highlights that there has been a difficulty with recruitment for this demographic. The results also revealed that 44% of participants have a long-term health condition and 42% of those agreed it the job made their condition difficult to manage. The most common health condition amongst participants was high blood pressure, closely followed by diabetes. The most common barriers highlighted by the drivers that prevent them from staying healthy at work are long irregular hours, a lack of healthy food choices and poor welfare facilities.
North Northamptonshire Council, Welcome Break and RHA have again teamed up this year to provide another health and wellbeing event. This will be held on Friday 27th October between 10am and 4pm and will tie in with RHA’s National Lorry Week Road Trip and follow on from the successful events last year. During the event, drivers will be able to chat to the teams and other partners involved including MIND, Action for Happiness, and the Diabetes Safety Organisation. Drivers will also be able to have health checks, such as blood pressure, weight and cholesterol checks.
The North Northamptonshire Council-led project has been recognised at the national Municipal Journal Awards 2023 in the Transforming Lives category. The Council’s Community Wellbeing, Environmental Health and Public Health teams were Highly Commended for their work in supporting HGV drivers using Rothwell Truck Stop.
They are now also looking to engage with new partners including PTSD UK, Action for Happiness and MacMillan, as well as arranging for Welcome Break staff to receive Zero Suicide Alliance training to give them the skills to deal with difficult conversations they may have with customers.
Seeking Specialised Help and Support
Addressing PTSD and C-PTSD among HGV drivers in the UK is a matter of urgency and the work that North Northamptonshire Council (NNC), Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Welcome Break are doing is a huge step in the right direction. Employers, industry organisations, and individuals must collaborate to create an environment where these conditions are recognised and support is readily available. Initiatives aimed at promoting awareness of trauma-related mental health challenges and providing specialised support within the industry are crucial steps toward a healthier and safer future for HGV drivers.
The transport and logistics industry must look to increase the support and mental health well-being of its drivers, recognising that the consequences are both significant in human and financial terms.
In 2023 HSE also launched the Working Minds campaign which is designed to champion the well-being of HGV drivers while they’re on the job.
The network of truck stops across the UK represents a substantial yet often overlooked opportunity for engaging with drivers’ health, and we feel that the initiatives of adopting a holistic, long-term approach to the health and well-being of HGV drivers, along with the improvement of available facilities undertaken by North Northamptonshire Council, Welcome Break and RHA can certainly be replicated elsewhere. Raising awareness about health, promoting increased participation in initiatives and fostering behavioural changes is vital, and their work has shown what’s possible.
- Mental Health Awareness For HGV Drivers
Photo by Mathias Reding
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.