Stress Test: It’s time to address mental health like we accept physical injuries

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Stress is a reality in any workplace, and trucking is no exception. Any given day can be met with heavy traffic, the natural push and pull between shippers and dispatchers, and the looming threat of competitors who are more than willing to take freight off your hands.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stress is the very force that drives us to work harder and do better. It drives efficiencies. But it has also been known to bring people to their knees. Look no further than issues that can emerge in the aftermath of a major collision.

There’s no shortage of resources and procedures to minimize the problems that emerge whenever metal contacts metal. We stock trucks with spill kits to ensure leaking fluids don’t flow into streams; order the parts to rebuild damaged equipment; secure everything from first aid to rehab to tend to physical injuries. But I have to wonder how much thought is given to the mental state of those who are shipped back to work after being involved in a traumatic event.

We learn at a young age that, if you fall off a horse, the best thing is to climb back into the saddle. Scrape a knee? Rub some dirt on it and get back on the field. When faced with an emotional challenge, especially in the male-dominated workplaces of trucking, we’re expected to “man up” and get back to the job.

But the same Post Traumatic Stress Disorder associated with soldiers and first responders has been known to affect drivers who struggle with demons of their own. Look no further than Normand Lavoie for an example. The price he pays for slamming into a construction zone and killing three teens is not just three years in prison. The former Manitoba truck driver talks of the feelings of anger, the nightmares, and the tendency to isolate himself from others. He will have to deal with those issues long after returning to society.

Lavoie’s story is admittedly an extreme example. Most truck drivers who come across grizzly accident scenes are there through no fault of their own. But this doesn’t lessen the challenges that some people will face when they return to the job. Their struggles deserve the same level of care that we give to a driver with physical injuries.

One of the challenges is the stigma that continues to surround mental illness. We don’t think twice about repairing damaged equipment, and can accept the fact that someone with a broken arm won’t be able to chain up a load. Sadly, we often fail to demonstrate a similar understanding of mental health. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that one in five employees surveyed by Civic Action wrongly believe that people can control the onset of a mental illness.

Businesses that ignore the issue do so at their peril. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that, on any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians are unable to go to work due to mental health problems. One in three workplace disability claims are linked to mental illness, as are 70% of disability costs. Trucking companies are hardly immune.

Support is available. Often it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Employee and Family Assistance Programs can connect drivers to mental health professionals and other support, although such programs are most prevalent at larger fleets. Bell offers insights and guidance through its Let’s Talk initiative. Specific to our industry, Trucking HR Canada is in the midst of gathering online resources to help address things like PTSD, depression, and the isolation of life on the road.

The challenges are real. We should apply the resources to treat them as such.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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