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Attack stress

You're on a clogged artery, your own arteries clogging as a four-wheeler cuts you off. Your lunch is in your throat as you halt your beast of burden before it crushes the little red Toyota that has sl...



You’re on a clogged artery, your own arteries clogging as a four-wheeler cuts you off. Your lunch is in your throat as you halt your beast of burden before it crushes the little red Toyota that has slowed in front of you. You have 15 minutes to travel 50 kilometres, and then you’re back on the road in the opposite direction, heading back home to watch three excruciating hours of children’s dance routines at your daughter’s school.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s the kind of stress that Canada’s truckers face every day – a stress that’s worsened with high fuel costs, low pay, long waiting times, conflicts with dispatchers, inspectors and police, and the general inconsistencies of the job from one jurisdiction to the next. (Now, what weight are you allowed on a widespread tandem?)

Stress is the buzzword of our modern society. It cuts across all job classifications, and no one is immune to it. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the more stress you have, the more important you are. There comes a point, however, where managing stress becomes its own full-time job.

“Truck drivers suffer the stresses of being alone on the road. Some may turn to alcohol and/or drugs as a stress-reliever,” says Dr. Anthony Lucifero of the Family Counselling Centre in Toronto.

Some cases are rare and extreme, but they do happen.

Reyal Cormier is an S and G Transport company driver with 27 years of experience. And he admits to falling into the addictive behavior during his first couple of years on the job (at another company). Along with his paperwork, his dispatcher at the time dropped a bag of bennies (uppers) into his hands.

“At first, I decided to make it there on my own steam,” he says of the trips from Toronto to Los Angeles that had to be made in three days. “But on the way back, I took some of the pills, and was back Monday morning after leaving Friday night. Then I crashed for a day and a half.”

Cormier says he got hooked.

“I had a house and car, I was running hard, but I was moody and wanting to fight. I was losing my marriage over the pills, so I gave them up cold turkey.”

The turning point, says Cormier, came when his legs just gave out on him one day and he realized he’d gone eight or nine days without eating. “I used to love roast beef, but the drugs changed my taste for food,” he says.

Although Cormier’s marriage didn’t last, he got off the drugs, and realizes in retrospect that running hard meant he was often away from his family for three-month stretches.

Family and parenting issues are major stress-causers for drivers, especially those who are away from home for long periods of time. How can you parent successfully when you’re missing out on some of the landmark events in your child’s life – the first word your baby speaks, the first tooth he loses, a sporting event, a school play?

“In general, the truckers I’ve seen do tend to be good parents. When they come back they try to spend quality time with their children,” says Lucifero. He says that it’s the spouse who is not doing the travelling who tends to initiate most of the concerns about the family. The “quality” time catchphrase is often thrown around when it comes to “managing” stress. It’s almost as if your time with your kids or spouse becomes yet another thing to plan in the day. But quality time becomes easier to find if you’re willing to let home pressures ease a little bit.

“Getting the garden and the housework done is important, but the home front is most important. You’ve got to put a major effort in for family cohesion, and most people don’t have the time for that,” says Dr. Martin Shain, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Returning home again after being on the road for awhile can actually be troubling for some drivers.

“They have to almost go through an adjustment stage, for both the one at home and the one on the road. Sometimes they want to sleep in bits and pieces throughout the day. They seldom get really settled, so patience on the part of the partner at home is a big issue,” says Lucifero.

For the trucker’s spouse or partner, if she or he is not in the same line of work, it is important to understand the nature of the trucking business. Sometimes couples are working on opposite schedules, or the truck driver gets home and just wants to vegetate and recover from the drive, and not talk to anyone, especially not about problems.

For Marco Lazer, an owner/operator who recently started his own trucking business, it usually takes a day to re-integrate into the family routine after time on the road, but he is still the one called upon to deal with the kids’ behavior.

“My wife gets me to discipline the kids,” he says.

“There’s got to be an orientation,” says Lucifero. “Fill each other in on what has happened. “

Setting up family meetings, or councils, at a prearranged and regular time can work well for family cohesion.

“Reassurance is important,” says Lucifero. “The best time to begin a discussion, especially one involving family problems or financial matters, is when the person has begun to settle in.”

Many trucking families have come to a workable solution on dealing with stresses.

“My wife is used to me being away from home every 10 days,” says Michel Poirier, an owner/operator from Newfoundland. He says they’re both used to the nature of the job and are resigned to it. “I usually just sleep for the first day back,” he says.

But Poirier says that, for him, dealing with the stress of the job means simply accepting that he has bills to pay and that he has no choice but to stay on the road.

We think of stress as some sort of affliction that we have to “manage”. But interestingly enough, stress is largely people-generated, and often self-generated. Most jobs become tedious in their own way, but it’s the people we work with and come across that are the biggest stress-causing agents.

“People see conditions perhaps created by other people that are unfair, and this can have a corrosive effect on health,” says Shain.

And it means more than a little aggravation. Stress can have disastrous medical repercussions, such as heart disease and infectious diseases such as colds and flus, because immune systems become depressed. Stressed-out individuals are also subject to back injuries, repetitive strain injuries and are even thought to be prone to some kinds of cancer.

And conditions in the workplace often spill over into the rest of the employee’s life, Shane says in a statment of the obvious. “What happens in the workplace can make a crucial difference about whether an event in the home happens or doesn’t happen.”

A lot of the stress literature is directed toward coping skills and stress management, so trying to control the source of the stress, upstream, is important.

“All kinds of work have their own character that you can’t do much about. It’s the human choices you can do something about,” Shain says. “The more stressed people become, the more they identify themselves with their job. So we have to be able to perform some mental gymnastics that will separate our jobs from ourselves. Not to miss the wood for the trees, you almost have to make a heroic effort to remove yourself from a stressful situation so that you can begin to perform the mental gymnastics.”

Some truckers seem to already have this technique mastered.

“I keep focused on the work. I got more to risk losing my temper,” explains Porier. “I got a truck payment and a family to feed. The driver has no one to blame but himself if he loses his temper.”

When it seems like stress will overwhlem you, keep in mind that exercise can help get you into a better mental state. And keeping time for family and friends is paramount. “Family and home life are outlets for which you have to literally carve out, force the time,” says Shain.

But when the stress is so bad that even an attitude change won’t relieve it, professional help or techniques may be in order.

“There’s lots of stress management techniques out there, everything from relaxation techniques to yoga-type exercises. Personally, I think that although these can
be helpful, I prefer a smorgasbord of techniques. Pick what suits you,” says Shain.

Many companies now will also provide confidential counselling on stress management and other problems, under an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP).

“We have had an EAP set up at Challenger Motor Freight for about six years now. It’s set up by an outside company, and truckers can call a 1-800 number across the whole North American continent for help anytime it’s needed,” says Sylvia Bordignon of Challenger’s human resources department. She says that the EAP is used by about 13 per cent of the drivers.

“We have had very positive feedback from it. It was something really needed. These guys are away from their families and on the road for weeks at a time. I never heard anyone tell me I called that line and I didn’t get a live body,” she says.

But for Bruce Harrison, a straight-truck driver in the Toronto area, loneliness and time away from the family are not issues.

His fight is with road rage.

“Nobody can drive anymore. I’ve even chased guys down occasionally. The worst is the 70-year old driving the centre lane in his Buick Roadmaster, on cruise control at 101 km-h, just poking along,” says Harrison. He says he can remember when it was public knowledge that the centre lane was a truck passing lane, but feels that serious attention is just not being paid to the rules of the road, making it hard for truckers to get the job done.

It’s a common complaint, but you can’t let the environment get the best of you.

“Road rage is, in my experience, primarily a four-wheeler problem. Guys with a short fuse don’t last long in that business,” says OPP Sgt. Cam Woolley. But he says that truckers who are fatigued can often become more aggressive as their judgement is altered.

Although there seems to be few incidents of trucker-against-trucker road rage, there are exceptions.

“We notice patterns where professional truckers avoid rush hour and park at truck stops, although we have had exceptions where one truck ran another truck into a parked truck,” says Wooley.

Many truckers told Truck News that they simply try to avoid the worst hours when they can.

“Even just a few years ago, I used to be practically standing on the wheel, yelling. Now I avoid rush hours altogether. Pull over for a few hours, and if you can’t, just put up with it,” says Cormier. And knowing your fatigue limit, he says, can help you react calmly to stressful road situations.

“When I get tired, I start to see shadows. My father taught me, when you’re tired, call it quits.”

In 1995, the Ontario Provincial Police created the Highway Rangers, a team of officers trained to deal with aggressive driving. Officers were initially schooled in road rage intervention at the Centre for Addiction Research and Mental Health, and any new recruits get the training from Sgt. Peggy Gamble, who runs the Rangers program.

“We put together presentations, at no cost, for companies, with experiences, videos, stories of actual events. It’s a proactive program showing the stages of road rage,” Gamble says.

The Rangers have gone to almost every bus company, some trucking companies and even non-transportation related corporations.

When apprehending an aggressive driver, the OPP will use a series of escalating steps to calm the driver down.

“The simplest road rage charge would be passing on the shoulder, all the way up to dangerous driving and assaults, ” says OPP Const. Terrence Reefer. He says that first, the officer brings to the driver’s attention what behavior has occurred, and gauges the driver’s reaction.

“If it can be easily explained to them that they’ve behaved aggressively, and if they seem to understand and calm down, there might just be a stern warning. Nine times out of 10, the driver will say the other driver’s the stupid one,” he says. “But once they see the police, though, reality steps back in.”

You just can’t let it get the best of you.

The trick, according to the Rangers, is not to assume that other motorists intended their actions – even the guy who just cut you off. Try forgiving them for their mistakes, or think of a time when you made a stupid move yourself.

Run a verbal “play-by-play” of what happened, and tell yourself how you feel, but be forgiving even if you don’t feel that way.

Ultimately, remember not to express your anger. Forget the blasts of the horn or flipping the bird. Your anger will only build or make matters worse.

You have nothing to lose but your temper. n


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