The important role mental health plays in trucking

by Sonia Straface

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Mental health is a topic some people are not comfortable discussing. However studies show that 1 in 5 Canadians are suffering from mental illness each and every day, and most are doing so in silence.

At the Fleet Safety Council’s 25th annual educational conference in Mississauga, Ont. Nitika Rewari of the Mental Health Commission of Canada enlightened fleet executives on mental health and the role employers play when it comes to mental illness.

“Sixty percent of the time, we are in the workplace,” Rewari said. “And people take conversations and stresses from work home with them so workplaces do have a place in terms of mental health employees.”

Rewari said that many mental health issues that employees suffer never get brought up to management, because of the stigma attached to illnesses like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She asked those in the room to pick out words that they associate with mental illness – “inability to cope”, “street people” and “faking it” were shouted out. But then when asked if people personally were affected by a mental illness or if they’ve have known someone who has suffered from a mental illness, nearly everyone in the room confirmed they had.

“It’s true that 500,000 Canadians aren’t going to work this week due to a mental health problem,” she said. “If it’s affecting all of us how come we treat people who have a mental illness with words like ‘you just need to buck up?’”

Rewari stressed that workplaces, including those in the trucking industry, need to implement a mental health plan into their workplace so employees can feel safe discussing mental health issues without fear of being judged.

“Workplaces have a role to play,” she said. “Employers to have a duty to care. There’s seven branches of law…that tell us that you do have a responsibility to your employees to address their health and safety concerns which includes mental health. By not doing that, we’re costing employers, individuals and Canadian society on the whole a lot of money.

“This is a very male-dominated industry. Also an industry where you’re driving for hours and hours in length. So issues that come up: loneliness, boredom, fatigue, obesity, PTSD, depression and because this is an industry that is so focused on the safety and health of the driver…a lot of times, I’ve been told that drivers undermine their illness because there’s a lot of stigma. If they do speak to their illness, they are scared they won’t be able to work.”

Rewari said employers should start researching ways to help support drivers at the terminal level but also have a way for them to connect with someone  in the event they are on the road when mental illness strikes.

“If you’re on the road and there are ways to support your driver psychologically, let’s look at that,” she said adding that drivers can simply feel less stressed through recognition in the workplace.

If you don’t know where to start in terms of putting a mental health plan into your workplace health and safety protocol, Rewari suggested turning to the commission’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety Standard. The standard is the first of its kind in the world and came out in 2013.

“The standard is a voluntary set of tools that is applicable to all workplaces..and all industries and sectors. It is a tool that allows your organization to understand what it means to be respecting health and safety in our workplace,” she explained. “It speaks to the fact that since it was released, there have been 30,000 unique downloads of the standard which is unprecedented for any standard in our country.”

She also advised for senior members of businesses to take mental health first aid training – two day training where employers and employees can learn the appropriate measures to take when encountering someone suffering from mental illness.

“If I was here holding my left arm and falling on the ground, how many would know what to do and call 911 for help?,” Rewari asked, and lots of hands in the room went up. “We’re very used to dealing with physical issues, we know what that means, we know how to handle it.”

She then asked the room how many would know what to do if she showed signs of having a panic attack. Only a few hands went up.

“With mental health first aid, you’d know how to help me, just as you’d know how to help me if I was choking on a piece of bread,” she said.

Rewari concluded her presentation by urging the transportation industry to start talking about this ‘taboo’ topic in their workplaces saying that they may as well be on board as “Canada is leading the way in the world” in terms of confronting mental illness.

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