Truck driver mental health a victim of ‘toxic masculinity’

Canada’s truck drivers are facing more than their share of mental health challenges in an industry dominated by men and isolated jobs.

“Suicide and mental illness should be a significant concern for those responsible for the health and safety of truck drivers,” said Kathy Martin, mental health and wellness specialist with the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA), in a presentation for Ontario’s Fleet Safety Council.

“Trucking has double the rate of depression versus the general population.”

worried truck driver
(Photo: istock)

Mental health professionals with the organization say “toxic masculinity” within the trucking industry is making matters worse.

There’s an expectation that men don’t cry, and it creates unrealistic expectations around macho ideas, explained John Kellie, a health and safety consultant with IHSA. Schoolyard-like behaviors such as taunting and teasing extend into the workplace, too.

“Rubber Duck was a fictional character,” he said, referring to the lead character in the movie Convoy.

Then there are the realities of longhaul trucking to consider. There are the hours of isolation, loneliness and time away from home. It’s difficult for longhaul truck drivers to maintain meaningful relationships, or keep regular appointments with counsellors and physicians, Kellie said. To compound matters, men are less likely than women to seek help – and they account for more than 96% of today’s truck drivers.

In a 2012 study by Shattell and Apostolopoulos, truck drivers were found to be at a higher risk of loneliness (27.9%), depression (26.9%), chronic sleep disturbances (20.6%), and anxiety (14.5%), he added. Left unaddressed those can have significant health consequences.

“Is it just part of what trucking has always or will always be?” Kellie asked. “I hope not.”

Covid-19 and mental health

Covid-19 has made matters worse. Nearly four out of five people responding to a survey conducted by Oracle said the pandemic has worsened mental health, Martin said. That affects happiness at home, deprives sleep, and harms physical health.

Unlike physical health, which is monitored through recurring driver medicals, mental health can be an afterthought, she said. “Without treatment, we know statistically it often gets much worse.”

“We all need to educate ourselves on the facts and challenge our preconceived attitudes.”

This involves fighting the stigma around mental health, which can discourage those with low self esteem from seeking treatment, she said.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has identified several questions to ask to determine if a workplace is contributing to such stigma. Does an action or attitude stereotype people with mental health conditions? Trivialize people with mental health conditions or the condition itself? Offend people with mental health conditions? Or patronize people with mental health conditions by treating them as if they are not as good as others.

How often do people suggest depressed coworkers should “shake it off”, or dismiss issues raised by “this snowflake generation” Martin asked.

“Is it just part of what trucking has always or will always be?”

– John Kellie, IHSA

There is a price to pay for failing to address these challenges. PwC estimated Canadian businesses annually lose $6 billion in productivity because of absenteeism and presenteeism linked to mental health challenges. And the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that 82% of surveyed organizations ranked mental health conditions among the Top 3 causes for short-term disabilities.

Effective management strategies can involve reviewing psychological hazards and HR reports, and completing direct observations and self-assessments. Martin also stressed the need of ensuring workers know about employee assistance programs and other available resources.

Fleet managers should consider how they address worries that truck drivers express about crossing the mountains for the first time, or climbing back behind the wheel after a serious collision, Kellie said. And how do they contribute to time pressures? How often have drivers heard, “No excuses, this is a hot load.”

The isolation and anxiety increase when drivers are told there’s no available backhaul, so they’ll have to head further west and reset their hours at a truck stop rather than returning to planned activities with friends and family, he said.

“How does your management team react to these typical challenging trucking situations?” he asked.

“There is a potential for a mental health issue in your workplace,” Martin said. “There’s all more that we could be doing.”

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

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  • These “problems” facing otr drivers were pretty much unheard of 20 years ago and beyond when there was pride in the industry. Today there is no freedom to being on the road with all the government red tape and meddling and freedom was what kept us going. To mention the so called “toxic masculinity” is a slap in the face, this masculinity is far from toxic and has served us well over the years and without it very few will last long on the road. The people who wrote this article know nothing about being a real trucker and living on the road and are just part of the problem, perpetuating nonsense. Truckers in days gone by were truckers because that’s what we wanted to do not because we just needed any old job. These opinion pieces show that there is a lot of work to be done in journalistic integrity when all that matters is pushing the agenda along a little farther. Remember Sky Pilot

    • Right on Driver! Well said. I’ve been OTR now into my 47th year… and still love it…(company driver now, with the same carrier)

      “Toxic Masculinity”…SERIOUSLY?!!…the meatheads that came up with this idea haven’t even a clue as to what da heck they be talkin’ about!
      WE still move America!

  • We all know driving long haul is you are going far to do your assignment and into this assignment there will be surprises and that can not be avoided.
    So if any thinking this is a nice five day trip and home for week end , well yes today this is what company promote and the money is not there they pay say 25 dollars per hours I really don’t know how it work but I rather stay with so much per miles and for sure it is not all rose’s out there but if any could take that as it is and do good arrangements with the company about time off this could be a very good job.
    For my part I like travelling and do enjoy trucking long haul.

  • So far no one has the guts to go after the Shippers and Receivers with their hours of service and goofy appointment times, which causes HAVOC ON TRUCK DRIVERS; ESPECIALLY THEIR NO TRUCK PARKING RULES.
    So you see, what does TOXIC MASCULINITY have to do with anything if the drivers aren’t running the show?