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A road to better mental health for HGV drivers

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

There’s a strong association between driving for work and mental health. A 2017 systematic review by the TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) pointed out that the link between driving and mental health is bi-directional, that is, driving affects mental health, and mental health affects driving.

According to mental health charity Mind, 3% of the UK population are currently diagnosed with Depression, but in studies of lorry drivers in the U.S, Brazil and Australia, respondents measured way above their respective national averages for depression.

Let’s consider three key elements that feed into this mental health perfect storm within the HGV driver community…

1. Life on the road

Firstly, the most obvious one, the job itself. Numerous elements in the role of an HGV driver could result in them feeling distressed. The most crucial, being the lack of choices drivers get to make on a daily basis. Feeling restricted and poor mental health go hand in hand. Secondary factors might be things like isolation, other road users, and disrupted sleep patterns, through to high demands for constant alertness, monotony, and long hours.

2. Boys will be boys

The second factor is that HGV drivers are mostly male, and many are of a certain age group. According to a 2019 FTA survey, the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 48, meaning there are plenty of a slightly older age group.

So, what does this mean when it comes to mental health? Well, many men grew up receiving the societal and cultural messaging that men should be strong not weak, that boys shouldn’t show weakness, that showing strength is what ‘real’ men do. A hangover from Victorian times maybe?

Strong at all costs

Many of us men move into our adult lives believing that to show signs of struggle is to show signs of weakness, somehow pathetic. But ‘pathetic’ is unacceptable for most men, so for many ‘bottling it up’ becomes the default.

But bottling things up doesn’t mean they disappear; it just means we’ve kicked the can down the road. We all experience struggles that affect how we feel from time to time, and we all need outlets to help us decompress. Some seek support, others use exercise or other healthy outlets, but many turn to less productive alternatives as a way to avoid confronting how they feel...

In the previously mentioned Brazilian study, 48.3% of the HGV drivers admitted to consuming alcohol during working hours, and 35% to using stimulants.

3. Lose the labels?

A third factor in this problem could be how talk about mental health as a society. With the increasing focus on psychiatric labels such as ‘Anxiety’, ‘Depression’, ‘Schizophrenia’ and ‘PTSD’ having firmly established themselves as part of our national lexicon, rather than making male HGV drivers feel comfortable seeking support, could this be turning them away?

Could interacting with those labels feel like an admission of being flawed, broken, or even worse weak and ‘pathetic’ in the minds of drivers?

A destructive cure?

There’s evidence that well-meaning anti-stigma campaigns aimed at encouraging people to speak up about their mental health, by viewing their psychological problems in the same vein as physical problems are turning off the very people who need to engage with support.

Dr John Read, of the University of East London along with Dr Eleanor Longden of Greater Manchester NHS Mental Health Trust, carried out a summary of the research into mental health anti-stigma campaigns and found some surprising results...

They stated that “While anti-stigma initiatives based on the ‘mental illness is an illness like any other’ approach are well-intentioned, there is substantial evidence that they are not only ineffective, but can actually increase attributions of dangerousness, and a desire for social distance”.

Time to review our world view...

Their research paper hints at the idea that framing our struggles in the context of everyday problems, rather than reducing them down to biological concepts and labels might be the more effective way of reducing negative stereotypes about mental health.

This seems logical, as there’s no shame in admitting to having life problems, whereas admitting to having a psychiatric label might be an uncomfortable step too far for some.

Old habits die hard

When we combine these three factors it’s easy to see how this perfect storm has wreaked havoc on the HGV driver population. A storm that leads to emotional avoidance outlets being chosen by many that can have the unintended consequences of putting lives and company reputations at risk.

The Australian study mentioned earlier, linked “‘severe’ depression to an increased odds ratio for being involved in an accident or near miss in the past 28 days (akin to driving with a blood alcohol content of about 0.08%” and added that this “overall equates to 10,950 HGV drivers with an increased statistical risk of an accident or near miss.”

A clearer view of the problem

So, when we place all three of these factors on the table: the lack of choices drivers get to make, male beliefs about weakness, and the psychiatric explanatory frameworks that permeate modern culture, it points to the need to look for more nuanced solutions...

Interventions that give drivers more choice and less restriction about how they get the job done, support infrastructures that understand drivers as individuals within their own unique life context, and tactfully challenge their individual beliefs and ideas about masculinity, mental health, and how to deal with life’s challenges.

Not a nourishing recipe

It’s often an accumulation of the life’s molehills that go on to form the type of mountains that really colour our inner world. And a daily existence that lacks choice, is framed through unproductive beliefs about mental health, and how to manage struggle, is a recipe for distress.

The road ahead

The next step in the research literature around driver’s mental health, needs to take a deeper dive into greater choice autonomy, societal stereotypes about masculinity, and beliefs about mental health, and explore how these factors can be influenced to create better outcomes for driver’s mental health, company reputations, and most importantly of all, the safety of fellow road users...


Jonathan Pittam Mental Health Educator


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