Recent years have seen vast improvements in mental health awareness at work. Whilst it is essential that fleet operators are attuned to the specific mental health concerns of their drivers, it is even more important to understand how to support them. As a fleet manager or business owner, driver safety is always a primary concern, and so empathising with the many mental health challenges drivers may face requires sensitivity, understanding and care.
Q: What affects mental health?
There is little doubt that driving can be a stressful and testing way to make a living. As well as the general aggravations everyone faces on the roads, occupational drivers often face long and unsociable working hours, often throughout the night. Not only can this disrupt their body clock, but it also means that they have very little time to spend with their friends and family or even to check in with their work colleagues.
The role also tends to lead to an unhealthy and largely sedentary lifestyle, with poor diet a major problem due to petrol station and truck stop food options and time constraints. This, combined with very little human interaction during the work shift can all affect a persons' mental health.
Whilst recent years have seen vast improvements in mental health awareness at work, it is essential that fleet operators are attuned to the specific mental health concerns of their drivers, but it is even more important to understand how to support them.
As a fleet manager or business owner, driver safety is always a primary concern, and so empathising with the many mental health challenges drivers may face requires sensitivity, understanding and care.
Q: What responsibilities do employers have regarding drivers’ mental health?
A: All employers have a duty of care to their staff while at work, so it is incumbent upon fleets to take active steps to ensure that their drivers’ health – physical and mental – is regularly monitored.
Fleets should request annual health declarations from drivers, and this needs to be handled sympathetically and with great care. Some medication used to treat mental health conditions can affect drivers’ performance and their reactions when behind the wheel, and it is obviously important that employers are made aware of this.
However, drivers may be reluctant to admit to this for fear of the potential repercussions, so employers must stress that drivers can discuss these matters openly and frankly, and that they will receive a sympathetic hearing in doing so.
Q: How can mental health issues affect driver performance?
A: Poor mental health can very often translate into poor driver performance. Those drivers burdened with mental health problems, at least where they are undiagnosed or are not being properly treated, are quite likely to be distracted in their work, which in turn can put their physical safety at risk.
This adverse effect on driver safety can lead to accidents and increase the potential for injury or damage to vehicles, leading to substantial repair bills as well as insurance claims. However, what's even more important is the well-being of their drivers.
Drivers who are stressed or unhappy may be more prone to driving rashly and aggressively. Where their concentration is low it can be very dangerous, to them as well as other road users, so it is therefore the employers responsibility to speak with their driver about their concerns. Whether that is an informal chat in their office or 30 minutes at a local cafe. Taking the time to speak to your employees really does make a huge difference and sometimes you may find that just saying their concerns out loud will take a big weight off their shoulders.
That said, some employees may find it very difficult to talk about their feelings and so they might deflect at first, potentially resulting in increased absenteeism, where drivers simply take sick days off and don’t show up for work. The most important thing is to make it clear to your employees that you are there for them, you are available to talk to and hold no judgement, you just care about their well-being.
As long as you are doing your best as an employer to really take the time to listen to them and appreciate how they feel, that is the most important thing.
Q: Can you drive with mental health issues?
A: All motorists are required to report some mental health conditions to the DVLA, depending on their particular circumstances.
For example, those who experience serious memory or concentration problems, suicidal thoughts or other severe behavioural issues as a result of anxiety or depression are required to stop driving and to notify the DVLA.
The DVLA may then lift this restriction after six months provided these symptoms are under control and the individual concerned is not taking medication that might interfere with their driving.
Q: How can employers encourage drivers to be more open about mental health problems?
A: Develop an internal culture of openness and honesty. Drivers who feel able to discuss personal problems with their employers without fear of reprisal or derision will be far more likely to do so.
A transparent culture can do a great deal to lighten the load of mental health problems affecting drivers. Creating an open internal culture means that mental health issues are likely to be dealt with appropriately sooner, which can prevent unnecessary stress as well as potential reputational damage to the firm itself. Plus, once one person opens up it is far more likely that others will do so too.
Driver training is one way in which fleets could proactively address mental health issues. By making drivers aware of mental health matters through continual training, firms can encourage their driving workforce to address issues they have either experienced themselves or witnessed among their colleagues.
Telematics systems can also provide important insights into driver performance. Deteriorations in driving standards may be an indication that an individual is experiencing mental health problems. Employers can then work out how best to broach the topic, but they must do so with tact and care.
Q: How much progress have fleets made regarding openness on mental health?
A: The evidence suggests that there is still much work to be done on this front. According to the 2018 Business Barometer report from Mercedes-Benz Vans UK, 56% of over 2,000 van drivers and owners polled felt there was still a stigma attached to discussing mental health matters at work.
Exactly half of respondents agreed that the ‘male-dominated’ nature of the workplace was a key factor underlying this continuing stigma, while 46% expressed fears over the potential implications for job prospects and career progression arising from mental health issues.
Of those managers surveyed, just over a quarter (26%) said an employee had approached them to discuss mental health problems. Of these, 21% admitted to feeling embarrassed while 17% said they felt ill-equipped to respond.
This indicates that managers have a great deal to learn so that they are able to properly address mental health problems among the driving workforce. Firms have a responsibility to ensure that managers and drivers alike receive the training they need, in order to foster genuine openness on mental health.