Fleet News

Driver mental health: how to spot the signs and what to do

If a vehicle develops a fault or is damaged in some way, then both the problem and the fix are usually simple to identify. However, if a driver is under-performing then the reasons why may not be as clear.

“If I came to work with a broken leg, you’d see the plaster,” says Andy Neale, director of driver risk management company NFE Group. “If I came to work stressed, there may be no visible signs.”

However, stress – together with fatigue – is a major factor in the mental well-being of a driver. And if this is poor, then it can have a significant effect on their performance: stress, for example, means a driver will take more risks.

“Make no mistake, if you are not managing fatigue, stress and driver well-being, it is having an impact on your operation,” says Paul Jackson, head of impairment research at TRL.

“There is a whole range of costs to the operation caused by poor driving performance.

“There is the bent metal costs, bumps and scrapes, damaged wing mirrors and increased insurance costs, while research in other industries has shown that tired and stressed drivers use up far more fuel.”

There is also a human cost, which will not show up as obviously on an organisation’s balance sheet.

This can sometimes manifest itself through poor customer service, harming the reputation of the company, and usually leads to an employee unhappy in their work.

“Eventually people take days off sick,” adds Jackson. “If people don’t necessarily take days off through sickness, they will take days off just through absenteeism.

“And even those that are in the office or working may be guilty of presenteeism – they may be there, but they are not particularly functional.

“As we often say in the fatigue world, the lights are on, but nobody is home.

“Then we have people deciding ‘do you know what, I’ve had enough of this’ and so people leave, which means that recruitment and training costs go up.”

Jackson says he spoke with a delivery company which recruits 150 drivers each week and puts them through a 12-week training programme.

However, within four weeks of completing the course, 75% of those employees were leaving the company.

“It costs £2,000 to put each person through that course: that’s £300,000 a week being spent on training and recruitment only for most of those people to leave in less than a month, and this is part of their operational practice,” says Jackson.

“No one had asked why they were spending £300,000 a week on this problem or if there was a better way of doing it.

“Their concern was that they were recruiting the wrong kind of people. The reality is that they were recruiting exactly the right kind of people, but their operational practices were wrong. Many organisations just don’t get that.”

He adds: “The sad reality is most people don’t calculate the extent to which fatigue and stress are impacting on the bottom line.”

 

 

Stress and fatigue are the two major contributors to driver mental well-being, and these can be caused by factors both inside and outside work. “The thing with stress is that it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it can be a problem at work,” says Neale.

Possible sources can be a poor work/life balance, domestic/personal issues, poor work organisation and uncertain roles and the demands of the job.

Issues which are more specific to drivers are unrealistic delivery schedules, congestion and the behaviour of other drivers.

Stress can impair sleep quality, which increases the likelihood of fatigue, which, in turn, can heighten feelings of stress.

TRL identifies seven elements that contribute to mental well-being and, within these, Jackson says there are questions an employer needs to ask themselves about their working practices:

  • Emotional are support services available for drivers?
  • Physical are there opportunities for exercise?
  • Community do long hours make social activities difficult?
  • Friends and family do long periods away from home increase isolation, depression?
  • Career do work practices increase stress and anxiety?
  • Financial do pay rates and pay structure increase fatigue?
  • Values do company and individual values align?

 

 

Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that mental health conditions, such as work-related stress, depression or anxiety, accounted for 15.8 million sick days last year.

And although an organisation may not be aware of a problem with driver well-being, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist as many people feel uncomfortable talking about mental health.

A survey of more than 2,000 van operators and drivers by Mercedes-Benz Vans UK earlier this year found that 56% said there is a stigma attached to discussing mental health at work, while only 28% of managers said an employee had spoken to them about the issue.

These findings were supported by research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation. Its survey of 2,000 British workers found 38% of respondents wouldn’t talk openly about a mental health problem for fear it would affect their career prospects or job security.

Some 45% of workers also said they would be likely to make up an excuse such as stomach ache or back problems for absence if they needed to take time off for mental health reasons, which could mask the scale of the issue.

“Lots of people, men and women, shy away from taking about mental health,” says Andrew Brown, director of corporate partnerships at mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which is partnering with the FTA’s Van Excellence on a campaign to raise awareness of the issue.

“Men, specifically, are really poor. They don’t want to make others worry, whether it is their partner or family and, crucially, they don’t know how to talk about what they’re feeling.

“Consequently, this leads to the statistic that more than 40% of men in the UK under 45 have considered taking their own life, and under half of them don’t tell anyone.”

He adds: “Blokes are three times more likely to take their own lives than women are. When you start to drill down into the actual numbers, it equates to one man taking his own life every two hours in the UK. That’s 12 a day, 84 a week. It’s almost an epidemic.”

The latest Government figures (ONS Report 2001-2013) shows that if you are a man between 20 and 49, you are more likely to die from suicide than cancer, road accidents or heart disease, and suicide rates in men aged between 45 and 59 have also now begun to rise, increasing to their highest levels since 1981.

 

 

It is vital that any mental well-being problems are identified so an employee can get the help they need to manage their symptoms, and reduce the risk to themselves and other road users.

A sign that a driver is having an issue could be that something about the way they behave around people or carry out their job has changed.

“Are they doing more work? Are they doing less? A change in how they are could be a sign that something isn’t right,” says Andy Price, director of Fleet Safety Management.

“If you see a friend or a colleague who you think may be suffering from something, ask them how they are.

“It may be that everything is all right, and that’s the answer you get, but unless you ask, you are never going to know.

“Asking that simple question can be the first step to helping them get the right support.”

Research by mental health charity Time to Change has shown that when asked how they are, three-quarters of people will say ‘I’m fine’ even if they are struggling with a mental health problem.

“We are encouraging everybody to ask twice,” says Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change. “Asking twice – ‘Are you sure you’re ok?’ – means people are much more likely to open up in conversation.”

Price says it helps if an organisation has an infrastructure in place to deal with mental health issues such as confidential employee helplines or trained managers.

If this is not the case, then employees can talk to a manager if they see a change in a colleague’s behaviour.

“It may be a little bit awkward, it may be a little bit uncomfortable, but it could be the first step to getting that person some help and support,” he adds.

Another indicator that there could be a problem could be a change in an employee’s driving behaviour.

“If you’ve got telematics in your vehicles and you can see a change in the number of exceptions, or a trend going back to a certain date, that could be a great way to spot that someone is having a problem,” says Price.

“If you do post-incident reviews, you could be looking for mental health conditions that have contributed to that person having a crash.”

 

 

Many organisations have a range of support services in place for their employees such as occupational health, or a mechanism to refer an employee to the NHS.

However, a key step is to create an environment in which drivers can feel confident that they can report mental health issues without any negative consequences.

They need reassurance that health problems will be treated sympathetically and that appropriate occupational health advice will be available, otherwise they may simply avoid reporting problems.

“You have to get the conversations normalised, you have to get people thinking that they can talk about mental health because it’s normal to do so,” says Brown.

“You need to make sure people – men and women – are totally comfortable talking about their emotions and asking people how they are feeling without it seeming like they are criticising in some way.

“We need to engage staff in that dialogue and educate them in terms of what’s going on, so they can spot signs others, they become more practical in terms of informal support and, where that informal support doesn’t evolve, you have to provide practical off-site and on-site support.”

A number of organisations have trained staff to be mental health first aid ambassadors to give them the skills to spot signs of stress and anxiety among drivers, with Post Office and Skanska just two of the companies to have done this.

Skanska has held a number of ‘tea and talk’ events, where drivers were encouraged to share advice and experiences.

There are also more formal, operational steps which can be taken to improve driver well-being: road safety charity RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) says employers should include driving for work within the scope of their stress risk assessments.

RoSPA also recommends that organisations:

  • Ensure that working regimes and tasks do not exert undue pressure on staff that is likely to cause or magnify stress.
  •  Driving schedules should be planned so they do not require staff to drive too far, too long or too fast, and without adequate rest breaks.
  • Assess drivers to identify potential sources of stress. Stress can be caused by requiring an individual to undertake duties for which they do not feel competent. This may include driving particular vehicles or particular types of journeys.
  • Train managers to recognise signs of health changes, including sudden mood or behaviour changes, unusual irritability or aggression, worsening relationships with colleagues and others, impaired job performance or an increase in poor timekeeping and short-term sickness absence.
  • Train managers in the ‘soft skills’ needed when dealing with health issues and the need to respect medical confidentiality.

 

Case study: Post Office

Post Office has set up a team of mental health ambassadors throughout the company as part of its programme to improve the well-being of employees.

As ambassadors and not counsellors, their local-level role is to promote guidance and information of the support and assistance that is available, not to involve themselves with representing individual cases, but to increase awareness and signpost people to the help they can access internally and externally.

One of these ambassadors is Tom Fallon, transport manager at Post Office.

“The welfare of the driver is key to performance and part of that understanding is to have the skillset to speak to the drivers, make yourself available and understand some of the issues that affect their performance,” he says.

“This has enabled us as a business to support an individual while they are still in an operational role, whereas before we wouldn’t firstly capture what the issue was and, secondly, we couldn’t have provided support because we wouldn’t have known about it.

“Research suggests that a driver with poor mental health can lead to increased costs for the employer, so there is very much a reward to be had at the end of it, but that is not your goal.

“Your goal is to provide well-being, but on the back of it you do have so many benefits for the company.”

 

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