Pandemic has taken toll on drivers’ physical and mental health

Professional drivers have had a particularly rough go of Covid-19. Consider their occupation was already one of isolation. Then there's the fact they've been counted on to continue working through the pandemic, while others stayed home.

Access to washrooms, showers, and healthy food were limited. So was the ability to socialize with customers, other drivers, and coworkers. Not to mention the high prevalence of comorbidities - conditions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which are likely to contribute to a worse outcome if infected with Covid - among the driver population.

And top it all off with widespread media and public accusations of being "superspreaders." Andrea Morley, nutritionist and health coach with NAL Insurance's Healthy Trucker program gave an account on the impact Covid-19 has had on professional drivers during the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada's annual conference, held virtually this week. "Trucking has arguably been one of the most essential industries, along with healthcare, over the last year-and-a-half," she said. "Without those two industries, our world would have basically crumbled."

But she expressed concern about the toll the pandemic has taken on drivers' mental and physical health. Unlike healthcare workers, drivers have not traditionally been trained on infectious disease control. Responsibilities such as social distancing and sanitizing equipment were new to them.

They also had to worry about bringing the virus home to their loved ones. Social media has been rife with divided opinions about the virus and vaccinations, which Morley said adds to the mental health challenges affecting drivers, especially those already suffering from mental health difficulties before the pandemic. These mental health issues can contribute to difficulty in focusing on work and fatigue - concerning conditions for any truck driver.

The LifeWorks Mental Health Index showed mental health hit its lowest point in January 2021, with a slight improvement since. Morley urged employers to look out for signs of mental health struggles among staff and drivers. "Train managers on recognizing mental health concerns," she suggested.

She said employers can help by: maintaining flexibility in routing and scheduling to avoid repetition; promoting mental health resources and available benefits; surveying employees to see what resources they'd like to have available; and phoning all employees periodically to see how they're doing.

Frequent testing for Covid-19 can take a toll on drivers. (Photo: John G. Smith)

"Call them up, and ask 'How is life? How is your route?

How's the job going? Is there anything we can do to make your job and life easier right now'?" she said. She also urged fleets to recognize that "vaccine injuries" can occur, and that employees will need to be taken seriously if they are sick after getting vaccinated. "Even after vaccination, they may come across some struggles," she said, pointing out the federal government has created a Vaccine Injury Support program for those who are ill following vaccination.

There were some positive developments for drivers that emerged from the pandemic. Morley noted an uptake of virtual healthcare services means getting medical attention has never been easier for drivers who are often away from home. Processes have been streamlined, some drivers saw wage increases, traffic was lighter, and the industry was more widely recognized as essential.

She also credited professional drivers for doing an excellent job of stopping the spread, despite some media reports that truckers were spreading the virus. A Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) survey of 35 carriers employing more than 12,000 drivers found only 60 got the virus - an infection rate of just 0.5%. Peel Region and Washington State also tracked cases by occupation and found trucking to have below-average infection rates.

But Morley said trucking was an easy target because the job requires travel, which was heavily feared.

"Travel was the lowest source of transmission," she noted, adding community spread was the most common source of cases.