Beyond the physical: Drivers' mental health is also affected by long hours on the road

Image: Jim Allen / FreightWaves

Image: Jim Allen / FreightWaves

It is no secret that truck driving can take a toll on one’s physical wellbeing. From obesity to smoking, drivers consistently experience more risk factors for serious disease than other Americans. However, it is becoming clear that their mental health also takes a hit.

On the physical side, 69% of drivers are obese compared to 33% of U.S. adults, according to HealthCheck360 Director of Health Coaching Trent Tangen. While 32% of U.S. adults use nicotine, 54% of drivers use nicotine. About 7% of U.S. adults have sleep apnea compared to 28% of drivers, and about 10% of U.S. adults have diabetes compares to 15% of drivers.

HealthCheck360 is a national health and well-being provider that has developed a program aimed at improving the health of drivers and helping them attain and keep DOT medical cards, therefore keeping them on the road.

Many of the physical health problems drivers face have known or suspected links to various types of mental illness, including anxiety and depression. While exact estimates are hard to calculate, the American Psychological Association has long advised that there is a correlation between mental illness and obesity. The Association has also uncovered a link between mental illness and smoking, stating that people who experience mental illness are 70 percent more likely to be smokers than the general population.

Drivers are known to experience higher levels of seasonal affective disorder than the general population, according to FreightWaves Chief Insight Officer Dean Croke. The mental health disorder affects between 5% and 15% of drivers each year. SAD affects about 3% of the general population, according to the APA.

SAD is a mood disorder that is characterized by depression that starts at the same time each year, during the colder months when people are exposed to less sunlight. Symptoms of the disorder include low energy, sleep issues, irritation, tiredness and changes in weight and appetite.

The lower levels of light exposure in the fall and winter months is thought to cause SAD by disrupting the body’s internal clock, leading to feelings of depression. Melatonin levels can also be affected. Treatments include light therapy, psychotherapy and medication.

The condition can be exacerbated by the lack of a regular sleep schedule, which also knocks off the body’s internal clock. This could contribute to its prevalence among drivers.

Drivers are also in a unique position that increases their risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. While there are no solid numbers on what percentage of drivers develop PTSD, FMCSA crash statistics state about one-third of drivers will be in a serious accident over the course of their careers. Accidents are a leading cause of PTSD across all demographics.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that manifests when someone struggles to overcome experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks.

Beyond diagnosable mental illnesses like SAD and PTSD, drivers also have to grapple with everyday stress while alone and isolated on the road for weeks at a time.

If not dealt with in a healthy manner, this stress can build up and lead to physical problems like insomnia, high blood pressure and weight gain.

While the physical health concerns drivers face certainly warrant ample attention, it is time to loop mental health into the conversation.