The stereotypical truck driver is a happy-go-lucky ‘bloke’ sporting the very fashionable high vis that proudly complements those robust bods. His hair is adorably unruly, and he loves a feed, which is usually washed down with the obligatory iced coffee. Let us be honest, we do not necessarily associate our beloved truckies with the best picture of health and the statistics unfortunately support the stereotype. Monash University’s 2019 ‘Driving Healthy Study’ focused on learning more about the physical and mental health of Australia’s truck drivers, who move more than 70% of all Australian goods. Alarmingly, the study found that truck drivers are 13 times more likely to die on the job than all other workers. As the truck driving industry is the number one employer of men in Australia, that is a lot of unhealthy blokes. Moreover, that is a national crisis.
Noting the vast distances between Australia’s major popular centres, much of the $1.7 trillion national economy is run on rubber. Every day more than 4000 heavy trucks make the 12-hour run along the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne, and another 3600 similar trucks ply the route between Sydney and Brisbane. Heavy vehicles make up 10% of road users and yet are involved in 17% of crashes. Another report commissioned by the National Transport Insurance Industry found that the number of truck driver fatalities more than doubled in 2019 when compared to any year over the past decade. They pronounced the steep rise in truck driver deaths a national tragedy. But why is this happening? I sat down with Belinda Flynn to discuss the work of the ‘Healthy Heads in Trucks & Sheds Foundation’ (Healthy Heads), of which Belinda is an inaugural board member, and its national initiative to tackle some of these issues.
Heathy Heads is an industry-for-industry foundation seeing solutions to challenges surrounding mental health and physical wellbeing of workers in the road transport, warehousing and logistics sectors, with Lindsay Fox AC the official patron. Healthy Heads aims to be an umbrella body for all operators, regardless of size or scale. The foundation will achieve this through the creation of a national mental health framework. Having worked across the freight and logistics industry for the last 20 years, Belinda is all too familiar with the issues facing the industry. Belinda said “long hours, shift work, social isolation and fatigue are significant mental health risk factors for our workforce”. On top of these factors, the financial instability and job uncertainty through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has only served to exacerbate anxiety levels among many truck drivers who operate as independent contractors.
Talking about feelings is not something that comes easy to our burley Australian blokes, and the issue is exacerbated by the fact that males between 40 and 60 are less likely to access mental health services. Similarly, there are not too many truck stops that offer quinoa salads and green smoothies to keep them going while on the long-haul drives. Belinda said, “It’s very important to understand and draw a distinction between physical and mental health.” Correcting my misconception on the stereotypical truckie, Belinda said, “The overall physical fitness of many freight and logistics works has significantly improved following increased awareness and information in this space.” However, and most concerning for Belinda, is the lack of understanding and focus on mental health and the importance of maintaining good mental health across the industry.
Mental health is a significant issue for the Australian road transport and logistics sector with close to 1 in 2 people having a mental health issue and close to 40% of those saying work caused or worsened it, according to the ‘SuperFriends 2020 Thriving Workplace’ report. Among other risk factors previously mentioned, pressures to meet delivery schedules and the need for continual alertness while operating heavy machinery all contribute to making drivers and warehouse workers extremely vulnerable to mental health issues, gambling, substance abuse and ongoing trauma from injuries. The impact of mental health and poor individual wellbeing among truck drivers and warehouse workers not only has significant impacts for affected individuals, but also impacts the broader Australian economy, with billions of dollars lost to decreased productivity and associated medical costs.
Conversely, it can be demonstrated that companies that do invest in good mental health initiatives will receive positive returns such as improved productivity, reduced sick leave and overall healthier long-serving employees. Recognising that not all businesses are able to make that investment, key players in the freight and logistics industry, including Qube, have banded together to form Healthy Heads in Trucks & Sheds, which will be able to provide the needed support to drivers and warehouse workers across the industry regardless of their personal circumstances.
In the absence of a collective national approach to tackle ‘driver and shed’ mental health and wellbeing, Qube, Woolworths Group, Coles, Linfox, Toll, Australia Post and Ron Finemore Transport have all combined as corporate partners of the foundation. Combining this with support from the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and the federal government has enabled the inception and development of the foundation. Healthy Heads will be an ongoing charitable foundation for the benefit of all in the industry regardless of whether they operate within small or large organisations.
You can learn more about Healthy Heads at www.healthyheads.org.au.
Maria Zoras-Christo is a Board Director at the NSCA Foundation.