More than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. This figure comes from a UCL COVID-19 social study of 90,000 UK adults which has monitored mental health symptoms throughout lockdown. Researchers have found that stress, anxiety, worry and depression have all increased as a result of the pandemic and government measures to contain it.
People who drive for work are in a unique position. Often working long hours, in solo situations, driven by deadlines, and with the responsibility of a vehicle, it can be a difficult and stressful workplace environment. Businesses with staff who drive for work, whether in company cars or commercial vehicles, have a legal obligation to manage them correctly, and this has only been enhanced by COVID-19. As lockdown eases and we move into a ‘new normal,’ organisations are encouraged to ensure that they manage work-related road risk effectively and keep people who drive for work safe. COVID-19 is still a risk, and many drivers are more exposed than the general population. As a result, there is the potential for their mental wellbeing to be adversely impacted.
How is driver mental health affected?
The 2019 State of Remote Work report highlighted that 19% of remote workers note their biggest struggle is loneliness. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions. A study by The Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Strathclyde, University of Cambridge, Swansea University and Queen’s University Belfast found that one in four adults have felt lonely during the lockdown.
Commercial vehicle drivers are used to a degree of isolation, as many travel alone. But social distancing has amplified those feelings. There will be a relaxing of these rules, but some levels will need to be maintained and social interaction will be limited to a degree. Many of those who drive company cars, such as sales teams, may still be working from home for some time as firms look to reduce their employees’ potential exposure to the virus, so the human interaction that many of them thrive on will be missing.
A research paper by Dr. Lisa Dorn, Associate Professor of Driver Behaviour at Cranfield University and Research Director for DriverMetrics,® shows how social isolation can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression, which is known to influence driver behaviour and lead to distractions and potential crashes. These feelings might have been exacerbated over the last few months, and the isolation and loneliness associated with lone working can compromise mental health.
Anxiety in the workplace
Many organisations will have had to furlough their drivers, as the restrictions prevented them from operating normally. As lockdown lifts, they will be coming back. After weeks off, this might bring feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. There may also be practical considerations to take into account. Furloughed drivers might have spent a long time without driving at all. They may well have experienced ‘skill fade’ and it will take them a little time to readjust. They will also quite possibly be coming back to a different working environment. Their role may have changed, some valued colleagues may have left, or even have succumbed to the virus, plus life on the road will be different with rising traffic levels, different road layouts and an increase in vulnerable road users such as cyclists as commuters seek to avoid public transport.
Meanwhile, concern over the state of the economy could lead to anxiety about job security. Your staff may be part of families where other members have been made redundant, and thus are now the sole earner. The Mental Health Foundation reports that during the height of the pandemic over a third of people in full-time work surveyed were concerned about losing their job.
There has been a huge increase in the demand for home deliveries with many firms currently recruiting large numbers of new drivers. This additional demand could increase the chances of drivers suffering fatigue as they try to keep up with a packed delivery schedule. The impact of fatigue on a person’s mental and physical health includes stress, irritability, reduced alertness, minimal vigilance, and lower productivity, and sleep deprivation from the anxieties already discussed could make the problem worse. It is clear to see that this will impact wellbeing – and the business – as driving when drowsy results in far more accidents. These incidents, aside from putting the driver at risk, can also lead to significant business disruption if the vehicles have to be taken off the road for repairs.
What measures should employers consider?
Firstly, employers should provide adequate protection against COVID-19 and follow social distancing guidelines in the workplace, to reduce fears and anxieties associated with the pandemic. Studies often show the biggest motivator for employees is feeling valued and involved in the business, so making sure that there are communication processes in place to support staff and manage their wellbeing could ensure productivity and business resilience is maximised.
At the same time, Dr. Lisa Dorn advises to not put too much pressure on the workforce, and to make suitable modifications and adjustments to workloads and routines. Adding to workloads during a time of stress could be counterproductive. Also consider the capacity of each employee, to see if they are overworking due to fears over income or job loss. It is important to reassure drivers that they should take regular breaks and rest when tired.
Businesses could consider refresher training, skills guidance, and offer support to ensure that drivers remain confident enough to undertake their duties, especially if they are returning to a workplace which looks very different to before. Confidence is a key aspect of having happy and healthy drivers, and will result in a better performing workforce.
Many firms are now implementing new policies around issues such as vehicle sanitisation and home working that they intend to be permanent, and not just for the short term. Get staff involved in the development of these policies to ensure they are workable and get maximum staff buy-in as quickly as possible.
Let drivers know that their colleagues are able to support them, and empower people – including their loved ones, friends and family – to recognise signs of trouble. Also look for the indicators of stress, which include being quieter than usual or more argumentative. It is important to make sure that your drivers feel they have someone to talk to if they are feeling isolated or alone. Maintaining a healthy peer support culture helps people feel involved in their business, and enhances a sense of purpose. People who are engaged in their work are happier and more productive – leading to better workforce retention.
Returning to the ‘new normal’
Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like, getting back to it will be a challenge. Drivers will need additional support and guidance to maintain mental and physical health. Employers should develop robust driving for work policies that put wellbeing and mental health at its centre. Good mental and physical health improves productivity, creating better performance and improving the financial strength of the business for the journey ahead.
Employers need to recognise the signs early before they become a serious issue among the workforce.
Co-workers are often able to spot signs of worry, stress, anxiety, or fatigue better than those in leadership positions, so it’s good practice to consider directing employees towards resources where that can help with wellbeing solutions. For example, the Samaritans’ Wellbeing in the Workplace tool enables people to identify potential signs of concern amongst colleagues.