A mindful approach to driver welfare
On 9 January 2022, whilst everyone’s attention was focused on high-stakes talks in Geneva between the US and Russia aimed at averting a war in Ukraine, an HGV driver in a small town in Staffordshire took his own life. At the inquest, little reported at the time, his family members talked about how he had been stressed by his job and how he had been seeking professional help for his issues. His step daughter added: “He was an HGV driver, and he worked very hard. He was a tough man and would not take time off sick.”
Sadly, it’s likely that the desperate plight of this family man in the West Midlands is not an isolated case. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that the suicide rate for van drivers is 25% higher than the national average and 20% higher for truck drivers. Meanwhile, research from mental health charity Mind has revealed that 30 per cent of work-related illness in the transport and logistics sector is due to stress, depression, and anxiety – and because these instances were self-reported, the number might be far higher.
Whilst a range of socioeconomic, biological and environmental factors can influence a person’s mental wellbeing, drivers are perhaps more susceptible to a number of unique job-related stresses. The continued thirst for online retail and the demand for just-in-time, next-day or same-day delivery is piling even more pressure on drivers to fulfil orders; and with high workloads and tight deadlines, combined with daily traffic congestion, intense concentration and a lack of social interaction, it’s perhaps no wonder that many are struggling with their mental health.
As broader public attitudes to mental health have shifted in recent years, so too has the transport and logistics sector become more accepting of mental health problems and more supportive of drivers with issues. Industry bodies such as the Road Haulage Association, for example, now has Mental Health First Aid Champions amongst its staff and runs an Employee Assistance Programme where colleagues and their families can seek support for any type of mental health concerns. Elsewhere, organisations such as CALM Drivers offers help to drivers battling loneliness and stress.
However, these are curative rather than preventative initiatives and many businesses within the industry itself still have some way to go to fully embrace the health and wellbeing of one its most essential assets. Whilst this might require a step change in management and operational procedures, it should also consider the inclusion of better facilities for drivers. As I argued in my previous article A driving change in logistics, it is vital that we start providing adequate amenities that can contribute to the physical and mental wellbeing of drivers and combat the negative perception and experiences related to existing (or even non-existent) driver facilities.
At a recent Transport & Logistics Safety Forum, a representative from one logistics company that they were aware of a driver being disciplined for urinating against the side of his vehicle. When asked by their Manager why he didn’t use the on-site facilities, it was revealed that drivers were not allowed to use the staff toilets and had been told to “arrange a pitstop at services before getting to the estate” – a fact not known by this particular driver who was new to the facility. I can only imagine the added stress that must be caused by having to find somewhere to go to the toilet on top of an already tight schedule.
Hearing this, and other similar anecdotes from the sector, troubled me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as an architect, I have been fortunate to work on many logistics schemes where we have designed some incredible amenity spaces. However, it seems many of those amenities are being provided for occupiers and office staff, not always for drivers. Secondly, it feels at odds with the important role that drivers play within the supply chain and their importance to the UK economy.
Whilst delivery drivers were heralded during the pandemic for keeping the country running, ensuring the NHS received its vital equipment, and retailers and manufacturers their just-in time supplies, many drivers still feel undervalued. A 2021 survey by Pertemps Driving Division showed 91 per cent of drivers believe they do not get enough respect for the job they do, whilst 69% thought working conditions were poor. Denied even basic facilities such as a toilet and often separated from spaces used by other office or warehouse staff serves only to further de-value their role in the sector, hitting their self-esteem and, for some, a knock-on impact on their mental health.
Driver welfare is a key issue for the transport and logistics sector, ensuring the safe operation of the network. It’s also in society’s interests that the driver profession be respected and that their status as essential workers should be reflected in the spaces and facilities we provide for them. In the office sector, creating an environment that supports a healthy mental state has been the design focus for a good number of years and guidance, such as the WELL Building Standard, identifies various interventions that can positively impact mood and stress levels in the workplace. There is no reason that these same policies and techniques cannot be applied to spaces for drivers – and with enough forethought, particularly if scope for driver facilities was incorporated into the base build, it shouldn’t require major interventions.
While logistics facilities typically have hub offices to receive drivers, it’s often just for an exchange of paperwork and the available space for drivers to use may only include a toilet and a waiting room with a vending machine. Instead of having just a place to receive people, it should be preferable to provide a hub that better meets drivers’ needs, whether that’s an integrated plug-on to the current hub office or, where that’s not practical, utilising a corner of the service yard, perhaps even repurposing containers to provide a drivers’ hub that takes up no more than the space of a couple of HGVs.
Rather than simply providing a toilet, a shower and a vending machine for drivers, the parameters could be pushed to include spaces that support their wellbeing. Instead of vending machines, which often do not provide the healthiest of options, we could consider kitchens with fresh, healthy food provision or canteen access where there is already onsite provision. Exercise space to stretch legs and backs after long periods sitting could be provided. Relaxing communal spaces for face-to-face social interaction to combat the mental health implications of long periods of intense concentration and isolation away from friends and family could be considered. Where space and safety permits, outdoor breakout space with seating should also be considered.
‘Safe’ spaces; restorative spaces to relax and unwind with private areas for drivers to meet openly with Mental Health First Aiders or other specially trained members of staff able to deal with any issues they wish to discuss could also be considered.
Over the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of HGV and delivery drivers to the UK economy. Whether a company employs just one or a whole fleet of drivers, they are a valuable asset and their physical and mental wellbeing should be very important to the continued success of the business. With thought and good design, providing well-considered spaces and facilities for drivers within warehouse and logistics facilities can be achieved with minimum cost but with maximum impact. Importantly, it can play a vital role in improving the mental wellbeing of drivers and go some way to tackling how the profession is perceived by current and prospective employees.
To download a full copy click here: A mindful approach to driver welfare by Fiona Romankiw