Mindful driving: Looking after the mental health of lone drivers
Mental wellbeing is increasingly becoming a priority on the boardroom agenda – particularly heightened by the uncertainty and unprecedented isolation forced upon many employees caused by the COVID pandemic. More than ever before, companies need to ensure that it is not just their visible, office-based workers that benefit from wellbeing support, advice, guidance and resources.
Duty of care extends far beyond adhering to governmental health and safety regulations. Conscientious and forward-thinking fleet operators should recognise the role that supportive management can play in ensuring a mentally resilient mobile workforce.
Life on the road can be a lonely place and can lead some drivers to feel that not only are they out of sight but they are also out of mind. Lone workers and drivers may therefore be in greater need of support, due to their increased physical and social isolation. As these employees are out in the field for much of their working day, changes in their behaviour or demeanour may be more easily overlooked or neglected.
The business costs of poor mental employee health can be business debilitating. Unrecognised or untreated, it can have negative impacts ranging from low morale and reduced productivity to long-term employee absence and increased staff turnover – and in the worst-case scenario, a loss of life.
To coincide with World Mental Health Day on October 10, we look at the impact of ill mental health on the business world and outline ways in which fleet operators can support their workers.
Counting the cost of mental illness
Sadly, in many European countries, mental health is still a taboo subject. Under-diagnosed and under-treated, the economic impact of such psychological disorders is a loss of 4% of GDP according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
According to the research, one out of six people in the EU, which equates to more than 84 million people, are affected by mental health issues.
The most common mental disorders across EU countries are anxiety, which affects around 25 million people (5.4% of the population), followed by depression (21 million people or 4.5% of the population), and drug and alcohol disorders, which affects 11 million people or 2.4% of the population.
Besides the negative impact on people’s lives, the research estimates the economic impact of mental health problems at more than €600 billion across the EU. Part of the cost goes towards health care, at around 1.3% GDP or €190 billion, and social security programmes (1.2% or €170 billion euros).
However, the most important economic impact is due to lower employment, presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover. With the reduced productivity of people with poor mental health, the cost goes up to 1.6% GDP or €260 billion.
Despite these staggering statistics, not all European countries have specific strategies to address mental health issues, so the OECD and the European Commission has called on members to promote and improve early diagnosis and treatment.
Improved awareness, early detection and prevention would not only have a positive impact on individuals, but such improved and inclusive employment conditions would play a key role in strengthening business performance and the economy.
It is therefore prudent that companies take the necessary steps to understand and support driver mental health and ensure their employees ‘out in the field’ have the right support.
Protecting lone worker mental health
There are practical steps employers can take to protect the mental wellbeing of lone workers:
- Review your policies – ensure policies (e.g. lone working policy) are comprehensive, robust, and easily accessible for all staff.
- Don’t neglect risk assessments – ensure that risk assessments incorporate common mental wellbeing risks and put mitigating measures in place. Assessments should be conducted on a regular basis.
- Train management – line managers should know how to spot the signs of poor mental health in remote workers and should be encouraged to champion awareness of mental health to normalise the issue. Colleagues can also be trained in mental first aid, to overcome any issues with stigma or judgment.
- Signpost to support – lone workers should be made aware of how to access any available mental health support. Use internal communications to signpost employees to sources of support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or counselling services.
Helping staff to be more emotionally resilient
Often, a fear of judgment or stigma is a barrier to seeking help.
According to the Motoring Research survey, only a third of drivers worried about their mental health have spoken to their manager about their concerns.
Companies should look at ways of keeping office and mobile workers connected while giving advice that helps employees bolster their own mental wellbeing.
- Technology – Technology can be leveraged in a number of ways. Social connection with fellow workers can be encouraged, with work Whatsapp groups and weekly video team meetings, and companies can also offer access to digital mental health tools, such as online counselling services and meditation apps.
- Breaks – All fleet drivers should be encouraged to take frequent breaks – the Highway Code recommends that drivers should take a 15-minute break, every two hours. This not only helps drivers to stay alert but will help to alleviate mental strain by giving them time to recharge.
- Flexible working patterns – Employee work stress can be caused by excessive workload, tight deadlines or inefficient job schedules. Where possible, businesses should put processes in place to optimise workflow and to help alleviate stress
- Physical wellbeing – Physical and mental wellbeing are intrinsically linked and encouraging workers to be active and eat well will positively impact workers’ emotional state. Companies can support with wellbeing initiatives, such as fitbit leagues and funrun fundraisers.
The important thing for companies to remember is that mental health initiatives should not be ad hoc or temporary. Though the pandemic may have heightened stress levels and put a strain on workers’ emotional wellbeing, ill mental health is a prevalent issue at all times – and a joined-up, comprehensive and adaptable strategy should be in place in order for real difference to be made.