Talk about truck driver health often focuses on unhealthy eating habits and bodyweight. But the root of these problems might lie deeper than extended time in a driver’s seat. Sometimes, the issues can be linked to mental health.
A 2014 survey by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found seven out of 10 longhaul truckers are obese, double the rate seen in the broader U.S. working population. But earlier research, Trucking organization and mental health disorders of truck drivers, also found around 30% of truckers reported loneliness and depression.
Food, like other substances, can be used as an unhealthy coping mechanism or even feed an addiction. Compared to drugs and alcohol, it is also cheaper, accessible, and won’t impair judgement on the job.
It can seem more acceptable.
Ethan Slaughter, founder of Copeland Hall Research Institute and Christenson Transportation COO, says working with a professional can help get to the true roots of unhealthy eating habits. The challenge, though, is that there is a stigma around seeing a therapist – especially in a male-dominated industry like trucking, he says.
Self-help techniques can help drivers identify and address unhealthy coping mechanisms before it’s too late, says Jane Alway, past-president of the Ontario Association of Mental Health Professionals (OAMHP) and a registered psychotherapist with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. The keys are self check-ins and finding a balance, she adds.
When reaching for a snack, for example, drivers should ask themselves if they are truly hungry. Many people numb boredom and loneliness with food, Alway says.
Slaughter points to other underlying issues such as financial stress, lack of respect on the road, and isolated time away from community and family, all of which can lead drivers to unhealthy eating habits.
“I’ve worked with somebody who also had very long drives and would have a tendency to grab food before setting off on the road. And they’d have large bag of treats or sweets next to them. Then by the time they had finished their drive, they’re looking over and that bag is empty,” Alway says, offering an example of mindless eating.
“That can happen so easily, I’m sure, for truck drivers.”
Binge eaters don’t even register the taste or quality of food, she adds. Expired food, stale cookies, and even foods they would normally hate are all up for grabs.
In other cases, the eating is associated with certain events or activities.
Drivers can adopt different reminders to identify such issues, placing things like sticky notes around the cab. “If somebody is pulling into a truck stop and they are looking at the restaurant at the truck stops like, ‘Oh, I’m thinking about [food] right now’, put in a note as a reminder,” Alway says. Those small messages will point drivers to the underlying triggers. If the the desire always emerges around truck stops, for example, the true craving may have more to do with social connections than the food itself.
Truckers with previously identified coping patterns, meanwhile, can attend 12-step meetings or call therapists.
Another option is to practice mindfulness. Slaughter describes it as the art of being present – paying attention to things as little as temperatures and breathing patterns. Simply picking a color and looking for signs of it in the surrounding environment will help.
“That really focuses the mind on what is happening right now,” he says.
Alway also suggests focusing on the food itself, making meals a focused event. “It is part of a mindful eating concept,” she says.
And even when drivers slip up, she stresses the need for them to be compassionate toward themselves. It’s an important internal message: “Okay, sometimes there will be slip-ups, but I’ll forgive myself. And then I’ll reemploy the tools again.”
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