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Carriers recognizing importance of driver health and wellness

If drivers are the lifeblood of the trucking industry, then it’s important (some would say, essential) to look after them, and it all starts with their physical and mental health.

Several carriers in Western Canada are taking their drivers’ health seriously, which is a long time coming given the myriad health and mental hurdles those in the profession have had to overcome for many years.

With its sedentary nature, long, solitary hours, and lack of healthy food choices while on the road, truck drivers suffer some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, and depression of any occupation.

The good news is many carriers recognize the driver health crisis and are offering their operators a variety of opportunities through company programs and outreach initiatives to stay both physically and mentally fit.

Sutco Transportation Specialists out of Salmo, B.C., provides its drivers with a buffet of health and wellness options, such as an onsite gym at its West Kelowna, B.C., office, a weight loss challenge that rewards all participants, and a newsletter with information on meal prep, sleep, mental health, and diet.

Diet, exercise, and maintaining mental health are vital for a driver’s wellbeing. (Photo: iStock)

Maris Bourdin, manager of human resources for Sutco, told Today’s Trucking that all company field supervisors are required to conduct one-on-one wellness calls with drivers.

“In many industries, including ours, frontline employees only get a call from management when something is wrong, and we need to change that practice,” said Bourdin. “These calls have nothing to do with equipment, trucking, or safety, and focus exclusively on the driver’s wellbeing and showing that we care.”

Sutco field supervisors check in with each driver about two to four times per year, and it has made a difference in performance and reliability.

“Drivers are the most essential ingredient in any successful trucking company. The performance and reliability of the fleet is often determined by driver health and wellness,” said Bourdin. “We naturally want our drivers to be able to come to work consistently, but part of that is wanting our drivers to be able to enjoy their off time with their family and be role models for their children. When they get the most out of their downtime and family time, they are able to give their best during the work week and everybody wins.”

Saskatoon, Sask.’s, Northern Resource Trucking (NRT) acknowledges the benefits of driver health to the company’s overall success.

Wendy Featherstone, human resources, safety and compliance manager for NRT, said a driver’s focus on the road is essential, and a healthy driver is more alert.

“If I make a mistake in my job, I might have to reissue a report, or it might cost the company money to address,” said Featherstone. “For a driver, a mistake might result in an injury or death.”

Beyond traditional benefits, NRT provides its drivers with a $300 personal development allowance, intended to go toward a gym membership, but can be used for anything that is important to the driver. The company also offers full coverage for counseling to its drivers and their families.

“When our drivers are far from home, sometimes the weight of their absence makes it even worse,” said Featherstone. “If you are experiencing relationship difficulties or your child needs access to counseling, the guilt of being away from home is multiplied. We ask a lot of our driving staff, and for NRT, providing some extra resources so they can be on the road with less stress can make all the difference.”

At Westcan Bulk Transport, the focus for health and wellness has been on formal and informal measures, including programs and education.

In addition to an enhanced benefits program, which kicks in on Day 1 of a driver’s employment, Westcan offers a health and wellness resource center at each of its locations, live feed boards as a communications tool, third parties that provide presentations on such issues as domestic violence, and recently upgraded its employee assistance plan (EAP).

“Wellness has a direct correlation to our overall abilities to safely perform our job duties.”

Dan Columbus, Westcan

“This enhancement was put in place to further help employees and their families work through any situations that may arise,” said Dan Columbus, vice-president of safety and environment for Westcan. “Emotional wellbeing is key to living our most fulfilled lives and we encourage anyone who requires extra support to reach out to our EAP on a confidential basis.”

So, why does Alberta-based Westcan feel it’s important to offer a health and wellness plan to its drivers?

“A few years ago, we had an employee that really stood out when they were retiring from a long career of truck driving,” said Columbus. “Westcan has a great retirement program, and one of the things we do is provide up to a $5,000 travel voucher for employees with tenure. When we asked for details about what kind of trip he would be taking, the employee kindly but sheepishly said, ‘Can I get the cash, I could use that more than a trip.’”

Columbus said it was clear the driver had day-to-day issues that far outweighed taking a vacation, and the company made the decision to begin helping its drivers in other ways.

“We saw the opportunity to help our employees now rather than later, so we started educating ourselves and our employees on health and wellness, eating right, saving right, and taking care of yourself with stretching and proper preventive health measures,” he said. “Wellness has a direct correlation to our overall abilities to safely perform our job duties.”

In Winnipeg, Man., Len Dubois Trucking equips its trucks with a fridge/freezer to make it easier for drivers to bring their own healthy food items on the road.

It also teaches proper exercise and stretching techniques for drivers, and produces a fleet email with healthy living and meal preparation tips.

“It’s very important to offer these programs because health and wellness play a big part in road safety, and having healthy drivers will eliminate fatigue, as well,” said John Cole, driver services and compliance manager with Len Dubois. “Safety is our number one priority, and having healthy drivers driving down the highway is great for all of us and the industry.”

Do drivers take advantage?

Featherstone said usage of the company’s health and wellness program fluctuates year to year, but there was an upsurge in those who took advantage of the counseling program last year, which she said is money well spent.

“Our business has been hugely affected by Covid shutdowns, and less money can lead to incredible family stress,” said Featherstone. “Also, when a driver is used to being on the road, being home and confined with your family requires different communication and coping skills.”

Drivers at NRT used their personal development money in different ways this past summer, with several purchasing bicycles, exercise equipment, and various hobby gear.

“Some of these items would be hard to use when the drivers are busy, but can provide a benefit for many years after the Covid restrictions are lifted,” said Featherstone.

Sutco drivers also take advantage of the health and wellness program, some enthusiastic about the benefit and others more guarded.

“It takes a certain comfort with vulnerability to discuss personal wellbeing on a meaningful level, which is a roadblock to getting help and improving,” said Bourdin. “We want to provide the tools and the knowledge to help them, and appreciate all their efforts. Wellness can start in small places and grow, and it is important to provide the seeds and an environment conducive to growth.”

Cole said he has seen evidence Len Dubois’ drivers have taken advantage of the wellness program in that only two have filed WCB claims for injuries.

Westcan has been working to increase driver involvement in health and wellness over the last three years, but at the same time not force anyone to participate.

“We made health and wellness boards separate from our safety boards that allow employees to take a brochure or poster. The trucking industry is rough and tough and gosh, you wouldn’t want to be seen reading a brochure, so we allow them to walk past and grab one to read in private,” said Columbus.

Mental health programs are equally as important as physical health. (Photo: iStock)

Starting a health and wellness program

Columbus said privacy is a key factor in helping a carrier’s health and wellness program find success.

“Health and wellness today is very private for many employees and every program should allow your folks to keep it private,” he said, adding that Westcan employs an actively caring model – See Something, Say Something, and Do Something for Everyone.

“Work slow and build a culture, don’t force it. We have tried to be more formal in the past and we’re now finding that informal and impromptu collaboration is working best for us.”

Cole said carriers can get involved in health and wellness at relatively minimal cost if they utilize programs, social media, newsletters, and email.

“I am a true believer communication is key to helping with stress and health and wellness; a family-first approach benefits all of us,” he said. “This is what we try to achieve on a daily basis at Len Dubois Trucking, and management and ownership have to buy in to make it successful.”

Bourdin echoed Cole’s recommendation to use social media and other forms of technology to stay in touch with drivers, as this will help increase the overall success of a health and wellness initiative.

“Have a program that is inclusive to all ranges of health and wellness, as some people are dedicated to their health and wellness, while others are looking for a place to start,” said Bourdin. “You have to meet people where they are at. If you don’t know where they are at, it is better to ask than to assume.”

And just as physical health is important to keep drivers happy, it is important carriers not neglect mental wellbeing.

As Featherstone explains, NRT’s counseling provider in Saskatoon has been remarkably effective since they approached the carrier more than 20 years ago.

“What makes a person a good truck driver doesn’t always lend itself to being a good communicator, in fact, it is often the opposite,” she said. “Over time, our drivers have learned to trust that all sessions are confidential, and that even the billing process shields them from questions. Sometimes it takes an emergency to get a driver or a family member to go, but more and more, I am seeing proactive uses of the program.”

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