Why Wellness in Trucking Needs to Go the Extra Mile

A well-designed driver wellness program could make the job more attractive and help alleviate driver turnover.

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Every trucking firm understands the importance of a wellness program for its trucks and trailers: Preventative maintenance is essential to keeping assets on the road for as long as possible and minimizing operating costs.

At the same time, the problem of truck driver shortages continues to plague the logistics industry, despite industry efforts to stem driver losses and make the job more attractive.

One approach has been the introduction of wellness programs that give drivers a healthier lifestyle - think of them as a preventative maintenance program for drivers. Designed to improve the working environment, these programs have already achieved some success in reducing driver turnover and enhancing the job's image.

However, to make a significant difference to driver retention and recruitment, the industry needs to take wellness programs the extra mile. Instead of addressing a few bullet points in the menu of wellness possibilities, the programs need to be holistic and structured in a way that makes them much more accessible.

Unhealthy Trend

Logistics professionals hardly need reminding that the scarcity of truck drivers not only impairs supply chain efficiency, it has wider economic consequences given that most domestic freight moves by road. And the fall out can only get worse as economic activity picks up.

“For all of 2014, the ATA stated that large truckload turnover came in at 95 percent, which was in line with 2013's 96 percent,” John D. Schultz and Jeff Berman wrote in a recent article in Logistics Management. Further, the authors noted that the average driver age is 51; while many are retiring and leaving the system, they are not being replenished with younger recruits. Instead, the next generation of potential drivers is seeking out more attractive jobs in industries such as construction.

There are reasons for this exodus. Many aspects of the job are unappealing. Long haul truck drivers spend extensive periods of time away from family and friends, must deal with the demands of exacting delivery schedules, suffer sleep deprivation and a lack of exercise, are prone to boredom owing to a lack of mental stimulation, and suffer musculoskeletal strain. Moreover, the truck driving profession does not tend to command high levels of respect.

These issues are borne out in various industry studies. One recent example is a national survey released in February by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine/American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled National Survey of US Long-Haul Truck Driver Health and Injury. According to the study, “compared with US workers, drivers had significantly higher body mass index, current cigarette use, and pack-years of smoking; lower prevalence of annual influenza vaccination; and generally lower alcohol consumption. Physical activity level was low for most drivers, and 25% had never had their cholesterol levels tested.”

Given this type of working environment, it is hardly surprising that so many drivers decide to leave the industry prematurely, and younger workers tend to look elsewhere when looking for jobs.

What can be done if some of the drawbacks of truck driving, such as long periods on the road, are difficult to eradicate? An obvious answer is to find ways to make the job less physically and mentally draining, allowing people to maintain quality of life. In the words of Schulz and Berman: “The industry has to be creative and look for solutions to the driver shortage problem.”

Creative Concept

Driver wellness programs designed to meet the unique needs of long-haul trucking can be a creative solution that offers much potential. This is a concept that dictates quality of life and overall satisfaction; qualities that appear to be lacking in the trucking industry. Wellness programs prevent illness, boost productivity, and create overall life satisfaction. Their absence invites preventable illness, reduces productivity, and leaves people feeling a void in life.

Wellness is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.” The phrase, “Especially as an actively sought goal” ties directly to the truck driver shortage - put simply, the industry lacks the quality of life sought by many American workers.

Schneider National, Trucks, Inc., JB Hunt, and Waste Management, Inc. are examples of carriers that have offered wellness programs, so this is not a new idea. Trucks, Inc. and JB Hunt reported reduced driver turnover rates as a result. Case studies cited by the Transportation Research Board highlight carriers that have been able to keep health care costs under control by promoting driver wellness.

However, the growing shortage of truck drivers implies that the impact of these programs is not enough, especially if cargo volumes increase. Further, the industry needs to give more thought to how wellness programs are structured and applied.

For example, it is difficult for long-haul drivers to visit a gym, purchase healthy food, or work with a health coach in person, over the telephone, or online. Lack of stimulation and sleep, boredom, and loneliness contribute to higher smoking rates, but being on the road makes it difficult to participate in smoking cessation programs – even when a driver wants to quit.

Moreover, a key to successful wellness programs is that the individuals who are participating decide to be well. And having made that decision, they need to approach wellness holistically, rather than on an ad hoc basis. This requires a fundamental understanding of human behavior. People associate experiences with positive or negative outcomes. The more positive the experience, the more likely someone is to reproduce it; conversely, the more negative the experience, the more likely someone is to avoid it. Actions that create positive physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being intrinsically motivate us toward healthier lifestyle. However, extrinsic motivation is often necessary to jump start the process. We’re taught from the time that we’re young children that “good” behavior will be rewarded. As we age, we seek more significant paybacks to produce similar satisfaction. This basic human pattern calls for wellness programs to incentivize participation in ways to drive and sustain desired outcomes, and not in ways that simply “check off a box”.

For example, in more than 25 years of teaching and creating smoking/tobacco cessation programs, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is that many people attempt behavior change by using an approach that is akin to throwing freshly cooked spaghetti against the wall to see how much of it sticks. Sustained behavior change requires identifying desired responses to a change, experiencing desirable effects from a change and then repeating what works. Recognizing that long-haul trucking is at risk due to driver shortages, it’s logical for the industry not to accept the status quo, with mutually exclusive decisions to be well or drive a truck.

A complete wellness program addresses The Six Dimensions of Wellness developed by Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute. These dimensions are:

1) Physical - The first dimension we think of when referring to wellness, this aspect covers bodily health through exercise, nutrition, and abstaining from harmful activities, such as smoking.

2) Emotional - This dimension covers emotional health through learning to recognize, express, and control feelings and moods.

3) Intellectual - This aspect covers mental health through developing creativity, learning ability, and problem-solving skills.

4) Occupational - This dimension covers job satisfaction through learning individual aptitudes and skills, finding meaning in work.

5) Social - This aspect covers community connections through learning the part we play in our interconnected world.

6) Spiritual - This dimension covers large questions through learning to choose and live by a set of values that gives meaning to our lives.

But there is no indication that existing programs approach the challenge in this way. Also, the industry needs to work harder to bring these solutions to drivers, rather than expecting them to find the solutions on their own very limited time. The nature of truck driving, particularly in the long haul segment of the industry, makes it almost impossible for drivers to approach wellness in a holistic fashion.

Here are some relatively straightforward ways in which trucking companies could help drivers to actively participate in wellness programs.

1) Although there are resources providing tips for healthier meal preparation and meal selection while on the road, e.g. The Healthy Trucker, such resources require significant initiative and willpower on the part of the drivers. To reduce complication, store refrigerated pre-cooked healthy meals on trucks at low or no cost to drivers, reducing the need to eat fast, cheap, and unhealthy food at rest stops. Where appropriate, the vehicle's refrigeration can be used.

2) Send drivers on the road with a “goodie basket” filled with wellness tools, e.g. Stop & Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide, healthy snacks and nutrition shakes.

3) Provide healthy alternatives to coffee and other harmful high caffeine energy drinks, e.g. natural supplements.

4) Provide laptops or tablets to drivers with free internet access so they can Skype or use another video meeting resources to visit with family and friends while on the road. Provide lists of common WIFI locations to drivers on their route.

5) Allow drivers time each day to “meet” with their families online, recognizing that face to face social connection will boost mental and emotional status.

6) Encourage drivers to use laptops/tablets for company provided wellness tools, such as video exercise programs, smoking cessation programs, stress management programs, meditation, and yoga programs.

7) Provide a library of audio books to keep drivers alert and mentally stimulated while on the road.

8) Provide locations of religious and spiritual centers on drivers’ routes, and allow time for them to time to stop to connect.

9) Establish a points system for drivers to earn incentives for participation in wellness activities, with choices of incentives designed to further promote wellness that’s more in line with enhancing quality of life, e.g. free massage, chiropractic adjustment, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, etc.

Wellness programs will not solve the chronic shortage of truck drivers, but they can significantly reduce staff turnover rates and improve recruitment numbers. And correctly designed programs ultimately reduce health care costs – a major plus for companies as well as individuals, But first, the trucking industry must become a more active and creative supporter of what drivers need in order to convert the concept to successful strategy.


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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, MMH Executive Editor and SCMR contributor
Bob Trebilcock's Bio Photo

Bob Trebilcock is the editorial director for Modern Materials Handling and an editorial advisor to Supply Chain Management Review. He has covered materials handling, technology, logistics, and supply chain topics for nearly 40 years. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at 603-852-8976.

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