What impacts can lack of sleep and job stressors have on a truck driver’s job performance and overall quality of life? The question seems to have a simple answer: Decrease stress and improve sleep habits, and job performance will naturally improve, as will quality of life and physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In fact, a pair of researchers that studied driver stress and sleep disorders have found the issue of driver well-being is far more complex. It includes vicious cycles and Catch-22s that must be broken if motor carriers are to build a culture of satisfaction and health among their drivers.
Dr. Ethan Slaughter, a researcher of long-haul truck drivers at Indiana Wesleyan University, has been studying truck driver behavior for five years.
“In looking at the industry, there is no bigger problem than driver satisfaction, driver turnover, or as some people call it, ‘driver shortage,’” Slaughter said. “I was really inspired by the complexity of the issue.”
In interviewing drivers, Slaughter says he has discovered that the solution to driver shortages is not as simple as carriers providing more incentives. Instead, his research indicates, shortages are related to three primary stressors — pay, home time, and respect. Respect, he says, involves both internal and from others.
Slaughter’s findings show that these primary stressors are exacerbated by job-related factors, including poor sleep habits, isolation, and a rise in health problems, both physical and mental.
Drivers often turn to addictive behaviors to cope with physical issues, and in turn gain a perceived escape from their primary stressors. Both drug use and relationships with sex workers have been studied extensively when it comes to driver behavior, there are many other factors that call for further research, Slaughter said.
He suggests that addiction to technology, overspending, food addictions, excessive use of pornography, and tobacco use are symptoms displayed not only by truck drivers in the U.S., but among drivers worldwide. These destructive behaviors aren’t a matter of culture; rather, they are job related issues.
Stressors and health issues can create a vicious cycle. Poor health contributes to chronic fatigue, and chronic fatigue contributes to poor health — and ’round and ’round we go.
According to Slaughter, drivers who complain of or are diagnosed with chronic fatigue typically point to three factors — strained relationships, financial stress, and job dissatisfaction. Drivers cope with these factors in various ways; for instance, many report spending money on unnecessary luxuries. However, spending money feeds into one of the most common causes of chronic fatigue — financial stress.
These “luxury items,” often cars and boats, can be status symbols, meant to show the drivers can “keep up with the Joneses,” Slaughter says. However, many drivers don’t find the expected enjoyment in their purchases. More money is needed, so drivers work harder and stay out on the road longer, which strains personal relationships and contributes to physical and mental fatigue.
All of these stressors, combined with chronic fatigue, generally contribute to another issue — poor sleep habits. According to Slaughter, poor sleep quality plays a major role in driver stress and mental health.
Dr. Raina Gupta, a sleep disorder physician and founder of Sleepology Health in Chicago, agrees. In fact, she, says, quality of sleep directly impacts the quality of life among drivers and affects how well they cope with occupational stressors.
“Sleep quality is important across all industries,” she noted. “It is important (to prevent) drowsy driving, maintaining road positioning, and maintaining speed.”
DOT regulations focus on sleep from the physiological standpoint in efforts to reduce accidents. Those experiencing sleep dysfunction are two to 11 times more likely to be involved in preventable accidents when compared to unaffected drivers, Gupta said.
Drivers who suspect they have a sleep dysfunction should ask themselves if they snore, wake up frequently, find themselves choking or gasping for air during the night, require frequent naps, or experience excessive daytime sleepiness.
Each of these symptoms can indicate sleep dysfunction. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is perhaps the most common. This condition affects 10% to 30% of adults. OSA is common among drivers, as it typically impacts men and is increased by obesity — a condition that 70% of drivers live with. Simple home sleep tests can assist in diagnosing OSA. Treatment options vary but are effective.
Ultimately, OSA can severely impact a person’s quality of sleep, which in turn impacts quality of life.
Poor sleep can have a negative impact on alertness, concentration, and decision-making abilities, all of which affect a driver’s performance.
Depending on the severity of the OSA, the condition can have a significant impact on other areas of health, both physical and mental. High blood pressure or blood sugar, incidence of stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms leading to coronary events are all conditions that can accompany OSA.
When it comes to mental health, OSA can create vicious cycles similar to those discussed earlier in this story. Lack of quality sleep leads to a poor mood, and mood impacts quality of sleep. It’s a cycle that must be broken if mental health is to be addressed. Even sleep conditions beyond OSA — insomnia, hypersomnia, restless leg syndrome, and hormonal changes during sleep — can impact a person’s daytime performance.
Drivers who suffer from sleep disturbances can help break the cycle by developing routines. In general, Gupta says, it’s best to avoid food or drink and heavy exercise during the two to three hours before bedtime. In addition, reducing the use of technology (phones, tablets, computers, even TV) during this time helps reduce stress. Instead, listen to light music, read a book, write down thoughts from the day, and do gentle stretching exercises.
Carriers can help drivers cope with some of the factors that lead to stress, poor sleep, and fatigue. For example, a company might expand its interest beyond the DOT regulations regarding OSA and focus holistically on individual drivers, working to find ways to operate within regulations. The most important thing carriers can do for their drivers, however, is to provide educational opportunities to help them create workable routines and find ways to alleviate stressors.
“Education, allowing drivers to discuss the issue (is a key to addressing sleep quality),” Gupta said “Continuing education programs covering the topic are also helpful. Carriers should encourage drivers to talk with their doctors.”
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.