Research in Action: Study charts a course to understanding depression in long-haul truck drivers


Originally published in The Chronicle Journal, September 23, 2020

Vicki KristmanNyahsa Makuto

 left: Dr. Vicki Kristman, Associate Professor and Director of Research Institute at Lakehead: EPID@Work – Enhancing the Prevention of Injury and Disability@Work; right: Nayasha Makuto, Graduate Student 

Is the unique nature of a trucker’s job a contributor to poor mental health? This was the key question that a Lakehead University project attempted to answer. By shedding light on the mental, emotional and physical health of long-haul truck drivers, researchers hope to understand why depression might be an issue in this industry and, more importantly, how to alleviate it.

“The benefit of this study is that our findings could help reveal which factors could be risk factors for depression in truckers, and perhaps help truckers, employers or public health workers get a sense of what should be changed to help prevent depression in these workers,” says Nyasha Makuto, the graduate student who spearheaded the study.

There is little research on this set of workers, explains Dr. Vicki Kristman, Makuto’s supervisor and an associate professor in Lakehead’s department of Health Sciences.

“It’s a group that needs more study,” Kristman states. “There’s been substantial research in the area of mental health with emergency personnel, such as police officers and paramedics. But we have very little knowledge about mental health in truck drivers. This is an area with many employees and it hasn’t been looked at in much detail.”

When Makuto was seeking a topic for her Master’s thesis, she settled on the field of trucking because the literature, along with labour force surveys, suggested depression was an issue in this line of work.

“Several studies found that truckers are much more likely to develop depression than both the general public and workers from many other occupations,” Makuto says. “This finding made me want to know why this might be, given that barely anyone had looked into this question and trucking is one of Canada’s most common occupations.”

As well as drafting the study’s methodology, Makuto also developed advertising posters, social media outreach and the survey itself, aiming for responses from both Canadian and American truckers. The anonymous online survey touched on several areas, such as sleep, fatigue and other stress factors such as driving duration, social isolation and violence. She particularly sought input from long-haulers, those who deliver freight over great distances and are away from home at least a day or longer.

“We wanted to understand relationships. For example, did people who drove more hours show more depressive symptoms?,” says Kristman, who is the inaugural director for the new Research Institute at Lakehead: EPID@Work – Enhancing the Prevention of Injury and Disability@Work. “Unfortunately, due to the cross-sectional nature of the study we couldn’t determine if fatigue at work leads to depression or if depression actually leads to fatigue.”

The survey opened in January and by March had responses from 355 drivers, substantially more than the 210 required for the project. The feedback has been summarized by Makuto into statistical models to show which factors are associated with depressive symptoms and if driving duration plays a role. Since it was a cross-sectional study using a convenience sample the results are not predictive and may not be representative of the entire long-haul trucker population, Kristman cautions.

“It’s highly likely that people who were experiencing mental health problems were more likely to participate than those who did not,” she explains.

The results, tracked on a 10-point scale that measures symptoms of depression, did produce notable findings. Those who have lower depressive scores report they get quality sleep and are in generally good health. Higher levels of depression were associated with fatigue, stress due to tight delivery deadlines, poor road conditions, and being away from social relations. Interestingly, Makuto also found men who never married had results associated with depression. Females reported high stress due to violence outside of work.

“We expected some of these findings, others were surprising,” Kristman says.

She notes that from this study we can’t determine whether good health equals less depressive symptoms or if less depressive symptoms results in good health. Yes, sleep, fatigue and stress play a role, but is there a direct line to depression? In any case, this is a start and may benefit the industry.

“We can try to send the message to truck drivers that if you want to keep yourself in good health, get as much sleep as possible, and let’s find ways to reduce your stress,” Kristman says. “These are things that we can inform workers about, we can work with health and safety associations to develop interventions that could potentially decrease stress and other potential risk factors. It’s important to understand what these factors are so we can examine what we’re currently doing and how we may implement change to reduce some of these factors.”

Makuto’s thesis is in the final phase of review. She will then have to formally defend her work. She hopes the results will eventually be published in scientific journals.