Mental Health in the Supply Chain: Truckers are on the Brink

The last two years have been tough on the supply chain and logistics industry. There were stages of panic buying, an intensified shift toward online shopping, shortages of drivers, vaccine logistics, and so much more.

Labor shortages, in part from the ongoing Great Resignation, have left ports with too few employees to efficiently manage workloads. A lack of drivers around the world has made it difficult to move the overflow of containers at those ports.

All of this stressed the system, and the effects are being felt across the supply chain, from truck drivers to logistics managers.

Truck drivers in particular have long felt like they are treated poorly and underpaid. Mental health issues for truckers and in the supply chain aren’t new, but they’ve been exacerbated in 2020 and 2021.

Others are feeling it, too. Stevedores at ports are working long hours and dealing with a massive influx of containers. Supply chain managers are busier than they’ve ever been. And employees forced to work remotely are more isolated than ever.

Here are some things to consider about mental health in the supply chain and how you can effectively manage your teams to best navigate the current climate.

Why truck drivers are feeling the brunt

A 2018 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that truck drivers suffer from physical and mental health problems and psychological distress more frequently than the general population.

Truck drivers “are vulnerable to a variety of health risks and are also a medically underserved population” the report said.

Drivers suffer from loneliness, depression, chronic sleep disturbances, anxiety, and other emotional problems.

That was before the pandemic and the current capacity shortages, which have only increased the pressure on drivers. While initial lockdowns and restrictions brought people home with their families, truckers were busy keeping the world operating. At the same time, drivers were facing an even more extreme isolation from others, and the stress on the supply chain has forced many of them to abruptly change their schedules while dealing with tighter deadlines.

A report from Lippincott said long-haul truck drivers “worked more hours during the pandemic with approximately 33% reporting more pressure to work.” Truck drivers, according to the report, faced issues like a lack of parking spaces and an inconsistency in available and rest stops to shower and recharge, which contributed to a lack of adequate sleep and a general malaise.

It’s not just the mental health issues driving truckers away from the industry. Low pay, poor infrastructure and general lack of respect have also been cited as reasons why truckers leave their jobs. Many are also on the cusp of retirement and can’t easily be talked into more years on the job. More than half of the drivers on the road right now are over the age of 45, and nearly a quarter of them will reach retirement age in the next 10 years.

Recruiting new workers hasn’t been easy. Who wants to join an industry when everyone is talking about racing to build a robot to replace drivers for good?

Automation is certainly coming, but it’s important to stress to drivers that it doesn’t mean the end of human drivers anytime soon. The recent infrastructure bill in the U.S. is actually aiming to put more drivers on the road. It set up an apprenticeship program that would enable trucking companies to hire drivers as young as 18.

In the meantime, it’s time to take the mental health of your drivers more seriously. As studies have shown, they were already on the brink before the pandemic. Make them feel wanted by raising their pay, getting them home to their families more often and show them you care.

It’s also never a bad time to make their jobs easier. Invest in the technologies that make driving more efficient.

Others feel the stress, too

Ports around the world are seeing a historic amount of containers pile up both in port warehouses and on vessels stuck out at sea.

Stevedores and others working at the ports are being pushed to their limits. Never mind the overbearing amount of work stacking up at the ports, the frontline workers have been exposed to the coronavirus for nearly two years.

At least 20 union workers from International Longshore and Warehouse Unions, which represents dock workers on the west coast of the U.S. and British Columbia, have been killed by the virus, and thousands have been infected over the last two years.

“Our members are tired. Our members are feeling the pain of these covid deaths,” Mike Podue, president of ILWU Local 63, told The Washington Post in September. “We’re lucky there hasn’t been a major accident.”

Port workers and truckers, while on the front lines, aren’t the only people in the supply chain feeling stress and burnout.

Global supply chain and logistics companies already had a sense of what it was like to be in video meetings, with workers based in various parts of the world, but that has been amplified during the pandemic.

Managing teams remotely is challenging, and so is feeling welcome on a team when you don’t have a chance to meet your colleagues in person. Engaging your employees right now is key, especially if you can get them all in the same room.

Could immigration reform help?

The pandemic severely upended immigration, and many temporary workers were not available to fill jobs they typically would. The same goes for various other supply chain jobs.

“We’ve never seen a situation this broad-based across the country where businesses are having to turn down work because they simply can’t find the workers to do it,” Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, told CNN Business. “This crisis is not going to go away.”

Obviously foreign workers could be used to fill jobs as truckers and port workers, but the immigration issue isn’t just being seen at the manual labor level.

U.S.-based companies have hired members of their executive teams from overseas and those workers are struggling to get the necessary visas to work in the U.S.

“Changes to (immigration) policies would be a considerable boon for the supply chain especially, allowing companies to quickly fill roles left empty by the pandemic,” National Law Review wrote.

More workers can lead to a less stressful work environment where employees aren’t forced to do the work of more than one person. And for teams that are spread out because of immigration issues, simply getting them all together to finally be in the same room can be a big morale booster.

Ask questions, get answers

With workforces so spread out, it’s hard to get a read on how your employees are feeling about their jobs. How can you know what employee morale is like if you are rarely seeing and interacting with the employees?

Managers should be engaging with their teams to get a handle on how they’re doing.

But another step employers should take is to survey their workforces. Set up a completely anonymous survey system that allows employees to express how they’re feeling about their jobs without fear of retaliation.

Ask them if the company does a good enough job engaging with them. Ask them if they feel supported. Ask them if they feel satisfied with their job, and, if not, what the company can do to make them feel satisfied.

Companies need to know what they’re getting right and what they’re getting wrong, and finding honest ways for your employees to express their concerns is one way to help crack the code.

It’s also critical to individualize this experience. Supply chain companies have employees spread across different sectors of the business – and sometimes different sectors of the world – and their experiences can be completely different.

It’s OK to not be OK

The last few years have been hard for everyone, not just from the pandemic but with ongoing political strife and social unrest.

Employees need to know that it’s OK to not be OK and employers should be making sure every employee has access to help and a safe space to express their emotions. Perhaps considering a program like paid mental health days would be a good way to make your employees feel like they have the resources to manage their stress and their workload at the same time.

Frontline workers, i.e. drivers and port workers, are feeling the worst symptoms of work-related stress in the supply chain right now. They are the most critical workers to keeping the supply chains up and running. Supporting their mental health is an often overlooked but increasingly critical practice that should be a top priority to every company in the industry.