4th December 2018

Mental health and driver safety in today’s technology-assisted world of fleet management

The recent report entitled ‘It’s good to talk: caring about mental health’ from Venson Automotive Solutions is extremely encouraging1, the wellbeing and safety of at-work and general drivers being at the heart of Trak Global Group’s telematics and other products and solutions.

Statistics from all perspectives are unarguably humbling and motivating. Human resources personnel deal with the challenge of 70 million work days at a cost of £35bn lost annually because of mental health-related absenteeism, with anxiety, depression and similar difficulties accounting for up to 40% of employee sickness. Simultaneously, many fleet managers will likely be mindful that stress makes at-work drivers 50% more likely to drive in a dangerous manner and expose themselves and others to accidents or worse.

At the conclusion of the report’s introduction, a significantly pertinent question from the HSE’s guide ‘Driving at work: Managing work-related road safety’ is presented – one that overseers of vehicle fleets of all sizes would do well to consider at all times: “Are your drivers sufficiently fit and healthy to drive safely and not put themselves and others at risk?”

Quite rightly, Venson’s report identifies stress as something that everyone experiences at times, whereas prolonged stress can often result in anxiety and/or depression, impacting a person’s life more widely, including behind the wheel.

Van manufacturers get behind mental health

This year has seen heart-warming moves by automotive OEMS to encourage people to open up about mental health, which Mercedes-Benz Vans’ Business Barometer2 found still has a stigma associated with it by 56% of the 2,000 drivers surveyed, with feedback identifying males as less likely to divulge their struggles to anyone. Marking World Mental Health Day in October, Ford3 and the charity Time to Change renewed their ‘Elephant in the Transit’ mental health campaign by creating ‘dirty van art’ to highlight the manufacturer’s findings that 67% of respondents are more comfortable opening up about mental health concerns while travelling in a vehicle.

A very serious challenge

Venson cites ONS statistics revealing that men aged 20-to-49 are more likely to die from suicide than cancer, shocking findings that resonated with Mark Cartwright, head of vans at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), an organisation that has subsequently partnered with the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) with the aim of raising mental health awareness and support amongst van fleet operates

The FTA has recently launched an excellent app for use by drivers before they set off, which asks them to rate on a scale of zero to five how they are feeling, the data immediately relayed to the fleet manager enabling them to intervene if they perceive it as necessary.

The two perspectives

Wide-ranging voices from RoSPA and the Fleet Industry Advisory Group (FIAG) to the Mental Health Foundation, the DVLA and BEN, the automotive charity, regularly discuss the importance of sleep and of approaching GPs if any concerns arise on the one side, to the need for employers to assess whether reasonable demands are being placed on their drivers in today’s frenetic and congested world of the gig economy and 24/7 connectivity on the other.

Recalling a tragic incident involving a van driver committing suicide, Mark from the FTA makes the following sobering and poignant comments in Venson’s report: “Company bosses and managers were distraught. They had no idea that their colleague was suffering. With hindsight there were signs that the driver was stressed, but it was too late for the company to help.”

“Businesses assume that drivers’ performance is at an optimum level, but that is not always the case. If 20% of vans are behaving erratically perhaps due to a brake problem, operators know immediately what action to take. If 20% of drivers’ performance is below par due to mental health issues they do not know what action to take”, he continues.

Potential warning signs

Speeding and generally erratic driver behaviour are clearly significant underlying issues in the commercial vehicle driver segment and, by logical extension, the company car and grey fleet space. While unreasonable demands and deadlines, traffic congestion and lack of sleep often due to today’s prevalent use of gadgets are commonly mooted, employees’ personal lives can also unarguably contribute to perhaps sustained periods of poor mental health or the exacerbation of diagnosed conditions.

Brake, the prominent UK road safety charity, puts it very succinctly: “Distress negatively affects driver performance. Heightened emotions such as stress, anger or upset are a form of cognitive distraction that significantly impedes drivers’ ability to spot hazards. The level of distraction depends on the level of distress felt.”

Small steps go a long way

It’s extremely encouraging that the Mental Health foundation’s employer checklist includes the recommendation for organisations to make reasonable adjustments to work patterns to remove barriers, allowing personnel to stay in work. This resonates with experiences we have gleaned whereby panic attacks have been experienced during stop-start rush-hour commuting by one organisation’s employee, while another’s mental health symptoms made them fearful of parking, which increased their levels of stress before they had even arrived at work, and often resulted in lateness, reinforcing feelings of shame, guilty, anger and anxiety. An employee feeling this way, even if solely due to personal problems unrelated to work, clearly has an impact on their performance and that of the wider organisation.

Technology’s key role

There is admittedly little an organisation can do to force its personnel to open up about any mental health or other related challenges they’re struggling with, but  technology is increasingly assisting wide-ranging entities in identifying drivers manifesting potential signs of stress or other mental health symptoms.

Driver safety is a key focus at the heart of Trak Global Group’s telematics products and solutions, and while Venson’s report only gives such technology a cursory mention in relation to monitoring driver performance alongside fitting speed limiters to vans, it plays a much deeper role.

Appy Fleet is Trak Global Group’s smartphone app-based telematics system, which involves no ‘black box’ hardware being fitted to vehicles and so provides organisations of all sizes with a fast and comprehensive route into the adoption of such technology that will contribute to keeping their drivers increasingly safe behind the wheel.

Driver scores provide instant feedback on driving behaviour, calculated using speed, smoothness and usage, and ‘gamification’ encourages employees to amicably compete against each other to be ranked the safest on the fleet, which also results in improved fuel economy. Fleet managers receive comprehensive reports and real-time alerts including extreme events, enabling them to promptly identify erratic driving behaviour especially if it occurs more than once with a particular driver.

Journeys logged at unusual times such as the middle of the night, or patterns whereby a driver regularly speeds, tends to brake sharply or steers aggressively may indicate some degree of stress, anxiety or other personal problems, perhaps with resulting mental health difficulties. Equally, tiredness will almost certainly be a challenge for such drivers, making early intervention as important as ever. Likewise, Appy Fleet’s geo-fencing capabilities allow fleet managers to set defined areas for their drivers, with alerts sent when vehicles enter and exit such locales.

Like so many other organisations and voices who have improving the mental health of the nation and its drivers in mind, we would very much welcome a reduction in the stigma of expressing mental health concerns in the workplace, ultimately resulting in safer roads and enriched lives, achieved in part by more approachable and proactive fleet management and backed by various technologies.

 

Sources:
1. https://www.venson.com/media/ViewWhitePaper/32
2. https://media.mbvans.co.uk/press-releases/still-a-stigma-around-mental-health-according-to-mercedes-benz-vans-business-barometer
3. https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/feu/gb/en/news/2018/10/10/ford_s-_dirty-van-art-raises-mental-health-awareness.html