How to Recognize and Deal With Truck Driver Burnout

Burning Big Rig on the Highway

How to Handle Truck Driver BurnoutYou’ve heard the expression “driving a truck isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle?” That’s absolutely true.

But after months or years of a career as a truck driver, a driver can get so beaten into this hard lifestyle, that they may start to feel guilty when they are not at work, leading them to drive when they shouldn’t.

This becomes a vicious cycle and, sooner or later, every trucker will start to burn out if they are not careful.

What Causes Driver Burnout?

There are a couple of things that weigh on a trucker’s mind and can help lead to feelings of burnout.

Earnings – Truck drivers are paid by the mile. They know they are not making money unless they’re moving down the road. The trucking companies tend to give that extra push to the drivers. They ALWAYS want the trucks moving in order that they are profitable.

Improper Sleep – Because drivers frequently have that lingering guilty feeling about not being on the road enough, proper rest is not always part of their life. Drivers are faced with trying to catch some sleep when they can, occasionally during “downtime,” or maybe during the evening hours if they are not scheduled to drive.

Downtime Doesn’t Really Allow for Rest

There are situations when truck drivers get so called “downtime” between loads, but they do not make it easy for them to truly get proper rest. Their workday is controlled by the trucking company and it’s the choice of the trucking company exactly where, when, and for how long the driver gets the downtime.

Other times, downtime may happen unexpectedly. For example, when a driver is waiting for a load or for something else to be done, they find themselves stuck roadside in their truck or at a truck stop.

This downtime is called “off-duty.” Seems like this would make a good chance to catch up on some sleep, but the driver is really, once again, at the beck and call of the trucking company.

They are expected to be responsible for the truck, trailer and load during this time, plus they are waiting for instructions for their next move – meaning that any rest is light, and the driver isn’t truly getting quality rest through that period.

Nighttime Is for Sleeping – But Not for Truck Drivers

The body needs rest at night. The natural body biorhythm means people typically sleep at night when it’s dark.  Many dispatchers don’t usually recognize this fact. When a driver is expected to go out on the road at any given time at the request of the company, just because he legally has enough hours to do so, it is not always a good idea.

The company can expect a driver to go on the road in the middle of the night and be well within their legal rights to do so, unless the driver states he doesn’t feel sufficiently rested enough. For example, if a driver is contacted about a 2 am departure and they don’t feel well rested, it’s important for them to speak up and inform their dispatch that this doesn’t work for them.

Fortunately, with the implementation of the new driver coercion ruling, a driver is within his rights, to refuse the 2 am departure, without recourse of any sort from the trucking company.

But many drivers still comply and start out on trips through the night when they aren’t really rested. This scenario certainly contributes to driver burnout over time.

Related > How To Work With Your Dispatcher

Do You Have the Signs of Driver Burnout?

Many truckers don’t recognize the fact that they’re exhausted and starting to burn out.

Here are some of the signs you may be suffering from driver burnout:

  1. Truck Avoidance – Sometimes, drivers may just not want to get into that truck. They can barely force themselves to drive it at the beginning of their day. They become disinterested in their job and feel tired much of the time.
  2. Distance Avoidance – During a run, burned out drivers may find they just don’t have the desire to drive very far. They may drive 50 or 100 miles down the road and find an excuse to take a break and stop.  Their entire day may consist of a stop and start pattern.
  3. Lag & Drag – A driver may start to lag and drag, also known as extreme procrastination. Drivers who have burned out to this point start to spend more time in the truck stops, fiddling around, wasting time, maybe playing pinball, or doing anything else rather than getting on the road again.

The Harsh Effects of Truck Driver Burnout 

Drivers may find that as burnout sets in, they ignore taking care of their health. There are all sorts of bad effects that come about as a result of this. Here are just a few:

  • Irritability, which can lead to less tolerance to other drivers while on the road
  • Insomnia or sleep apnea, both of which can lead to accidents
  • Obesity can result from poor eating habits as a driver pushes himself beyond his limits, runs hard, grabbing fast food on the fly to save time
  • Drivers can become apathetic about the job. They start to care less and less about it, sometimes leading to depression, which can be long-term and serious

First-Hand Advice to Resolving Driver Burnout

I’m speaking from personal experience, shippers and trucking companies have tried to push me over the years. It can be hard to say “no” when the driving and everyday routine becomes a rhythm and a habit you get into.

Trucking companies may try to push the driver, to keep their profits rolling in. They may push you, whether your body can handle it or not.

Quite frankly, they often don’t care if your body can handle it.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Vacations
    Don’t skip vacations because you think you can’t afford to take the time off. In reality, you can’t afford NOT to take time away from the driving.
  1. Regular Days Off
    Take regular days off each week. Take time off when you feel you need a rest and a break from the monotony of the driving. Stop for breaks. It helps prevent fatigue. Being on the road for several weeks at a time is good for the company. But  it’s not in your best interests. When you are constantly with the truck, whether driving or not, you are not getting a good break from the job. If you are out on the road for long periods and it can’t be avoided, get away from the truck on your reset time and do something you enjoy. Go walking, out for a meal, take in a movie or something you really enjoy that doesn’t remind you of work!
  1. Regularly Scheduled Runs
    An idea to break the monotony of the job, to try to get on a regular scheduled run with a more predictable schedule, in order to get into a more regularly scheduled sleep pattern. Maybe for a break, put yourself on the spare board, to ease back for a while, from the grind of driving. Let’s face it. If you’re exhausted, you’re not doing yourself any good. If you’re falling asleep at the wheel, you could hurt yourself and you could hurt somebody else on the highway.
  1. Use Electronic Logs
    Believe it or not, and like it or not, these new electronic logs will help prevent drivers from over-working. They’re going to force drivers to rest more regularly, and force them off the road after 70 hours, or as close to 70 hours as possible. They will force drivers to take more breaks and get more rest. This is really the whole idea behind them, so drivers don’t burn themselves right out, working for the company.

Both owner operators and company drivers can suffer from burnout. 

It’s interesting to note that union drivers usually suffer from burn out the least. Independent truckers and owner operators, who often run their butts off to pay the bills, are often the ones who suffer from burn out more often, and earlier in their trucking career.

Most young truckers can tolerate the lifestyle. However, as drivers age, and they are put into a forced dispatch situation (and they’ve tried that with me), it becomes too hard to handle.

You must take care of yourself. Trust me, you are in control as the driver, at all times.

Don’t let yourself become exhausted and burn yourself out.

Driver burnout can be deadly. Don’t go there.

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