Driver stress in the COVID-19 environment


As COVID-19 lockdown measures are gradually eased, employers need to be aware of the stress-related risks associated with drivers returning to work, advises Dr Lisa Dorn

The speed and scale of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is having a serious effect on the mental health of many of us and increasing levels of stress and anxiety. As governments begin to make plans to gradually ease the lockdown measures, employers need to be aware of the stress-related risks associated with drivers returning to work.

Driver stress and crash risk

Studies by Brenner and Selzer in the 1960’s first identified the link between stress and crash involvement. They studied drivers responsible for 96 fatal accidents over a three-year period and a matched control group to determine the prevalence of social stress and acute pre-accident disturbance. Social stress included serious and disturbing personal conflicts or vocational-financial crises originating during the 12-month period prior to the fatal crash or personal interview. These included job problems or financial difficulties, actual or feared demotion, promotion, discharge, or job change, as well as conflicts with employers, or fellow employees. Personal crises were defined as interpersonal events severely disturbing to the driver which still affected the driver at the time of the fatal crash as might be anticipated when returning to work in the midst of a pandemic. The study showed that 20% of the fatality drivers had suffered some disturbing experiences within six hours of causing a fatal crash.

The implications for the current situation are clear. Many drivers will be returning to work with concerns around a range of Covid-19 related issues, including worries about their own health and that of their families, as well as potential financial pressures as the economy suffers a downturn.

Observational methods to identify driver stress

During the pandemic, it is natural for people to feel shocked, or numb, or unable to accept what has happened. Be aware that people react differently and take different amounts of time to come to terms with what has happened. It is normal to experience a mix of feelings. Drivers may feel frightened that they will catch virus or worried about loved ones. They may also be fearful about their livelihoods in the future.
Drivers may also feel helpless; that something really bad has happened and this may lead to feelings of powerlessness. They may feel vulnerable and overwhelmed.

Anger about what has happened is another feeling that could be felt by drivers and they could want to find people, organisations, or governenments to blame.

Drivers may also feel guilty that they have survived when others have suffered or died, or may feel that they could have done something to prevent it.

Drivers may feel sad that people suffered or died, especially if someone they knew has been badly affected by Covid-19. They could also feel hopeful that their life will return to normal. People can feel positive about things even during lockdown as a way of coping with the situation.

Employees may react to the stress and anxiety in a number of ways including difficulties with sleep, poor concentration, suffering with headaches and stress related ill-health, changes in appetite and increases in alcohol consumption. These human responses to the pandemic are quite normal but fleet managers need to be aware of how changes in a fleet driver’s mental health can affect crash risk. Once there is a relaxing of the rules around lockdown and drivers return to work, you need to ensure that you maintain a vigilant watch. Research has shown that after a trauma, people are more likely to have accidents.

Identifying driver stress: psychometric assessment

Observational methods can be challenging to implement within large fleets. However, psychometric assessments offer a fast and accurate means of identifying drivers at highest risk. Research to develop a specific tool to measure driver stress began in the 1980s so that its effects on driving performance could be investigated. Dozens of studies culminated in the development of the Driver Stress Inventory and in 2005 the Cranfield University made this assessment - now known as the Driver Risk Index - widely available via its spin out company, DriverMetrics. Since then, several studies have shown that the DriverMetrics scales measuring components of driver stress are predictors of road traffic crashes (Matthews, Dorn & Glendon, 1991; Matthews, Desmond, Joyner, Carcary & Gilliland, 1997; Matthews, Tsuda, Xin & Ozeki, 1999; Dorn, Stephen, Gandolfi & af Wåhlberg, 2010).

Recommended actions

Organisations employing drivers could use a research-validated psychometric assessment such as the Driver Risk Index to identify drivers with particularly high levels stress and target those that need extra support.

They can put in place increased levels of communication with their workforce to make sure that they feel their well-being matters. Make sure there is a two-way communication process so that fleet drivers believe in their ability to create change if necessary.

Organisations should avoid putting too much pressure on their workforce and allow them to adopt a pace that they feel comfortable with. Increasing workloads when drivers are already highly stressed may be counterproductive. It may take a little while to return to previous levels of production.

Drivers should be communicated with to ensure they are aware of the ‘new normal’ road conditions, which will include a significant increase in vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians.

Organisations should be vigilant to signs of stress such as a driver being quieter than usual or more argumentative. Offer an opportunity for them to talk through anything that might be bothering them. They should also Watch for signs of alcohol or drug use as these may be a coping mechanism adopted by some members of the workforce. Make sure to continue with random drug and alcohol testing.

Fleet operators should also be alert to signs of fatigue as people may have trouble sleeping when under stress. Manage fatigue by building in extra breaks if working hours are longer than usual.

DriverMetrics has published ‘Covid-19: A Guide for Fleet Managers’ which is available for free download here

By Dr Lisa Dorn, Research Director, DriverMetrics