In 2021, we saw increased attention on the opportunity for more women to join the trucking industry, which continues to face driver shortages despite being one of the largest occupational groups in the U.S. The latest American Transportation Research Institute survey released in October 2021 confirmed that driver shortage remains the number one concern facing the industry, with the number two issue being driver retention.
Some progress is being made to diversify the trucking workforce and attract new talent. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) reported that the number of professional female truck drivers in the U.S. rose by 68% between 2010 and 2018. And according to a Women in Trucking Association (WIT) survey from 2019 – a more accurate depiction than recent Department of Labor statistics – women represent more than 10% of U.S. truck drivers.
This year, the U.S. will continue to look at the vital role of truck drivers in the larger supply chain as it advances measures to promote women in trucking through the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Biden-Harris Trucking Action Plan. As carriers ramp up efforts to recruit women, it is critical to understand the physical and mental health challenges encountered by female drivers pursuing careers in the field.
More than just physical challengesThe long hours on the road and time spent away from home and family presents difficulties for female drivers. Women traditionally have more domestic responsibilities that impact their valuation of trucking careers, such as childcare and ease of returning home for emergencies. These constraints contribute to additional stress and anxiety for female drivers.
The nature of truck driving contributes to rates of obesity at nearly twice the national level. Drivers experience high levels of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior, with the CDC determining that only 20% of female truck drivers achieve the minimum recommended amount of 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise a week. These factors may contribute to elevated rates of hypertension, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels.
Female drivers also grapple with bias, harassment, discrimination, and physical safety issues in the workplace. One study found that over 60% of female respondents reported feeling like they were treated with less dignity and respect because they were women. In a WIT survey, women gave an average score of 4.4 when asked to use a 1-10 scale for ranking how safe they felt on the job.
Additional occupational stress from time pressures and limited social support contributes to significant anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep deprivation among drivers. Cigarette smoking is also three times higher among female drivers than other women in the U.S. workforce, putting them at greater risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Related costsThese lifestyle behaviors and health conditions alone pose serious health risks and expenses, but they also represent risk factors for developing chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes. The cost of diabetes care can be enormous: the average annual medical expense for a diabetic is over $16,750 – more than twice the amount for an individual without diabetes.
Like other chronic diseases, these conditions impact a driver’s Commercial Driver’s License, which requires an examination and clearance from a Certified Medical Examiner. Together with the other stressors, these factors may contribute to the ongoing turnover rates that hinder fleets.
Turnover-associated expenses facing fleets are considerable, with the average cost being about $8,200 per driver, which includes recruitment, equipment, lost profit, drug testing, background checks, and new hire orientation.
Health promotion and chronic disease intervention through lifestyle changeTraditional employer benefit strategies for disease prevention historically cater to office-based employees and fail to generate results for a labor force of lone drivers working on the road. Achieving meaningful health changes becomes even more of a challenge for hard-to-reach, medically underserved employee populations like professional truck drivers, whose daily lives lack the support structures and scheduling consistency that other occupations have.
Within the trucking industry, several organizations are leading the charge to make improved health more attainable, with trade organizations like the ATA and WIT shining a spotlight on the importance of driver safety and health. Health and wellbeing resources have demonstrated the potential to positively impact driver physical and mental health, directly benefiting employers with increased employee retention, reduced healthcare costs, improved safety, and job desirability.
More broadly, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Diabetes Prevention Program canimprove health and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Several studies demonstrate that a 5% to 7% reduction in bodyweight can help lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58% in adults with prediabetes.
If the trucking industry hopes to continue the trend of increased female representation, they need to mirror the top-down efforts proposed in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Trucking Action Plan to identify and eliminate barriers and industry trends that discourage women from entering the industry. This effort should be paired with a shift in culture by employers and a sincere commitment to creating a culture of wellbeing that accounts for the total health, both physical and mental, of female drivers.
Roberta Wachtelhausen is president of WellSpark Health, a national wellbeing, disease prevention and management company that moves disparate, long-tenured employee populations along a path toward a more enduring well.