An even keel

Overcoming burnout is easier when you recognize the signs.

Feeling down in the dumps lately? Having trouble sleeping? Fuel prices causing you pain? Getting harder to find profitable loads in a weak economy? Problems stacking up at home? Shippers making you wait hours on end? Some of the above, all of the above, or do you have your own set of worries out on the road?

These days truck operators are getting hit with stress-inducing variables from all directions. Many are physically and mentally exhausted and have lost interest in what they’re doing. This is understandable, and some days the stresses are so burdensome many find it hard to slide behind the wheel. But there is help out there; the key to keeping the stress from reaching total burnout levels is in seeing the situation for what it is and taking steps toward remedying it.

Recognizing a problem
Two years ago, Perry Hoff figuratively hit the wall. The Sturgis, S.D., owner-operator had been on the road nonstop for a month. “I didn’t want to get back in the truck,” recalls Hoff, 48, a driver for almost 30 years. “I was getting tired. Things were not going right. I was getting a little edgy. I finally told my wife that I was coming in.”

The definitions of burnout vary, but the bottom line is you’re tired of or from your job and you need to get away from it either temporarily or permanently, say veteran drivers and medical professionals. Hoff parked his truck and took a two-week vacation. When he returned, he felt ready to drive again.

“There’s no profession in the world that’s got more stress than a truck driver,” says Dr. John McElligott, chairman and chief medical officer of Professional Drivers Medical Depots in Knoxville, Tenn.

These days, Hoff tries to drive a week to 10 days and then take three days off. “I don’t let things bother me like they used to,” says the American Transport flatbed hauler. “You should live each day like you’re not going to have another.”

Dr. Ronald Rush, who runs Highway Health Care in Texarkana, Texas, estimates 30 percent of long-haul drivers he sees are suffering from the pangs of job burnout, though most don’t complain about it specifically. Instead they say they’re agitated, angry, fatigued, have had arguments with coworkers or have made statements that suggest they’ve been guilty of road rage. “Their blood pressure is up, and they tell you they’re depressed,” Rush says. “Most of the time these are symptoms of job dissatisfaction.”

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Rush points out that trucker working conditions contribute to job burnout. You’re on your own with no one to talk to except yourself. You’re cut off from personal contact with your family for long stretches, except for phone calls. You often don’t eat well, sleep soundly or get adequate exercise.

Pat June, an owner-operator from Adrian, Mich. who’s leased to Flatbed Services of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, claims he’s never felt burnout, though there are times he’s wanted to stay at home longer. “I hear it on the radio all the time,” says the 47-year-old, who’s been driving for 27 years. “If you’re dissatisfied, park your truck and do something else. This is not a leisure trip out here. You have to work hard at it.” Not that he recommends giving it up altogether. “A bad day trucking is better than any good day working in a factory,” June says.

But June believes pressure from shippers, carriers and customers pushing deadlines, productivity and efficiency has put the brakes on many a driving career. “Companies push, push, push,” he says. “I don’t let them do it. I will get there when I get there.” Learning to recognize what’s within the limits of your endurance can get you a long way toward resisting burnout.

Coping with financial pressures
Stresses on the road have been building for years, says owner-operator Segis Meyers, causing many drivers to haul more loads and work longer hours just to break even. He’s a prime example. Instead of driving for two months at a time followed by up to 10 days off like he’s done the past several years, he’s now spending at least two-and-a-half months on the road before heading to his Douglasville, Ga., home for just four days off. He figures he’ll report a tax loss this year because his fuel costs doubled.

“It’s not as easy as it used to be,” says Meyers, 54, who’s leased to TMC Transportation of Des Moines, Iowa. “I’ve had to modify what I do, where I run and the length of my hauls. You have to allow yourself to adapt to a changing industry. You have to be flexible.”

As a truck operator, you can still do what you love and avoid getting run down from the daily demands of your job, trucking veterans say. You can make lifestyle and work adjustments that can help keep the job interesting.

Getting involved in the industry in a way other than driving makes a difference for Steve Fields, 44, a company driver for Yellow Transportation. The Independence, Mo., resident competes in the national truck driving championships each year and participates in the trucking convoy for Special Olympics. He visits a school class through Trucker Buddy and belongs to Trucking for Women. If he has time, he’ll attend a trucking show. He’s also in his second year with America’s Road Team, the ambassador program organized by the American Trucking Associations and sponsored by Volvo Trucks.

“I get to experience different aspects of our industry,” Fields says. “It rounds me out as a driver.”

Exercise pays off
Fields says regular exercise is crucial both on and off the job. He likes to garden and mow his yard when he’s home. He tries to get on a treadmill or walk, even if it’s only around a truckstop perimeter. “You don’t have to be in great shape to walk,” he says. “It not only helps you physically but helps clear your mind. I think exercise and getting enough sleep help against burnout.”

If the driving becomes too monotonous, pull into a truck- or rest stop or viewpoint and soak in the natural environment. Clarence Jenkins, a company driver for UPS and a predecessor company for 32 years, steps out of his truck as often as he can. “I’ve never felt so pressed that I couldn’t get out of my truck for an hour or two to enjoy the surroundings,” he says.

Maintaining consistent communication with your home is crucial, veteran truckers say. June says he talks with his wife once or twice a day. Frequently when he’s in a truckstop, he’ll buy a greeting card and mail it to her as a surprise.

June also suggests breaking up the driving routine by carving out time for yourself. He’s secured his truck and taken a taxi to the beach or to a movie theater. On occasion, he’ll rent a motel room rather than spend another night in his sleeper.

Hoff brought part of his family with him this summer. His 16-year-old son Kasey rode with him for a week to see the Pacific Northwest.

Rush suggests buying a laptop computer with wireless capability to stay in touch with your family. “You might set up a camera mounted on the computer and do the same at home to see your wife and kids and talk with them every night,” he says.

Medical Problems Signal Burnout
Early warning signs of job burnout emerge as medical conditions. If not diagnosed and treated early, they often will result in job burnout. “Once you’re burned out, you’re burned out, and that’s it,” says Dr. John McElligott of Professional Drivers Medical Depots.

Drivers heading toward burnout often have high blood pressure, diabetes, too much weight, lousy eating habits and poor personal hygiene. “They don’t take care of themselves,” McElligott says. “They come in all caffeined and tobaccoed up. They’re on edge.”

McElligott says many male truck drivers’ circadian rhythms are out of whack. Our normal rhythm follows the cycle of the sunrise and sunset, generally. Most over-the-road operators aren’t on that cycle. The absence of that day-and-night pattern affects the human pituitary gland, which fails to secrete hormones at the proper time, McElligott says. Some of those hormones help you manage stress and control testosterone. Sleep disorders may result. “There’s a whole list of things truckers are exposed to that are a recipe for disaster,” he says.

Stress management and focusing hard on how you spend your time are vital to keeping you away from burnout, McElligott says. Today’s weak economy and high fuel prices are forcing savvy truck operators to account for every dollar and minute. He recommends you set priorities in your work.

“Drivers have to say ‘Is this going to make a difference in my life in 20 years?'” he says. “If it’s not going to make a difference, don’t get excited about it. If you’re going to be a few minutes late, communicate that.”