If there’s one thing that we can be certain about, it’s that the turnover rate in the trucking industry is too damn high. The American Trucking Association (ATA) put the annual turnover rate at 90% for larger carriers (worth $30M or more) while it still remained high at 69% for smaller trucking companies.
While most of the turnover rate is usually due to drivers looking for better pay, more hometime or simply retiring, there are a lot of drivers switching jobs, taking breaks, or exiting the industry altogether due to burnout.
So what is burnout and why is it so prevalent in the trucking community?
Burnout is not a medical condition but instead a result of severe workplace stress over time. How burnout presents itself can be different depending on the individual, but there are some very common symptoms.
Professional burnout is made up of three elements:
Don’t wait to get burned out to seek help or change. Once you are burned out, that’s kind of it. There is no easy cure and it cannot be treated with medication or professional help. The root of the burnout must be dealt with in order to get better.
I’m preaching to the choir, but trucking is a demanding profession. The hours are long, it takes a toll on your body and some routes require you to be away from home for weeks at a time. There’s a lack of healthy food available on the highways, it’s difficult to get good quality sleep on the go and you are isolated from other people for the majority of your day.
There’s a lot of pressure on drivers to perform. Hitting miles and targets set by management, knowing that your job keeps America moving, and the expectation to know everything about driving a truck after your first six months - It’s a lot to handle.
We’ve heard it time and time again, companies not paying a fair wage to their drivers for the services they provide or failing to deliver on promises they’ve made. Drivers are asked to overwork themselves but must also comply with ELDs and stringent FMCSA regulations.
While the average American understands that nothing in their home gets there without having been in a truck at some point, they will also devalue trucking as a job for people who can’t find work anywhere else. It’s hard for truck drivers to take pride in their work when others won’t.
The simplest thing that the industry can do is to increase the wages for their drivers. This can either be by flatly increasing the base wage, to increase the load percentage pay or to pay a higher hourly wage. What is important here is that the pay increase doesn't only come in through performance bonuses as that will only encourage more overworked drivers and increase burnout further.
Communicate with drivers about getting them home as often as possible (If that’s something they want!) or about how to best maximize their home time. This might mean making sure that their routes before their home time are as close to their home as possible or it might mean allowing the driver some flexibility with deciding when and for how long they will spend their home time.
If you ask someone today, why isn’t trucking respected like other trades, you will likely get a response like “Because an electrician, plumber or a mechanic trains for at least a year before being certified”. If we’re thinking long term, one of the best ways to reduce burnout would be to treat truck driving as a trade just like construction, welding or carpentry. A longer and more stringent training program, apprenticeship model or traineeship would deter people who aren’t serious about going into trucking away from the industry and would better prepare those who are serious for going into the industry.
This approach could reduce invasive forms of supervision from companies such as driver facing cameras.
Obviously, it might not be ideal for drivers to wait for the industry to get to grips with the realities of driver burnout. So here are a few tips for how to reduce the risk of burnout for yourself.
As far as possible make sure you’re taking some time to look after yourself. Eat as healthily as your route will allow, exercise during your mandatory breaks or if you’re waiting for a load (running around your truck 33 times = 1 mile) and as far as your schedule will allow try to get 8 hours of sleep at approximately the same time every day. Looking after your body will do wonders for your mind.
This can be whatever social time means for you, whether that’s taking time to hang out with the family, watching a game with a few friends or just chatting online to friends and playing video games. Whatever gets you talking and interacting with your circle, try and make time for it. Even if you like being alone when you’re in the truck, it’s good to reach out when you’re out.
You take pride in your work - you’re a trucker, after all. But at the end of the day it is only a job. You are not responsible for the management not hiring enough people and you shouldn’t have to overwork yourself for their mistakes. This isn’t about apathy, this is about boundaries. Saying “no” is sometimes the most responsible thing you can do.
A good tactic in ‘planning for burnout’ is to not stay anywhere long enough to get sick of it. Think carefully about how long you want to be driving for; is this a sprint or a marathon?
If you’re only planning to be trucking for a few years to save up some money then maybe you can afford to stick with one or two OTR companies and feel exhausted at the end but if you’re in it for the long haul, maybe think about how long it takes for you to get frustrated or bored and then subtract three - six months from that time frame to calculate how long you’ll stay at your next company. That way you should always leave a company on good terms, before you’ve gotten completely burned out.
Should you feel burned out now or at some point in the future, remember that your reasons for it are your own. Despite the common problems and frustrations of the industry, your reasons for stress are, to some degree, unique to you. Understanding yourself and your circumstances will help you make the best decisions for your future.
As a driver, especially if you’ve paid your dues and driven OTR for a few years, you have unparalleled flexibility and choice between literally thousands of companies and directions. Trucking isn’t just one career path, it’s many - and the jobs are as diverse as they come. Sometimes a change of scenery, a home time upgrade, or a new challenge is what you need to turn your burnout inside-out.
Being able to overcome the challenges of the trucking industry is the key to your professional well-being as a CDL driver.
Staying on top of your game will help you make smarter choices, land better jobs, and have a clearer picture of where your career is heading.
We’re here to help you do just that.