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Clearing the head: driving and mental health

For your employees / 27 May 2024

According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost 43 per cent of Australians from age 16 to 85 experienced a mental health issue between 2020 and 2022, while a 2024 Government Inquiry into mental health and addiction in New Zealand found mental illness and addiction cost the Kiwi economy NZD$12 billion — or five per cent of the country’s GDP — annually.

When it comes to simple, short-term relief from the stresses of modern life, most of us think of indulgences like a relaxing massage or taking time out of our day with a good book. For others, it’s listening to calming music, getting in some exercise, or trying to tune out all the noise with mindfulness practices. For others, it’s hitting the road and going for a drive.

Driving — both professionally and on non-work time — can have a range of positive but also negative impacts on our psychological well-being. By being aware of some of these impacts, HR professionals and employers with business vehicle drivers can have a better understanding of the day-to-day challenges of being behind the wheel and then apply these insights to the policies they frame to keep us all safe.

behind the wheel driving

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE

Driving can have a positive impact on our mental health. It can provide a sense of freedom and independence, stress relief, enjoyment, relaxation, and a sense of control. Let’s break them down one at a time.

Freedom and independence

Driving gives many people a sense of freedom and independence due to the degree of autonomy it offers us. We feel like we can (cost of living pressures aside, of course) go wherever we want, whenever we want, and literally leave our cares, worries and anxieties behind us. That’s a very powerful dopamine rush.

Driving at coastal highways

Stress relief

It goes without saying that driving can be stressful. The heart rates of even the most experienced drivers are likely to jump up a few beats per minute when stuck in traffic and running late for an appointment. However, in terms of our mental health, driving can also be a fantastic stress relief because it forces our brains to focus on the road and maintain control of our vehicle, instead of the issues that keep us stressed and feeling low.

For many drivers, the physical environment we’re travelling through contributes to stress relief when behind the wheel. Alpine mountain roads, coastal highways, desert landscapes… it’s hard to feel negative when taking in breathtaking scenery while whizzing by in your car. If you’ve got a convertible vehicle, you can dial that up a few notches.

Enjoyment and relaxation

While it’s vital to minimise distractions when driving, a road trip is often part of a holiday or a break from work. And, as anyone who’s done one will tell you, it gives us time to hit up our favourite playlists, podcasts and audiobooks.

Good tunes and the open road add to the enjoyment of driving for many people and, while it’s important to minimise distractions, listening to podcasts or audio books can be a refreshing and relaxing change from the doom and gloom of radio news on the hour, or the heightened aggression that talkback radio is designed to make us feel.

Happy road trip

Control

One of the major factors present in the vast number of anxiety sufferers is the feeling they have no control over one or more areas of their life. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that driving has been shown to temporarily reduce stress and anxiety levels in people living with these issues.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, going for a drive, navigating traffic, and getting safely from A to B literally gives the driver a sense of control and a feeling of accomplishment that may be absent in other areas of their lives.

ON THE NEGATIVE SIDE

On the flip side, there can be some negative aspects when we talk about your mental health and driving. For some, driving itself can be a source of many mental health challenges. Impairment, surviving road trauma and our mentality at the time of getting behind the wheel can all have a downside for drivers and road safety.

Impairment Some medications used to treat mental illness can have a negative impact on driving.

Driving trauma

In most jurisdictions across Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, people diagnosed with serious psychiatric conditions – like schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder –need a medical clearance before being allowed to hold a licence.

Some meds can cause insomnia, blurred vision and drowsiness, all of which slow reaction times. ‘Brain fog’ is a temporary side effect of many medications and can impair a driver’s judgement. This can lead to risk-taking behaviours and sharply reduce the attention span of someone when driving.

Conversely, not keeping up with medication that helps to treat mental illness can have equally disastrous consequences if a person feels angry, upset or starts having distressing thoughts; a frequent side effect when these medications are stopped abruptly.

Surviving or experiencing road trauma

New Zealand and Australia recorded a combined total of 1,600 road deaths for 2023. As we’ve talked about previously, the effects of road trauma go well beyond those immediately impacted by the loss of a family member or loved one.

“There’s an abundance of people in the world suffering from car-related traumas that impact a person’s life on a daily basis,” says journalist Ethan Cardinal in an article for drive.com.au. “PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in relation to driving-induced accidents can drastically change a person’s perspective and behaviour.”

Driving and mental health

He goes on to quote clinical psychologist Dr Max von Sabler: “PTSD is a very serious problem when it comes to road-traffic related incidents. The most common feature of PTSD after an accident is avoidance behaviours – where a person may avoid driving, being a passenger or being near roads, as they fear traumatic memories of the event being triggered or the event itself happening again. Heavy traffic or unfamiliar locations can also heighten stress and anxiety.”

“Hyper-vigilance is also noteworthy,” adds Dr von Sabler. “Following a road traffic accident [affected people] often become excessively alert and can scan the road/car for sources of threat … flashbacks are a common feature of PTSD and are often triggered by random reminders.”

Having processes in place that ‘check-in’ on the mental health and wellbeing of drivers in your organisation after they’ve been in an accident should be a priority for HR professionals and business owners.

Mental health and road rage

The signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression aren’t limited to a racing heart rate, elevated blood pressure, comfort eating, feelings of dread and fear, low self-esteem, pessimism or lethargy. In many instances, anger and frustration or ‘lashing out’ are signs that someone may be going through a mental health challenge. People with undiagnosed anxiety can find themselves becoming angry and frustrated over everyday occurrences that usually do not warrant an emotional reaction – the phenomenon known as ‘road rage’ is a perfect example.

Driving trauma road rage

Large crowds and excessive noise often trigger people with anxiety and, when we’re stuck in traffic or in stressful road conditions, it’s not unusual for people to become angry or short-tempered with other road users. But, when it comes to underlying mental health issues, these emotions easily escalate into road rage and even violence.

Look out for changes in people’s attitudes and overall demeanour in the workplace. It could be a sign that there are deeper problems that need to be addressed.

IN CONCLUSION

It’s important to be aware that the relationship between driving and mental health is complex and can vary greatly from person to person. For some, driving can be a source of stress or anxiety while, for others, it can help aid a positive outlook.

For HR professionals and employers with business vehicles, pay attention to the mental health and well-being of your staff, incorporate mental health considerations into your policies, and keep the roads safe for everyone.

Driving on the road

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