We know there is a problem. The average life expectancy for an over-the-road driver is 61, which is 17 years less than the general population. Truckers experience a 50% higher occurrence of diabetes and a 20% higher obesity rate than others. One of the reasons it's so hard to attract people into becoming truck drivers is the lifestyle itself is so unattractive to health-minded young people.
We need a solution. But who should take on the challenge of seeing that truckers, a vital part of our economic health, are given opportunities to achieve personal health?
I would suggest three sectors: the individual drivers, public/private partnerships, and entrepreneurs.
I spoke to Derek Yach, senior vice president of the Vitality Institute. His group, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently found some interesting correlations between the health of employees and the communities where they reside. The report concludes that while employers are providing programs to help employees stay healthy, they need to also look outside their four walls to improve health.
And outside the four walls, of course, is where truckers work. So I asked Yach—whose previous jobs included stints as head of global health for the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as executive director for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health of the World Health Organization—what can be done to improve their health?
"The first step is to address health issues on an individual basis," Yach says. "You achieve this by looking at behavior models. We have found that using incentives to encourage healthy habits works. Our employer programs offer employees the opportunity to get cash rewards, discounts on flights and other incentives.
"Another tactic is to alternate the carrot-and-stick approach which introduces an element of loss aversion. If certain health goals are not reached, discounts will be taken away."
This might be a tall order, as a study done by The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the MIT AgeLab found that half of the drivers 50 and older have not considered how exercise, an essential part of health, might be beneficial to their ability to drive.
Yach has an answer to this in the form of technology. Wearables, such as Fitbit, can provide real-time information to drivers as to the current status of their health. These devices can also be used as tracking devices that help employers monitor progress.
Wouldn't this kind of tracking upset employees, I asked Yach. He says that when companies take the time to explain that it's a tool, not a punishment, most people are very receptive.
Other support programs come from government agencies. Since 2011, the National Institutes of Health has spent over $2.6 million since on a program to motivate truck drivers to lose weight. The agency feels that there is "a lack of effective weight loss and health promotion interventions for truck drivers."
And educational institutions are joining the effort. Just recently the Oregon Health and Science University announced it was conducting a program which sets up a weight-loss competition for truckers. Participants also get access to interactive health screenings, weight tips and motivational phone calls while they drive.
These programs can build upon efforts many employers are already implementing. "It is critical for employers and community leaders to join forces to build a nationwide Culture of Health," says Marjorie Paloma of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.
Once the truckers are "all in" (sorry—this is how we talk in Cleveland), technology becomes a viable aid, and the community gets serious about looking for solutions, the entrepreneurs can jump in. I'm sure there are many exercise and health-related ideas bubbling in the minds of innovative entrepreneurs.
What's especially rewarding is that at this strategy level a problem—poor health—is being addressed by offering practical solutions that offer macro-economic value, since new businesses create new jobs and revenue. Sounds like a win-win to me.