Driving along the road to the Melbourne airport I had never really noticed the blanket of yellow cars to my left. Like most people outside of the taxi industry, I didn’t know it is the Melrose Holding Yard – the place drivers wait before heading up to the airport taxi rank to collect tourists, business travellers and Melbournians returning home.
As I found out, when I started visiting the Holding Yard in 2016 as part of my research on the health and wellbeing of taxi drivers, it is much more than a windy expanse of concrete and cars. The Holding Yard is a vibrant meeting place of cultures, languages, coffee, chess and backgammon. Throughout the day and night, friends meet and exchange stories while waiting for their next job. Some drivers use the time to walk around the yard and get some exercise, others visit the prayer room and others sneak in a cigarette or two before heading back out on the road.
During 2016, I visited the Melrose Holding Yard at different times of the day and night to talk with drivers and ask them to fill in a short survey about their health. This survey was part of the University of Melbourne’s Driving for Change project which aimed to find out about the health of people working as taxi drivers in Melbourne and identify opportunities for improvement.
Over 200 drivers filled out a survey. Nearly all of them (99%) were men, most (92%) were born outside Australia and half (50%) had settled in Australia in the last 10 years. Drivers told us that they were not happy with the state of their health. 30% of drivers described their health as ‘fair or poor’. In contrast, only 15% of men across Australia describe their health as ‘fair or poor’. Drivers were concerned about sitting down all day, eating too much junk food and not getting enough exercise. But the most startling results were around mental health.
Drivers were five times more likely than other men in Australia to report high levels of psychological distress. Almost two thirds (62%) of drivers reported that they often felt sad, nervous, tired for no real reason, and even worthless. People with this level of psychological distress typically feel that they are unable to enjoy life like they should and they may be experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental health problem. Distress was most common in people who regularly drove night shift, people who had ever been badly beaten up, and people who lacked supportive family and friends.
Mental health problems usually improve if the individual gets appropriate support and treatment. Yet, we found that taxi drivers were less likely than other men in Australia to have seen a doctor in the last 12 months. A quarter of drivers with high levels of psychological distress had not seen a GP or medical specialist in the last 12 months.
The goal of the Driving for Change project is not just to find out about the health issues facing drivers, but to do something about it. The results of the survey showed us that drivers need strategies to reduce stress and improve their mental health and that they need more information about when and how to reach out for help. We also found out, through talking to drivers at the Holding Yard and through small group discussions at the VTA offices, that drivers want strategies to improve their physical health.
My team at the University of Melbourne has designed the Driving to Health mobile phone app. Driving to Health is designed specifically for people working in the taxi industry. It includes a range of short activities that drivers can do, either in or out of the car, in breaks between jobs to lower their stress and improve their physical health. We know from talking with drivers that a lot of people have great health and wellbeing tips and there is a function in the app where drivers can share their positive ideas. The app also includes information on mental health, including when and how to get help.
The Driving to Health app is still in the development phase. During 2017 we are going to head out to the Holding Yard again to find out what drivers think of the app and what changes we need to make to it to ensure that drivers like it and use it. We are also going to test whether drivers who use the app experience improvements in their health and wellbeing and whether they are more likely to seek help when they need it. We hope that the Driving to Health app is the start of a new era of health for people working as taxi drivers
Note: The Driving for Change project was funded by the Melbourne Networked Society Institute. Development and testing of the Driving to Health app is funded by the Shepherd Foundation.
Dr Sandra Davidson
Senior Research Fellow
Department of General Practice
University of Melbourne