“You can never get away from the stress. You take it home with you,” says Shaad, a driver with First Bus in London. “And it is not just you who is affected – your whole family suffers.”
Shaad has worked on the buses for ten years. “I have seen the pressure getting worse,” he explains. “The long hours, the increasing demands, the bullying – eventually it makes you ill.”
Martin, a driver at East London Bus Group, agrees. “People think the money is good, but all the time drivers are having to work a lot of overtime just to make ends meet. And job security is a big issue.
“Our company seems to be driving out experienced workers. New starters are cheaper for them and they can push them around more.
“There has been a big rise in disciplinary action so everyone is scared for their job.”
Shaad says the anxiety starts even before going out on the road. “Before you even get to work, you are worrying about what is going to happen that day.
“You wonder what the bus will be like. So many of them are old buses – the heating might be broken, it might be leaking when it rains.
“Then you are monitored all the time. For two months now we’ve had a ‘Green Road’ device in our cabs. It’s like Big Brother is in there with you.
“You have three lights flashing on your dashboard to tell you how you are driving. It records all the mistakes you make. It is hard to concentrate with that going on.”
It is not just London drivers who face this kind of pressure.
Jim, a driver from a small garage in Kettering, Northamptonshire, explains, “We get flashpoints on our routes. If you are driving in busy periods or with a lot of schoolchildren, the bus will be full with a lot of people standing up.
“Then you have to worry about safety, answer questions, keep to time, deal with cash, check tickets and drive the bus.
“And all the time you know that if an inspector gets on you could be sacked if they find someone without a ticket. But how can you be expected to check everyone when it is that busy?”
Jim and Shaad both talk about the impact of shift work.
“It wrecks your body clock,” says Jim. “At our place the rotas are drawn up by a computer and you often end up working a late on one day and an early the next. So this week I did a 6.20am to 7pm shift one day followed by two 5.40am to 2pm ones.
“It’s really hard going from a late to an early, especially at this time of year when your body is a bit low anyway.
“And it’s tough for people with families – it makes it hard to organise childcare.”
“It means you are sleeping at different times,” Shaad adds. “And eating at different times. And sometimes you go for days without seeing your kids.
“There is a lot of illness on the buses. I have high blood pressure and was recently diagnosed with a heart problem. Two other drivers I know were off with heart problems at the same time as me. There are a lot of back problems and diabetes. And mental breakdowns.
“But the company still doesn’t seem to recognise the problems with stress.”
A recurrent theme of all three drivers is the feeling that management has no respect for them.
“They don’t value the work we do at all,” says Martin. “For them everything is about money.
“Even when they do offer us something it’s always at a price. They told us they wanted to fund a pay deal by cutting holiday and sick pay. But we worked for our holidays. We need them.”
“I love the job in many ways,” says Jim. “Its good being out on the road and having a laugh with some of the passengers. It could be the best job there is – if it wasn’t for management’s attitude.
“They blame the drivers for everything. And they don’t listen to us.”
Jim and Martin have both been out on strike this year – at Jim’s company they won a small pay rise and at Martin’s they are still fighting a pay freeze.
“We made some gains this year,” says Jim. “And we hope to build on that in 2010.”
“It’s important to keep up the pressure,” says Martin. “At the end of the day, it’s the only way we can get the company to listen.”
All names have been changed to protect drivers’ identities