Work stress could be making your commute dangerous

11723980056_c0d5d0b70b_kBy Alex Fradera

British workers spend on average one hour commuting each day, and 57 per cent of commuters make their daily journeys by car. But this is a part of our lives we don’t talk much about, beyond the odd epithet about the traffic; maybe because it’s a strange time, betwixt home and work but not fully either. Potentially, the drive to work is a haven: I recall my mother’s glove compartment crammed with audio books, so she could enjoy those stretches of solo time. But it’s more liable to be caught in a crossfire of worries, fretting about Daniel’s pensive moods at the breakfast table, or anticipating criticisms about the last sales pitch. New research from the University of Haifa suggests these psychological stressors can make our time on the road not just unpleasant, but dangerous as well.

Keren Turgeman-Lupo and Michal Biron collected data from 216 employees at a manufacturing organisation (average age 35, with an average driving commute of 16 miles). They surveyed the employees about what they believed was generally seen as acceptable behaviour when on the road, such as whether it is okay to receive phone calls or texts or to let your attention wander to non-driving concerns. Participants also reported how often they committed dangerous driving behaviours such as overtaking on the inside lane or driving too close to the vehicle ahead. Participants who believed less safe driving-related habits were normal and acceptable also tended to drive more dangerously. But what shaped the commuters’ beliefs?

Turgeman-Lupo and Biron found two types of psychological stress had an influence. The first was the degree of conflict workers said they experienced between their family life and the workplace. Higher work-family conflict was associated with more dangerous driving, and this seemed to be explained through its link to participants’ beliefs about what kinds of driving-related behaviours are acceptable. The commute is a liminal period between home and work, such that thoughts and preoccupations may become especially salient, disrupting attention or even leading commuters to fix things by trying to solve domestic situations through messages or calls.

The other relevant stress factor was supervisor abuse. We know that being given a hard time by a manager impairs attention at work, so these preoccupations could also spill over to the commute. Moreover, evidence suggests that one pernicious effect of supervisor abuse is making people feel that they have to ingratiate themselves to avoid further punishment, which could encourage deliberately diverting their attention towards work issues while working, just to get ahead. As with work-life conflict, participants who reported higher levels of supervisor abuse, such as “my supervisor breaks promises he/she makes” admitted to more dangerous driving thanks to their beliefs about what kind of driving-related habits are normal.

Work-related stress can kill us slowly, but this research warns us of one way it can kill quickly, by siphoning away the mental resources that we need to safely steer tons of metal and glass, at high speeds, through a rapidly shifting landscape. It’s another reason why it’s so important for organisations to have humane management practices, liveable demands on worker time, and procedures to eliminate bullying. And it suggests another role organisations can take: to educate their workforce on safe commuting norms and emphasise their importance. Work should wait for the workplace; leave the commute in peace.

Make it to work (and back home) safely: the effect of psychological work stressors on employee behaviour while commuting by car

Image via Robert Couse-Baker / Flickr

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

3 thoughts on “Work stress could be making your commute dangerous”

  1. Indisputably true. Knowledge is useless when regarding humanity as a whole. There are far too many variables between brains, environments and personal, subjective experience. To prove my point, the knowledge of highway deaths in my country (the U.S.) is high and the numbers are available to the public to educate them. Yet the trend of high death rates on U.S. highways continues. But many people will fear things that are less likely to happen (getting your throat slit by a Muslim terrorist for instance). And then they will get out of work and drive 80+ miles down the highway, cutting people off, driving while distracted, angry or extremely distraught being totally unaware that they are themselves a terrorist among millions of the same as it isn’t just a suicide mission, it then becomes a likely murder/suicide mission. I’ve studied many religions. I never chose one because I’ve never been fond of cliques. The one thing that always comes to mind is what Jesus ‘allegedly’ said when he was ‘allegedly’ crucified. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” That is lack of true awareness. Not just of oneself, but the entire world and all that happens in it. Reality isn’t something people partake of often because most times it’s just too harsh. Fear has completely replaced it. And because of this (mostly) willful blindness, people very rarely see the damage they can cause or do cause. And when their world is in shambles they blame it on … the President for example or someone or something else like Jesus/Act of God or ‘God’s Plan’. HA! Nothing’s changed! From where I’m standing, I see many “Jesuses” being sacrificed needlessly (not just on the highways). They call them “accidents” most times when fundamentally they are crucifixions. Just look at the number of preventable deaths that occur in the U.S. health system. The system and many systems themselves are oxymorons because … humans as a whole don’t evolve. Study past history and compare it to today. Obviously we rinse and repeat.

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