By 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.
Image via Robert Couse-Baker / Flickr