Stressful commutes lead to less productivity

By Aaron Westling

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more workers and employers are reconsidering the impacts of the daily commute. While past research has been done to identify the impact morning commutes have on a worker’s happiness, new research shows the impact it can have on a worker’s productivity.  

A new study shows that the mental effort expended during a morning commute can lead to increased burnout at work and, in turn, reduced productivity during the day. The study also found that how someone feels about their commute directly affects the amount of strain they feel, regardless of what events occur during the trip itself. Essentially, the anxiety caused by anticipating a stressful commute impacts the worker before they ever leave their house, which then leads to more emotional exhaustion and lower productivity once they get to work.  

While the pandemic may have shifted commuting patterns, the need and desire for less stressful commutes was reaching a tipping point even before COVID. In 2018, the U.S. saw a record high for average commute times, reaching over 27 minutes, which adds up to about 225 hours of commuting time per year for the average American. Compare that to about 182 hours in 1980 and it is easy to see why more and more workers are opting to work from home or insist on a hybrid schedule.  

Fortunately, not only do we know the negative impacts that stressful commutes can have on workers’ happiness and productivity, we also know what workers want instead. Specifically, research has shown that not everyone hates their commute. When asked if a commuter would rather keep their commute or be able to teleport to work and back, those who walk or bike to work said they would prefer to keep their commute, valuing the exercise and mental health benefits that come with it. Additional research has shown that when deciding where to live, people strive for a combination of short driving commutes and good transit access.  

However, only a small portion of the population has the ability to choose their preferred commute due to the decisions we make around land use and transportation investment. Lagging housing production, restrictive zoning, minimal transit investments, and continued highway expansions push workers farther away from jobs, reserving the shorter, less stressful commutes for those who can afford them. To increase workers’ happiness and productivity, we will need to adjust our investments accordingly. 

 Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, unmodified. License