Betty Zhou

Carlson School Research Explains How Commuting Can Be Bad for Business

Thursday, April 4, 2019

When someone has to be to work on time or else, commuting can be extremely stressful. Struggling through the snow, stuck on a delayed train, or inching across town through road construction can actually impact an individual’s performance once they get to the office--whether they make it on time or not.

Research conducted by Carlson School Assistant Professor Le (Betty) Zhou shines light on just how much commuting stress influences workers’ productivity once they arrive at work after a stressful commute.

“For many workers, their commute is an extension of work,” Zhou says. “If people have a tough commute, our research shows that it affects their work negatively. This makes the commute one of the worst parts of a work day for many workers.”

Zhou, along with five coauthors, found that workers found it more difficult to concentrate and self-regulate at work on the days when they experienced a more stressful commute. On days when workers had difficulties in their personal lives, workers also reacted more negatively to their commuting experience.

Stressful Commutes, By the Numbers

These results come from 45 bus commuters’ daily diaries over a period of 15 workdays from a medium-sized IT firm in South China. Each day, workers completed a two-part diary entry that explained their morning commute experience when they got to work and then asked them to evaluate their morning at work during the lunch break.

Large Chinese cities are notorious for their lengthy commutes. The Chinese Academy of Sciences found workers spent an average of 52, 47, and 48 minutes on their daily commute in the three largest cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, respectively.

According to U.S. Census data in 2011, the average worker spent 25.5 minutes one way on their commutes to work each day with 8 percent of U.S. commuters spend more than an hour one way every day.

“Unfortunately, several years after we started this study, commuting has not improved much in major cities in the U.S. or China,” she says. “It is more important now than ever to continue studying workers’ commuting experiences and develop interventions based on scientific studies.”

Avoiding the Impact of Commuting Stress

Although stress during a commute is difficult to avoid, it doesn’t need to negatively affect job performance. A long, daily commute may be unavoidable, but Zhou points out several ways that workers, organizations, and public transportation authorities can make the commute less difficult.

Commuters experienced less stress in the mornings when they had more a more reliable form of transportation and when there was an important task they needed to complete first thing when they arrived.

“Commuters can weaken the negative effects by choosing more efficient commuting means and routes, as well as attempting to prevent stressors from their personal lives impacting their work,” she says. “They can also remind themselves of the importance of their work.”

For example, just knowing what time a bus or train will arrive at work can alleviate stress. Zhou suggests that commuters use public transportation apps to track arrivals and departures, and simply knowing when they will get to work can relieve some of their stress.

Flexible Workplace Policies Provide Relief

Employers that are motivated to reduce commuting stress and improve productivity can develop policies that can help employees avoid stressful commutes. For example, flexible work schedules help employees avoid rush hours or even permit telecommuting when possible.

“A lot of commuters don’t have a choice on how difficult their commute is,” Zhou says. “But if they look at the factors that negatively affect them, they can attempt to make it as painless as possible.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 alumni magazine

The Carlson School is celebrating its centennial. In this issue, we examine our storied history (and the people that made it possible) and look forward to the next 100 years of excellence.

Fall 2019 table of contents