How Workplace Stress Affects the Commute Home

Sep 21, 2018

Navigating your commute can be stressful enough, but a new study looked at how stress from your day in the workplace affects how you drive on the way home.  

Credit Pixabay.com

“A lot of people don’t consider their commute part of their ‘workday,’" Charles Calderwood says. Calderwood is the founder of the Work, Stress and Recovery Lab at Virginia Tech.  

But, he points out, it’s actually the most dangerous part of their day and the leading cause of injury and fatalities in the U.S. and other countries.” 

So researchers wanted to know what role stress at work plays in that.

“So, say you have equipment that breaks, or you get into some type of conflict with a co-worker or your boss. Or maybe something else happens that prevents you from carrying out the work task you need to complete,” Calderwood suggests.

They asked 50 Virginia Tech employees to rate their own stress levels at work over a two-week period.   And to see how it affected their actual driving performance they used a commercially available cell phone app to count situations like how many times they swerved, drove too fast, or slammed on the brakes.

As you might expect, when employees were in bad moods at the end of the workday, they drove less safely on their way home.  But, what they also found is what’s known as positive stress, the kind that revs you up and actually motivates you, had a very different effect on their driving. 

“It’s the idea that if you’re doing something challenging but attainable for you that can have a positive effect on your stress level," Calderwood says.  "So, if it’s just a goal that’s completely unrealistic, it’s not really a challenge necessarily. But, if you’re in that sweet spot where you have something that’s challenging you at work, but really more sort of pushing you, leading you to be more engaged, more motivated, in that situation that’s when we were seeing safer driving in the commuting environment.”

Calderwood says knowing that negative feelings influence how people drive, future studies could explore ways to repair those work-related bad moods to increase safety on the ride home.

The study on how workplace stress affects driving will appear in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology later this year. 

Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.