Is commuter stress killing your employees’ productivity?

Commuter stress isn’t a new phenomenon. The term “road rage” was even coined as a result of it. But, have you considered the toll long commutes may have on your workforce – and your business?

Studies show that average commute times vary widely between states, and even industries. What most of them agree on, however, is that commuter times are steadily increasing across the country.

Depending on who is measuring, the average commute is now around 25 minutes one way. A long commute is defined as 45 minutes or longer – and the number of super-commuters, those who drive 90 minutes or more, is rapidly rising.

If you live close to the office, it can be easy to underestimate the tension and anxiety your employees and managers with long commutes experience. Make no mistake: It can have a negative impact on employees’ productivity and health for myriad reasons.

After all, the longer an employee spends driving to and from work, the less time they have for family, self-care such as exercise and continuing education, or community involvement. Imagine the stress level of an employee who drives one hour each way to the office, especially if they’re dealing with traffic congestion. Now, imagine how that elevated stress level might affect their productivity, job performance and, ultimately, your company.

Left unaddressed, that stressful commute may manifest itself as side effects such as absenteeism, missed deadlines, poor performance, health issues (which may lead to higher health insurance premiums) and attrition.

Still not convinced commuter stress should concern you? Consider the findings from a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Among employees surveyed, “29 percent would quit for matters of convenience – for example, if their commute was too long or they didn’t like the area where the company was located; 17 percent said they have quit a job for this reason.”

So, what can you do to minimize the effects of commuter stress among your employees? Here are several tips that should help.

Develop awareness

An easy way to determine whether stressful commutes are harming your workers is to simply watch them for a few mornings. Do they look stressed or tired when they hit the door? How long does it take before they speak to others or smile?

Next, ask around. Who is getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the office by 8 a.m.? How long does it normally take everyone to get to your location? What causes their long commute? Is highway construction causing extra delays? Or, do they have to drop off one child at daycare and another at school before coming into the office?

It’s also important to acknowledge that not all commutes are created equal. One person may live 30 miles from the office but have a scenic drive free of other cars. Another may live 5 miles away but drive in heavy traffic through construction. Even though it’s a shorter distance, the 5-mile commuter probably has a more stressful drive.

If your company has multiple locations, it may be a good idea for you to drive to each one of your offices in order to experience the traffic all your employees face.

Once you understand how commutes are impacting your workforce, you have several options to help relieve the pressure.

Change meeting times

Good employees want to be on time and try not to miss meetings. They put stress on themselves to be present and meet deadlines, so try to avoid scheduling meetings first thing in the morning or late in the day if you can.

For instance, if your official office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., try to schedule meetings no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and no later than 4 p.m. This gives those who may be trapped in morning traffic time to get in. It also accommodates those who have to leave at a specific time in the evening to meet family obligations.

Be flexible when it’s feasible

Flex time, or shifting when various workers begin and end their day, is hardly a new concept, but it’s simple enough to implement. If you notice frequent tardiness or other signs of a long commute, consider asking your employee if an earlier or later start time would help them get to the office on time.

And, flex time doesn’t have to be all about the employee: Staggering start and stop times across the whole department may allow your business to expand your customer service hours.

Explore alternative locations

Sometimes, leaving earlier and earlier may not be practical for the employee or the business. Do you really need someone answering the phones at 6:30 a.m.?

When flex time doesn’t help, another option could be to allow employees to work from home a day or two a week, or from a different office if you have multiple locations. To be fair, not every job can be performed from home or at an alternate location. But, many jobs can be, especially if the person comes into headquarters regularly for essential meetings or is able to participate in them via technology.

If you have a cluster of employees driving in from one area of the city, you might also want to consider letting team members operate from a coworking space closer to them.

Promote rideshares and mass transit

Mass transit might not be available or easily accessible in your area. However, if it exists, you may be able to encourage employees to try it.

Some cities offer rideshare or vanpool programs. Others even provide companies with tax incentives or discounts for their workforce to use mass transit. If your business is in a position to take advantage of this sort of program, you could potentially offset some of your employees’ cost of using mass transit – and reduce the stress of driving.

Have your HR department check into what mass transit or ride sharing options might be available in your area. Another option: Explore the possibility of starting a carpool initiative within your company if enough people are driving in from the same areas.

Reduce stress at the office

If you can’t decrease the amount of time employees spend commuting, you can still help reduce the stress associated with long drive times. Since commuting often eats into people’s exercise time, you can encourage walking meetings or lunch-time exercise and meditation sessions.

You may also choose to invest in an enterprise-level subscription to an audio book service. Such services help keep everyone informed through access to the latest business books, while also making their commute more pleasant.

Some managers find it helpful to issue “stress cards” to their employees. Then, when an employee feels overwhelmed or needs to step back from a tense moment, they hold up the card and everyone knows to give them some time. These can be particularly helpful early in the day when people are just coming in from their morning commute, or late in the day when they’re dreading getting back into traffic.

Finally, the biggest stress reducer for employees in any situation, is for managers to concentrate on work output and results rather than a time clock. Most people want to do well and follow the rules, so focus on their overall performance rather than penalize them for tardiness related to a commute they can’t control.

From commuter stress to your office layout and culture, many factors can impact employee productivity and happiness. Learn more when you download the free e-book, The Insperity Guide to Employee Engagement.

Mike Buonaiuto

My previous job had a 30 minute commute. Sometimes it was 45 if there were rubberneckers on the highway. So much stress came from just GOING to work; the stress surmounted and became a mental roadblock. I decided to carpool with a friend and it was much more bearable. We were actually recognized by our HR department for commuting frequently and cross-training each other.

Insperity Blog

Thanks so much for sharing, Mike. Pretty cool how you and your friend were able to turn a frustrating commute into a training opportunity!