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The psychological impact of difficult commutes

Difficult commutes can significantly impact mental health, causing stress, anxiety, and decreased job satisfaction. Long travel times can disrupt work-life balance, leading to burnout. The unpredictability of commuting can also heighten feelings of loss of control, further exacerbating psychological distress.

Darren D. Moore

Darren D. Moore

Ph.D., MAED, LMFT, & Founder of I AM MOORE, LLC

The psychological impact of difficult commutes

Those forced to deal with a difficult commute have more to complain about than they did in the past. According to a recent study, the 239 hours that the average American spent commuting in 2022 marks a 20 percent increase over 2019 figures. In other words, commuting has gone from bad to worse.

Lost time is one of the most obvious impacts of a difficult commute, as is lost money, including fuel costs and wear and tear on your vehicle. For the average American, commuting in 2022 costs $8,466.

But commuting also has a psychological impact. If you deal with a difficult commute, you know how stressful it can be — just thinking about your commute may be enough to stress you out. What you may not know is that the stress you experience during a difficult commute can lead to more serious psychological side effects, including anxiety and depression.

How commuting leads to anxiety

Even when commuting is a regular part of your routine, it can still involve a good deal of uncertainty. A breakdown on the road, for example, can lead to further slowdowns, while a collision can stop traffic altogether.

The unpredictability involved in the daily commute is one factor that can trigger anxiety. Essentially, the brain is quick to see uncertainty as danger, which leads it to activate its fight-or-flight response. Once that occurs, anxiety can quickly follow.

A difficult commute can also trigger anxiety by making you feel that you have lost control. When a one-hour commute becomes a two-hour commute, forcing you to miss dinner with the family or a 9:30 meeting, you might say the delay was “out of our control.” When those situations lead to feelings of powerlessness and frustration, it can also cause anxiety.

For those who use public transportation, overstimulation is another factor that can lead to anxiety. Statistics show that public transportation more than doubles the average commute time, which means spending more than one hour a day with crowds, noise, and commotion that can put you on edge.

In any of these cases, fatigue can exacerbate the problem. A long day leaves your energy levels depleted, draining your resilience, motivation, and coping skills, making it more difficult to fight off anxious feelings. Fatigue also fuels irritability, which can make you more tense and more likely to experience anxiety.

How commuting leads to depression

Whereas anxiety is caused by the threats you feel during your commute, depression stems from the loss you feel. Lost time, which could be spent on any number of more satisfying and meaningful activities, is one of the key variables that can lead to depression in those who deal with difficult commutes.

A difficult commute can also rob you of the time needed for self-care, which can further contribute to depression. A healthy work-life balance requires time for leisure, exercise, and relationships, so the time that a difficult commute takes from your schedule can make it impossible to keep up with those important activities.

A long, stressful morning commute can also lead to tardiness, exhaustion, and low morale. If that leads to poor work performance, it can contribute to feelings of depression.

How companies can help their commuters

Recognizing the reality of the problem is the first step for organizations wanting to mitigate the negative impact of a difficult commute. Commuting is not only a logistical challenge, but can also be a challenge to our health. Studies have routinely shown elevated levels of stress can contribute to a higher risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Organizations can reduce commuter stress by communicating to their employees that they care about their struggles and are willing to help ease them. Providing commuters with training on “survival techniques” is another step organizations can take to decrease stress. For example, passing the time with conversations is one technique that can help reduce anxiety and depression, so encouraging commuters to get on the phone with loved ones while they commute can dramatically improve their experience, assuming all safety precautions are followed.

Listening to podcasts or audiobooks is another way to salvage the time spent commuting. Organizations can offer to pay for subscriptions to services that provide access to audiobooks and podcasts. If the topics explored during the commute are job-related, organizations may want to consider seeing the commute as work time.

Organizations can also help by subsidizing the cost of the commute, as giving commuters travel stipends can reduce the stress they feel about the cost of fuel or tolls. By reducing stress and improving employee performance, travel stipends become an investment in greater profitability.

Shifting to remote or hybrid work is a more recent solution that some organizations are choosing to address the stress of commuting. While this can require a significant investment in
technology, as well as a shift in mindset, remote work has been shown to increase employee productivity. Studies have also shown that remote workers use some of the time they once spent commuting to get more work done for their employers.

Related: Hybrid work: the middle ground of the in-office vs. remote debate

For the commuter, getting a proper perspective on the commute is critical. A difficult commute can take a toll on your health. But not all commutes are truly difficult. If stress can be minimized, commutes can actually provide some benefits.

A manageable commute can bring healthy structure to the workday, providing workers with the opportunity to transition between work and home life. For those whose work life and home life are both busy, a commute can provide “me time” that allows you to breathe, think, and relax.

Still, many workers must endure commutes that are more than just an inconvenience. If you are feeling stressed from your commute, try some of the “survival techniques” listed above, or explore with your employer options that can make your commute more manageable.

If nothing provides relief, make whatever changes are necessary to alleviate stress, avoid anxiety and depression, and give yourself the peace you need to enjoy a healthy work-life balance.

Darren D. Moore, Ph.D., MAED, LMFT, is a Father, Husband, Clinical Professor, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He owns I AM MOORE, LLC, a counseling and consulting practice in Georgia providing individual, couple, family, and group therapy services in GA, AL, NY, NC, IL, and FL, as well as consulting across the United States. Dr. Moore currently serves as the Associate Director for Clinical Training and Supervision in the master’s program in Marriage and Family Therapy at the Family Institute, Northwestern University. His areas of expertise include fatherhood and fatherlessness, higher education administration, workplace and mental health, men’s health, mental health, couple, and family relationships, and obesity, weight loss, eating disorders, and mental health. Dr. Moore obtained his Ph.D. in Human Development: Marriage and Family Therapy from Virginia Tech, his MS. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Valdosta State University, his BA. in African American Studies from the University of Minnesota and holds a MAED in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Moore has been featured on various television stations as well as Newsweek and Men’s Health.

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