Traffic congestion and the employee psyche
Psychologist and management consultant Dr Leahcim Semaj argues that when considering the impact of traffic congestion on employee psyche, and, by extension, productivity in the workplace, a number of other factors must also be taken into account.
He pointed out that commuters have to factor in their distance from work, whether they will use a private vehicle or public transportation, if school is in session, the weather conditions, and the state of the roads. Managing this confluence of factors can lead to a number of psychological issues such as stress, frustration, fatigue, irritability, and even anxiety and depression, which impacts on how productive an employee can be.
“So, naturally your mood and your concentration and your overall well-being when you reach your destination is compromised. You’re not going to be arriving there fresh,” the psychologist told the Jamaica Observer, adding that the constant stall-and-go while navigating through traffic and constantly monitoring the roads results in commuters feeling overwhelmed.
The impact of traffic congestion is the same for public passengers and drivers of their own vehicles, he shared further. In fact, he said that feelings of irritability, stress and fatigue can lead to road rage which can further delay traffic.
Dr Semaj pointed out that the circumstances that create bottlenecks on the road can never be totally within the control of commuters, and so this can result in anxiety as they become concerned with trying to be punctual for work and meeting deadlines.
“This again leads to decreased productivity because you are preoccupied with thoughts of missing deadlines [and so,] just imagine the state of mind by the time you reach,” Dr Semaj pointed out.
In this regard, he raised concern that just being in traffic for an extended period can reduce cognitive function. It reduces the time to plan for the day or think through targets.
“You’re mentally drained, your cognitive functions suffer and the result: productivity at work may also suffer because of the context in which you work,” the psychologist stated.
At the organisational level, he indicated, this could affect customer-facing activities, teamwork, and people management.
A survey conducted by the Human Resource Association of Jamaica found that employees spent a minimum of 90 minutes daily commuting one-way to work. Delving deeper into the study, the Jamaica Economic Panel (JEP) found that commute time impacted an employee’s productivity, and found that traffic congestion also carried an economic cost stemming from its psychological and physiological impact on employees. One panellist pointed to the mental and physical fatigue that employees would experience upon reaching to their place of work.
This position is supported by research carried out by Wang et al, who documented their findings in an article ‘Commute patterns and depression: Evidence from eleven Latin American cities’ in the Journal of Transport & Health. A similar study carried out by Martin, Goryakin and Auhrcke among British households in 2014 revealed that people who spend more time driving in traffic are often subject to more severe mental health issues such as depression.
Commenting on the findings and placing it within a Jamaican context, JEP co-founder Dr Nadine McCloud noted, “If these estimates are externally valid, Jamaicans who experience three hours of traffic delay have 14.4 per cent higher likelihood of being positively screened for depression.”
But what if there was a work-around? It is common among some Jamaicans to leave their homes early to beat rush-hour traffic and get to work on time and/or stay back waiting for the congestion to ease.
On this note, Dr Semaj said doing so could impact the work-life balance of employees by reducing their time for leisure, exercise, household chores and interacting with family and friends.
“It can affect your mood and job satisfaction. the psychologist told the Business Observer.
He further highlighted that when adding in commute time, this means that employees spend more than half their days away from home.
Bank of Italy economists Francesca Carta and Marta de Philippis raised a similar issue in a study that looked at how increasing commute time could disproportionately distribute work between one’s place of employment and the home. Using a nuclear family, they pointed out that the male can sometimes increase hours spent at work while the female may leave the workforce.
They, however, did not quantify the impact on productivity in the workplace.
Beyond mental health challenges, Dr Semaj was also concerned about the physical health of commuters who, during their time spent in traffic, inhale pollutants such as carbon monoxide and other fumes.
A study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean lists pollutants such as resuspended dust, particulate matter, nitrogenous oxides, sulphur dioxide and ammonia as some of the emission to which commuters in Santiago, Chile, were exposed during long commutes.
Exposure to these pollutants when combined with a sedentary mode of transportation could result in a decrease in the quality of life, Semaj reasoned.
Still, the psychologists made some recommendations to reduce commuters’ exposure to traffic congestion and also improve their productivity. One such, he said, was a staggered work shift that could ease the convergence on the roadway during peak hours. He said he has seen it work for some companies.
Additionally, the psychologist proposed a resumption of work-from-home in a hybrid manner. Looking at the United States, he argued that coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the model continues to reduce traffic congestion while contributing to growth in productivity.
“People from home can spend more time working because congestion has been removed from their concerns,” Dr Semaj stated, noting that employees now can control some of the variables contributing to their efficiency.
Moreover, he contended that in a knowledge-based society, there are web-based mechanisms that can allow people to work remotely while collaborating with each other.
Nevertheless, he emphasised that a hybrid work experience — timed shared between remote and in-office work — would be the best compromise for employees and employers.