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How well do you think you drive after a stressful day at work? Most road traffic accidents happen on the drive home. This suggests that our jobs can affect driving safety, but little is known about this. New research by, Dr Michael Clinton from King’s College London, Dr Rebecca Hewett from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), Prof. Neil Conway from Royal Holloway, University of London, and Dr Damian Poulter from University of Greenwich reveals exactly which characteristics of the working day have implications for road safety and why.
With some company bosses determined that their staff should return to the office once the pandemic is over, our latest research warns managers of the potentially life threatening pitfalls associated with the daily commute after a stressful day at work.
But what it is about the work day that makes makes the drive home more risky? And how can we make the commute home safer? According to our research when people have to use their willpower at work – for example by resisting distractions or when they need to regulate their emotions – they often have less willpower to use later in the day, including the drive home. We examined the implications of this depleted willpower beyond the work day, and examined why these stressors spill over to the drive home.
In order to test driving behaviour we carried out two studies. In the first, 55 working adults in the UK, who regularly commuted on the same journey, completed a survey twice a day for 10 days (adding up to 499 days of data altogether) – at the end of work and after they drove home. We also collected data on their driving behaviour through telematics – a box plugged into their car which monitored driving speed every second, relative to the speed limit. This allowed us to monitor how many seconds they exceeded the speed limit on their drive home. In the second study, 133 other working adults completed two surveys on a single working day – after work and after they drove home. In this survey, they self-reported their driving behaviour.
We found that two stress-related characteristics predicted speeding on the way home. On days when people needed to resist many distractions at work, they were more likely to speed. This was because they paid less attention during their drive home. On days when people needed to control their impulses during work – for example by not showing their frustrations or annoyances – they were more likely to speed. This is because they were ‘sensation seeking’ (taking risks) while driving, which only happened on days when they were in a bad mood on the drive home.
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How do we combat this? Venting frustrations helps
Distractions are inevitable at work. But, work can be designed to try to reduce these distractions, for example by providing more quiet spaces and software to reduce IT distractions like pop-ups. Organisations can also try to reduce the extent to which employees are required to regulate their emotions at work, for example, if they have to provide ‘service with a smile’ and hide their emotions to customers. In these sort of situations organisations could encourage employees to vent their frustrations to colleagues or their manager in order to try and mitigate this.
Taking regular breaks
Despite our gut sense and mounting empirical evidence that taking a break will help us think and work more productively, many of us grind away for hours straight during our workday. However, in order to reduce the risks of speeding on the drive home, taking a moment away is key as this break enables us to build our resources back up, especially on days which are particularly demanding. This applies even more in work environments where there are more distractions such as busy, open plan offices and lots of emails, chats and notification pop-ups, or work environments where people need to regulate their emotions such as busy customer service or client facing jobs.
Our findings highlight the ethical responsibility that organisations have to reduce these kinds of stressors during work. It’s not only important for employee well-being, which is obvious, but also has implications for other drivers, family members, cyclists, healthcare workers, the economy, and society in general. It is a critical safety concern.
Organisations need to take action to reduce these kinds of stressors during work – it’s quite literally a matter of life and death.