How do psychological work stressors impact commuting behaviour?

Commuting by car
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This article was written by Dr. Michal Biron and Keren Turgeman-Lupo, of the Faculty of Management at the University of Haifa.

Commuting refers to the act of traveling for employment purposes – travels between one's home and workplace. Commuting is considered a significant part of employees’ daily routine in many countries: average commute times reported in international transportation studies range between 40 and 80 minutes (e.g., Olsson, Garling, Ettema, Friman, & Fujii, 2013).

Correspondingly, such reports indicate that commuting accidents are a major problem worldwide.

Still, research on employee behavior while commuting by car is scant, as the literature on driver behavior has focused largely on driving in general (as opposed to the unique context of commuting) or among professional drivers (e.g., truck drivers). Moreover, our understanding of the antecedents of unsafe commuting behavior is limited mainly to demographic variables and work related physical stressors.

What did our study look for?

Our study addressed these gaps by investigating the association between work-related psychological stressors and unsafe commuting behavior. We also developed and validated a scale for measuring commuting norms and considered the permissiveness of these norms as a mediator in the stressor-commuting behavior association.

The results, based on data collected from 216 employees in a large manufacturing plant at two points in time, indicated that abusive supervision and work-family conflict were both positively related to unsafe commuting behavior, and that the permissiveness of commuting norms partially mediated these relationships.

More specifically, the results suggests that the nature of employee-supervisor relationships is relevant not only for employees’ behavior while at work but also for their behavior on the way to and from work.

We hypothesized that abusive supervision, defined as subordinates' perceptions of hostility in supervisors' verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact (Tepper, 2000), may impose significant psychological distress, characterized by dysfunctional thoughts and negative feelings, and thus emotionally disturb employees and distract them while commuting.

In addition, abused employees may be cognitively motivated to engage in certain behaviors that reflect obedience and commitment to the supervisor. That is, motivated to please their supervisor, these employees may work while commuting (e.g., answer phone calls, read messages).

The role of work-family conflict in shaping commuting behaviour

Furthermore, the findings point to the potential role of work-family conflict, or the lack thereof, in shaping commuting behavior. Work-family conflict involves difficulties with integrating work and family responsibilities (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985).

Drawing from spillover theory and recognizing that commuting is at the junction of the work and home domains, we describe how the stress associated with work-family conflict is ongoing in nature, such that it interferes with employees’ functioning in both the work and home domains, and thus continues to present a concern when employees commute.

Our analysis also showed that the effects of abusive supervision and work-family conflict on commuting behavior were mediated by commuting norms – a set of beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes towards commuting. That is, psychological stressors might affect commuting behavior by contributing to the development of more permissive commuting norms.

This finding is consistent with Shope's (2006) observation that young drivers tend to develop driving-related perceptions that are based on their immediate environment (e.g., community norms, peers' norms, cultural norms, etc.), and that these perceptions significantly affect the extent to which drivers engage in unsafe driving behaviors (e.g., speeding, impaired driving, unsafe passing, etc.).

In another study, Shinar (1998) found that cultural norms are associated with aggressive driving behaviors, such as honking and running red lights. The commuting scale developed and validated in our study further refined these findings by showing that norms related to the specific context of commuting (rather than more general, culture-related norms) should be considered as well.

Notably, the relationship between workplace stressors and individual employees’ commuting norms may be reflected in broader contexts—i.e., norms characterizing other individuals and groups/units within the organization.

Employees may tend to adopt a group’s norms and to act upon them in an attempt to avoid social rejection, i.e., to demonstrate that they ‘belong’ (e.g., Terry, Hogg, & White, 2000).

Although the current study did not test for the potential effects of peers’ commuting norms, the commuting norms scale that was developed for the current study might be a useful tool for researchers seeking to explore such peer-based influence.  

This study offers important theoretical and practical implications.

Theoretically, our findings point to the need to expand the investigation of commuting behavior to include psychological stressors, as well as to consider indirect effects of such stressors rather than focus exclusively on direct relationships.

In terms of practice, the finding that abusive supervision is related to unsafe commuting behavior suggests that organizations should be aware of and take concrete measures to mitigate the potentially negative influence of supervisors. Similarly, firms may search for ways to enable employees to better address work and non-work responsibilities, and thus reduce their need to attend to such concerns while commuting.

Finally, our findings may point to a need to enlist organizations in traffic safety enforcement efforts: firms should acknowledge the importance of commuting norms and seek ways to convince employees to adopt stricter norms, e.g., by means of education and training programs.

Examples of such efforts include fleet safety management courses available in a number of countries (e.g., Australia, France, UK; Carslake et al., 2015).

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