Is Your Commute Hurting Your Career?

As cities grapple with growing commuter issues, companies find worker productivity slipping. We look for answers.

Picture this: You just paid $350,000 for a new home 15 miles from your shiny new job in Any City, USA. The real estate agent and your employer reassured you repeatedly that the commute was “a half-hour, tops,” and you could drive or take public transportation given the convenient location of your new residence.

The only problem is the supposed 30-minute commute regularly takes two hours because the railroad tracks need repairs, the subways are overcrowded and unreliable, and driving is an asphalt warzone.

This annoying and stressful scenario is a reality for workers all over the US. Now it’s expected to hit a new low in one of the nation’s biggest driving markets. Starting next week, in one highly publicized example, emergency train work by Amtrak will force the cancellation or rerouting of trains during rush hour in New York for months to come. Commuter rail lines in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are causing similar issues in those cities.

Little stressors such as a dreadfully long commute go with being sentient, and they have real repercussions for businesses and leaders in that they can lead to disengagement, lack of motivation, and underperformance. As written in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Employees whose self-control has been depleted by mental strain are less likely to take initiative on the job … rather than trying new ideas or wresting with tough choices, they tend to punt and think, ‘I can’t deal with that right now.’”

By one estimate, actively disengaged employees are costing US firms $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year. Or, put more positively, Korn Ferry found that firms that engage and enable their employees post up to 4.5 times more revenue growth than companies that don’t.

“Psychologically, if leaders are understanding of the pressures and stresses their workers have, it gives them an emotional lift that allows them to have more energy and desire to give back to the organization,” said Andrés Tapia, a senior client partner and Korn Ferry’s global practice leader for Workplace Performance, Inclusion & Diversity.

Here’s the problem: Most organizations don’t have a response and prefer to take a head-in-the-sand approach to major stressful events such as a bombing or a mass shooting, never mind a long commute. They implicitly believe that it is the employee’s responsibility not to bring outside stress to work. That, in turn, leads to more stress and diminishing returns for the organization. “Employers need to look at people as whole people instead of one-dimensional workers,” said Tapia. “Engagement, by definition, is about emotion. People who feel connected and supported give extra effort to the organization.”

He suggested an alliterative three-pronged approach that leaders can use to help alleviate stress and restore motivation: empathy, engagement, and enablement.

With empathy, simply acknowledging your employee’s long commute or hectic summer camp drop-off schedule can be meaningful. It shows you understand their reality. How leaders and managers can be more systematic in offering organizational solutions is directly related to employee engagement levels. Increasingly, particularly among younger workers, what organizations do to help people—from large-scale global social causes to providing flex-time and additional family leave to starting meetings an hour later to help accommodate for an extra-long commute—have an important impact on motivation. The hard part is implementing all these minor systemic changes widely—i.e., enablement.

“We know that, generally, employees who feel enabled, encouraged, and emotionally supported by organizations and managers are more engaged, and higher engagement leads to higher productivity,” Tapia said.