The term burnout, which describes a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, is most often associated with a person’s job — but there may be another work-related trigger. A 2015 study from the University of Montreal found that workers who commute to their workplace every day, especially if the trip between home and the office is longer than 20 minutes, can have an increased risk for burnout.
Annie Barreck of the University of Montreal’s School of Industrial Relations studied commuting patterns in rural and urban regions of Quebec. She analyzed a survey of almost 2,000 commuters between the ages of 17 and 69 who worked at 63 organizations to find out how they got to work — whether they drove a car, took a subway or bus, or walked or rode a bike. She also documented how long the trek from home to office took and whether those who commuted by car were drivers or passengers.
To see if the commuters were experiencing burnout, Barreck used the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a widely used psychology research tool that measures burnout symptoms by taking an inventory of complaints such as feeling exhausted and emotionally overextended.
The results showed that employees who commuted into a large city by car often felt the most symptoms of burnout. Those commuting to rural or suburban areas typically felt less stress — but not if they were taking public transportation. What’s more, workers who had a long commute into rural areas on public transit tended to feel more ineffective at their jobs than their city counterparts.
“Public transit implies bus or train connections, and as rural regions are less well served, the risk of unforeseeable and uncontrollable delays is increased, causing stress that is carried over into the workplace,” Barreck explains.
On the other hand, workers in major urban areas who used public transportation to get to work tended to experience fewer burnout symptoms, probably because the variety and frequent service of buses and subways in big cities are more efficient and faster than in rural areas.
Barreck also found that passengers in cars were likely to experience more burnout-type stress than commuting workers who drove.
“Carpooling reduces the passenger commuters’ sense of control, which causes them more stress before they’ve even arrived at work,” she says.
When it comes to those able and willing to walk or bike to work, the stress of their commute is influenced by whether they are in an urban or a suburban environment. Cities with bike lanes and walking paths offer a less stressful way to get to work while commuting by walking and biking in the suburbs was found to produce more burnout symptoms.
“Cyclists in the suburbs have a lesser sense of control than cyclists in the city,” Barreck says. “Cyclists and walkers in the city have access to safety features such as cycle paths and pedestrian crossings, which increase their sense of control over their commute.
“Meanwhile, as businesses have been leaving city centers over the past 20 years, car traffic continues to increase in the suburbs. In the country, cyclists and walkers use quiet country roads, which are comparatively less stressful and offer a greater sense of control.”
Burnout is linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders, musculoskeletal pain and other disorders, according to the American Psychological Association. So finding ways to soothe and prevent employee burnout could help organizations reduce workers’ sick days and even disability.
Barreck’s research found that the risk of burnout increases significantly when a commute lasts more than 20 minutes — and once it passes 35 minutes, workers expressed more negativity toward their job. Adopting flexible commuting arrangements with staggered work hours to shorten commute time in non-rush hours or incorporating partial telecommuting might be a way to lower workers’ stress.
“Managing employee commuting flexibly would increase employee efficiency and moreover enable organizations to attract or retain workers,” Barreck says.