Hate your commute? It might actually be good for your mental health, scientists say.

  • In Science
  • 2023-02-07 13:22:56Z
  • By Business Insider
A woman reads her phone on a New York subway.
A woman reads her phone on a New York subway.  
  • The commute is often seen as a chore, but the pandemic showed it can be good for your mental health.

  • You need protected time to mentally switch gears after work to prevent burnout, two experts said.

  • Longer commutes for office workers and fake commutes for remote workers could also help, they added.

The dreaded commute to work could be good for your mental health, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Wayne State and Rutgers University found that commuting creates a so-called liminal space that allows your brain to switch off and recharge.

In an article for The Conversation, the researchers argued that the pandemic shone a light on how important this liminal space is to prevent burnout.

"We believe the loss of this space helps explain why many people missed their commutes," they wrote.

Commutes offer time to shift gears

A woman smiles as she leans on her partner
A woman smiles as she leans on her partner's shoulder, looking at a phone he is holding.  

People need time to mentally shift gears from work to home. This happens on two fronts, the researchers said: psychological detachment and psychological recovery.

Psychological detachment, as defined by a 2007 study, suggests that you have not only switched off from work calls and email, but also stopped thinking about job-related problems or opportunities.

In psychological recovery, you're also mentally recovering from the energy used by the day.

Without these two processes, people are at higher risk of burnout, according to a 2014 study.

Longer commutes can be more relaxing

Commutes can offer that protected time to detach and recover. In an unpublished study, the researchers asked 80 university employees to discuss situations when they were able to mentally switch off.

"We found that on days with longer-than-average commutes, people reported higher levels of psychological detachment from work and were more relaxed during the commute," said the researchers in The Conversation.

"Longer commutes might give people more time to detach and recover" by listening to music or podcasts, for instance, they said.

That only works if the commute itself is not stressful. "On days when commutes were more stressful than usual, they reported less psychological detachment from work and less relaxation during the commute," said the researchers in The Conversation.

Consider a fake commute

A man reads a book during an uptown subway ride January 13, 2022 in New York CityRobert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
A man reads a book during an uptown subway ride January 13, 2022 in New York CityRobert Nickelsberg/Getty Images  

The researchers suggest embracing your commute could be a way to protect against the negative effects of work and prevent burnout.

"To help enhance work detachment and relaxation during the commute, commuters could try to avoid ruminating about the workday and instead focus on personally fulfilling uses of the commute time, such as listening to music or podcasts, or calling a friend," they said in The Conversation.

Trying to get home as fast as possible by changing that route every day, cutting through traffic, or jumping on a crowded train could be counterproductive, they said.

"So some people may find it worth their time to take the 'scenic route' home in order to avoid tense driving situations," for instance, they wrote in The Conversation.

Remote workers, who don't tend to have a commute, can also learn to switch off by creating a fake commute for themselves.

"Our findings suggest that remote workers may benefit from creating their own form of commute to provide liminal space for recovery and transition - such as a 15-minute walk to mark the beginning and end of the workday," said the researchers in The Conversation.


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