Tanya Mitropoulos, M.S., Virginia Tech

The goal of this study was to investigate what factors make a commuter suffer versus benefit from their commute by taking a boundary theory lens to in-commute recovery experiences. I hypothesized that commuters with weaker work/home boundaries would be more likely to ruminate about work and thus recover less during their commute home.

The commute has been linked to myriad negative outcomes. Researchers have shown that commuting from work is associated with worse mood and higher blood pressure (Novaco et al., 1979; Stokols et al., 1978). These poor psychological states can spillover to negatively impact home and family life (see Calderwood & Mitropoulos, 2020, for a review), and the higher physiological arousal can lead to chronic health problems (Ursin & Eriksen, 2004). However, commuters have also reported benefiting from their commute home, for example by taking advantage of the opportunity to wind down from work (Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1997). Van Hooff (2015) showed that on some days, people found their commute relaxing, which led to a greater sense of recovery when they arrived home. These observations are in line with boundary theory (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000). As the transition period from work to home, the post-work commute presents an opportunity to disengage from work and assume the proper psychological state for one’s family role, facilitating a smoother transition.

Whether an employee uses the commute beneficially to recover from work likely depends on their work/home boundary management. Some people maintain a weak boundary between work and home, switching frequently between their work and family roles (Ashforth et al., 2000). I expect that such people will be more likely to spend their commute home with their heads still at work – in other words, ruminating about work during their commute home. This study extends recovery literature by linking boundary management to recovery from work within the commuting context, while testing work-related rumination as a linking mechanism.

In this daily diary study, 56 participants (N = 56) completed 250 survey days (n = 250; 89.3% response rate). Participants indicated their boundary management habits in an initial opt-in survey. This inter-domain transition behavior was assessed bidirectionally, measuring both work-to-home and home-to-work transition behavior (Matthews, Barnes-Farrell, & Bulger, 2010). Then for five consecutive work days (Monday-Friday), participants reported their post-work commuting experiences. These experiences included both types of work-related rumination, affective rumination and problem-solving pondering (Cropley et al., 2012). Because van Hooff (2015) found specifically in-commute relaxation to predict post-commute recovery, I assessed recovery using her adaptation of the relaxation subscale of the Recovery experience Questionnaire (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). Commuting experiences (i.e., work-related rumination and relaxation) were measured at the daily level to capture within-person changes.

For control purposes, participants recorded their daily number of hours worked and minutes from workplace to car. To control for commuting method, participants were required to commute primarily by car and for at least 15 minutes. They also had to be full-time employees in only one job that had no driving demands.

Data were collected in June and July of 2020, which coincided with stay-at-home mandates for non-essential employees in most states (Secon, 2020), so a high proportion of the sample worked in healthcare (28.5%) and retail or food service (17.8%). Multilevel path analyses were performed in Mplus Version 8.4.

Descriptive statistics are shown in Table 1, and tests of hypotheses in Figures 2 and 3. Family-to-work transition behavior (e.g., leaving family time to handle a work responsibility) was positively associated with both in-commute affective rumination and problem-solving pondering; work-to-family transition behavior, however, was not found to associate with either type of work-related rumination. In-commute affective rumination but not problem-solving pondering was shown to predict a decrease in in-commute relaxation. Looking at indirect effects, family-to-work transition behavior negatively influenced in-commute relaxation via in-commute affective rumination but not problem-solving pondering.

These results indicate that affective rumination explains an association between maintaining a weak work/home boundary and lack of relaxation experienced during the commute, but only for those with a weak boundary in the family-to-work direction. This study also points to affective rumination as being the more harmful form of work-related rumination in the context of in-commute recovery, as problem-solving pondering was not shown to hamper relaxation during the commute. This study extends current recovery literature by giving insight into how stable tendencies like one’s boundary management habits can influence daily psychological states during the commute and, in turn, recovery. This study also examines how the daily commute home can serve as a boon to recovery, despite its typical framing as a negative experience (van Hooff, 2015).

Together, these findings suggest that a stronger work/home boundary facilitates recovery from work during the commute home and protects commuters from harmful outcomes stemming from affective rumination. Future research can explore whether in-commute interventions such as mindfulness can buffer the negative impact of a weak work/home boundary on in-commute recovery.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Basic research, Empirical study, Fit; Balance; Conflict; Spillover; and Enrichment, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Theoretical and Conceptual Issues in Job Stress, Theoretical exposition or development, Work - Life - Family, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery