With more people now heading back to the office and an appreciable rise in traffic on the roads, those dealing with the logistical consequences of car crashes have seen a spike in activity in recent weeks.
One of the main causes of these accidents is drivers falling asleep at the wheel and those dealing with the practicalities after the incident say this is particularly noticeable among exhausted frontline workers coming off long shifts.
Philip Mackessy is the founder of Limerick-based automotive technology company Auxion, which provides vehicle recovery and salvage management services related to road accidents. He says accidents developed a pattern during the pandemic with the number of incidents rising sharply in the first few days following the easing of a lockdown before returning to more normal levels.
“We are just coming out of the latest cycle and things are beginning to settle into the type of pattern that’s typical of early summer volumes in pre-pandemic times,” he says.
“From the accidents we’ve been seeing of late, however, their type and timing fits with the idea of people being tired at the end of a long day. They are happening in the evening and usually only involve one vehicle – so somebody nods off and ends up in the ditch or in the central reservation: they’re more fender benders than serious accidents,” he says.
Asking people to drive home at the end of a stressful day at any time, not just during a pandemic, raises wider concerns about how proactive employers are when it comes to mitigating workplace stress.
New research from the Rotterdam School of Management shows that most road traffic accidents happen on the way home from work and that “the characteristics of the working day”, or what happens in the office, has an impact on employee safety on the journey home.
The research found that when people have to use their willpower at work to resist distractions or regulate their emotions, they often have depleted resources by the end of the day and work stress can easily spill over into their drive home.
To assess the impact of what happens at work on people’s commute, the researchers ran two surveys. The first asked participants to self-report their driving behaviour. The second asked them to complete a questionnaire twice a day for 10 days backed up by telematics – aka a little black box plugged into the car to monitor their driving speed relative to the prevailing speed limit.
Two stress-related characteristics accurately predicted speeding on the way home.
On days when people had to cope with or resist numerous distractions at work, they were more likely to speed because their minds were elsewhere and they were paying less attention to the road. And on days when people needed to control their emotions at work by not showing frustration or annoyance with colleagues or customers for example, they were also more likely to speed because they were in a bad mood and more likely to take risks.
“Given that the highest number of road traffic accidents happen on the work commute, it is a critical safety concern and we recommend reducing these distractions at work,” says the study’s co-author Dr Rebecca Hewett. “Organisations could think about providing more quiet spaces and also using software to reduce IT distractions, like pop-ups.”
Hewett says the findings highlight the ethical responsibility that organisations have to reduce stressors during the working day because of the impact on employees, the economy, the healthcare system and society at large. She adds that organisations need to think about providing a safe way for those on the front line (or those who always have to provide service with a smile) to vent their frustration, particularly on bad days.
“These kinds of demands can be reduced by encouraging employees to take regular breaks which enable them to build their resources back up,” she says.
Frank Scott-Lennon, founder of HR for Better Workplaces, says boards and senior management alike need to become more aware of employee wellbeing, not just on an abstract mental or emotional level, but also at a practical level that translates into specific ways of behaving.
“It is important for managers and team leaders to take time out to talk to people about work pressures in an open environment and look at how these pressures could be reduced. Regular performance conversations can be vital in creating a safe space for employees to talk about the stresses that are hitting them daily at work,” he says.
Scott-Lennon adds that while organisations need to be proactive in providing practical supports to reduce workplace stress (such as introducing real or virtual mindfulness, meditation or relaxation techniques), these initiatives must have clear buy-in from senior management if they are to be taken seriously and used by employees. Managers must lead by example and participate openly in these sessions so their teams can see it is okay to do the same.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, it is still important for managers to diary time for regular check-ins to see how people are coping with the various stresses that remote working brings,” Scott-Lennon says. “Having good structure and processes for meetings can reduce stress levels for employees and given that everyone is suffering from digital overload it might be useful to build a few Zoom-free days into the calendar every month.”