If you’re like the average American, you spend about 26 minutes each day getting to work, another 26 minutes going back home, and a total of 104 minutes behind the wheel for every day you happen to have kids who need to be transported, too. You also spend 51 hours each year just sitting in traffic.
What does all of this mean for the average American who, once arriving at work, spends the vast majority of the workday sitting in a chair? That making sure your vehicle is ergonomically suited to you may be almost as important as making sure your workplace is ergonomically sound.
How Driving Affects Work and Everything Else
While it might only seem that a long commute is an inconvenience for the commuter, logging long hours in a car can also takes its toll on the worker and the workplace. How?
A 2001 study by researchers Mark Porter, Diane Gyi and Helen Williams from Loughborough University found that the amount of time spent driving was directly related to incidents of back pain.
Bluntly stated, sitting is hard on the back. Specifically, when we sit, the load on the spine increases and posture can be distorted. Ultimately, we need time to recover from the position. But when workers travel long distances to get to work, get out of their cars and shortly thereafter resume sitting in their office chairs, recovery time from sitting is limited, at best.
Research has found that taxi drivers, sales people and other workers who spent long periods of time driving report higher rates of low back pain and injuries, and drivers who drive for more than four hours each day are six times more likely to miss work due to back problems. Additionally, British organization Green Flag found that one-third of male drivers sit with their legs fully extended which can strain back muscles and a third of women sit too close to the wheel, which can also be problematic for the back. Sitting in a car also exposes the driver to vibration, and poorly-placed controls that require long or awkward reaches can make matters even worse.
Eight o’clock approaches rapidly. You need to be there on time, you throw the kids in the car, kicking and fighting, and head out to battle for position on the road with other drivers in the same situation. You jockey for position in tight spaces, drive defensively and offensively all at the same time, while also keeping your eyes on the road, on your speed, and on other drivers. Where does all of this take you? To another day at the office, now armed with a big pile of stress. And that, says research, could leave you more vulnerable to injury or illness.
In 2004, Dr. Jason Devereux from University of Surrey‘s Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics, conducted a large-scale study regarding the impact of stress on workers. Following 3100 workers for approximately 15 months, Devereux found that workers who reported high levels of stress were four- to five-times more likely to report that they were depressed or mentally strained, or that they had headaches, fatigue, stomach problems, trembling hands or a loss of appetite. They also had a 50 percent greater chance of taking more than five days off work for health reasons.
For some people, commuting to work long distances can also mean losing sleep. A recent Business Week report on “Extreme Commuting” noted that 3.4 million Americans now spend more than an hour and a half commuting each day, and that number is expected to increase as workers seeking affordable and suitable housing and schools continue to drive further and further away from their workplaces to find them. Some extreme commuters awaken as early as 3 a.m. to make the morning commute, arriving back home long after dark, others may have the luxury of sleeping until 4 or 5 a.m.
What does all this long distance commuting add up to? Tired workers. According to the 2005 Sleep in America poll, released this week by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 38 percent of Americans regularly wake up “un-refreshed,” half report their fatigue is making them “not up to par” while at work, 60 percent admit they drove drowsy in the past year, with four percent stating that their drowsy driving either caused or nearly caused an automobile accident. And nearly one-third of the respondents said that sleepiness make them either miss work or make mistakes at work during the past three months.
Other Health Implications
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-03-30.