Commuting to work creates liminal space, which allows commuters a space to decompress and disconnect before making it home.
Commuting to work can be the most stressful part of the day. Even if you’re in a dream job, getting there can increase your stress levels which can cause fatigue. Just the thought of it can be enough to ruin anybody’s mood. But before we consign the commute to a concrete coffin, Kristie McAlpine says the daily experience could be used to positive effect.
McAlpine, an Assistant Professor of Management at Rutgers University, recently co-authored a paper with Matthew Piszczek of Wayne State University that explores the value of commuting to work as a transitional buffer between the office and home. This is commonly known as Liminal Space, which is the boundary that separates one place or state from another.
According to the paper, commuting to work is the liminal space people have to pass through to get to the office. While most people regard it as an onerous time drain, McAlpine says it does have some benefits. This includes using the time to leave work behind and start to attach your mind to the home role once more.
Commuting to and from work can provide people in high-stress jobs with an opportunity to transition from one environment to another. It also gives people a chance to repair themselves before getting home. McAlpine told NPR that people who worked in the medical field during the pandemic used their journey home to shake off some of the stresses of the workplace and rejuvenate themselves.
This process of detachment when commuting to and from work is the first of three services that the liminal space can provide. By leaving the office you have physically detached from work. The space also permits you to detach psychologically. But that’s only if you’re willing to stop checking your work email and refocus your attention.
Commuting to and from work also gives people an opportunity to relax. While folks who endure grueling trips on packed trains find this idea laughable, McAlpine says people should make the best of a bad situation by listening to music or audiobooks. “There’s good evidence that work recovery is effectively achieved with active forms of commute,” she explained.
Commuting to work can also allow people to use the change to engage in mastery experiences. “Unlike relaxation, in which individuals engage in activities to unwind, mastery experiences present individuals with energizing activities that are designed to stretch their capabilities,” McAlpine told NPR. “Think learning a language, or knitting a sweater.”
The study received quite a lot of publicity when it was released. But in the wake of the pandemic, with many people opting to work from home and skip commuting to work, not everyone was happy with the way the paper was represented in some media. “There was a lot of anger directed at us,” McAlpine explained.
“People were saying we must be funded by corporations, and what agenda do we have?” Along with her co-author, McAlpine was frustrated by this portrayal. “We aren’t saying that commuting to work is good. We’re saying that commutes can have positive aspects. “When we’re mindful of them and think carefully about them, we can leverage it for the benefit of our ends,” she added.