Traffic jams driving you crazy? It's no joke, they really can cause mental harm

If people are a company’s most important asset, leaders need to focus on ways that their work culture and policies can mitigate health issues caused by problems such as traffic congestion. —

It has taken me years to reach this point but I have been driving much more regularly on Malaysian roads over the past few months – an often character-building experience!

Back in Scotland, a traffic jam is when 10 cars line up and you move at a slightly slower pace on your way to your destination. By comparison, I’ve noticed that being stuck in traffic here offers the opportunity to get through a sizeable chunk of a Leo Tolstoy audiobook.

Don’t get me wrong: the joys of Malaysia far outweigh everyday frustrations. But as I’ve been driving more frequently, I can appreciate the seriousness of how being stuck in traffic can affect people’s health, as reported in “Getting stuck in traffic daily increases risk of chronic mental health issues” (The Star, July 8).

In a 2022 “Work-Life Balance Index” report, Kuala Lumpur was ranked 98th out of 100 world cities across a combined range of areas, including work intensity. People in KL not only work long hours, but they also spend a great deal of time commuting back and forth to work. In The Star’s eye-opening report, a civil servant shared how she can spend six hours a day commuting to and from work. Understandably, she described high stress levels and back pain from so much time on the road.

For many, there’s also the fear and worry that comes with being late to work. Bosses who are less understanding might scold employees for their tardiness and, not realising the effort staff already make to get to work, offer the simplistic advice to better manage their time.

One of the suggestions in the report was for business leaders to provide flexible working hours, and we could perhaps add remote working where possible to ease both the toll on mental health and traffic congestion on the roads.

When we consider mental health problems, we often see the focus placed on the individual. However, mental health (like physical health) exists in relation to people, environments and systems – not in a vacuum. Our mental health is extremely complex. Getting stuck in traffic on its own doesn’t cause stress; it’s the relating factors that cause people a great deal of stress that compounds over time.

Let’s take the example of a mother who juggles two jobs and her family life. She doesn’t get nearly enough sleep, feeds herself just enough to keep going, and suffers in silence with relationship problems at home. Stuck in traffic, she’s reliving the argument she had with her husband the previous day and worries about being late again because her boss noticed she’s been late twice this week, despite her leaving her house early in the morning.

This is the kind of person for whom the words “self-care” are so far from her mind they might as well not exist. She doesn’t have the time or the energy to take care of herself. Even if she did, she probably feels undeserving. Through tears, she scolds herself, “This is my fault. I must do better”.

From this example, we can see this woman contends with so much even before she begins to think of herself. Throw in the back pain and headaches, and we have to wonder how her health will be before long. How much longer do people have to struggle like this on a daily basis?

This is why it’s so crucial for business leaders to truly invest in supporting their people who feel the pressure. For as long as the traffic situation remains the same, what can be done in the workplace to extend much-needed empathy, compassion and support?

As much as they can be helpful within the right context, people don’t need additional resilience or mindfulness workshops. They need supportive workplaces that recognise their challenges and put in place policies that ease the burden on people struggling to show up every day to do their best.

If the Covid-19 pandemic showed us anything, it’s that we can adapt when change is needed. Change is needed now.

Several studies clearly show that when people work in supportive environments, they are able to perform better, are more engaged and are better able to deal with life’s challenges.

I was saddened to read that the civil servant in The Star report spends about 120 hours on the roads a month – an equivalent of five days. If people are a company’s most important asset, leaders need to focus on ways that their work culture and policies can mitigate health issues caused by problems such as traffic congestion.

We can continue to raise awareness of mental health issues until we’re blue in the face, but it’s only through action that we can make a difference. And that must begin with conscious, proactive efforts and the will to create meaningful change.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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