Two questions regarding the “Zen commute”

I’ve seen numerous stories in recent months about creating more calm, Zen commutes. Here is a recent example:

“We can say, ‘OK, I’m going to be in the car for an hour,'” said actor Jeff Kober, who teaches meditation in Los Angeles. “‘Now, what can I do to improve my quality of life during that hour?'”

Resist the urge to relinquish that hour to an inner monologue of traffic complaints, work worries and side-eye looks at coughing riders. Instead, treat it as a time when you can incorporate more contentment, either by getting more meditative or taking measures to create your own oasis.

“Because we’re essentially captive, why not make it into something really productive?” said Maria Gonzalez, who teaches the benefits of mindfulness in business as founder of Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting in Toronto…

Experts say, however, that it is possible to change how you embark on, endure and exit your commute.

Even as these practices might limit the negative health consequences of commuting, there are two unanswered questions that came to my mind:

  1. Are mindful drivers safer drivers? There have been major campaigns in recent years to limit the distractions of drivers. If drivers are mindful or being Zen about things other than driving, isn’t this a problem? We still want drivers to focus on the driving, whether stressed while doing it or not.
  2. The bigger issue, of course, is why so many people have long commutes where they are so stressed and harmed. The average American commute is around 26 minutes (and supercommuters are limited) due to a variety of factors: Americans like cars, residences are spread out, our government promoted highways over mass transit, and so on. If we really wanted to deal with the problems of commuting, the Zen part seems like a band-aid on an issue of having people relatively far from their workplaces. Or, maybe this provides more reasons to promote telecommuting and working from home.

The gendered tasks you do at work can affect the gendered work you do at home

A new study in the American Journal of Sociology looks at what men who work in female-dominated careers do at home:

When stacked up against men who have jobs where men and women are equally represented, men in gender-atypical jobs put in an extra hour each week on typically male housework. What’s more, these men’s wives stick to female-typed tasks, spending about four hours more each week cooking dinner, vacuuming or throwing in a load of laundry. Meanwhile, women who work in male-centric professions also tend to pursue more female-typed housework but not with the same consistency as men in female-dominated arenas — perhaps because they perceive it as less of a threat to their femininity. (It should also be noted that a different study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that doing housework after a day on the job isn’t good for anyone, regardless of gender.)

What’s going on here? It seems to be a manifestation of what sociologists call the “neutralization of gender deviance.” Or, in plainspeak, “men are trying to bolster their masculinity at home,” says Daniel Schneider, the study’s author and a doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University…

Truth be told, Schneider was surprised by the findings. He’d expected to discover that men in gender-typical jobs — a mechanic, for example — would spend more time at home working on car or home maintenance. By that logic, he also anticipated that men in male-atypical jobs would come home and do more cooking and cleaning-type housework typically associated with women.

But humans don’t always make sense. “The market and home are really intertwined and influence each other,” says Schneider. “But they are not necessarily intertwined in a rational way. Instead, they’re intertwined in a way that’s about cultural salience and the meaning of gender.”

In other words: gender norms and expectations influence how people act. If we were to interview men who work in more female fields, would they be able to describe this process discovered in survey data? Also,  I wonder if this is tied to the amount of time people spend at work.

More broadly, this is a reminder that what happens in our career or at the workplace has an influence on other areas of our life. On one hand, perhaps this seems fairly obvious: our culture is one where people are defined by their occupation and what they do. As I tell my students, when you meet people as an adult, the first or one of the first questions you tend to be asked is, “what do you do [for work, a living]?” These puts a lot of pressure on individuals to have meaningful jobs. On the other hand, we tend to act like we can compartmentalize work and home. This goes back into history as there was a separation of home and work only in the Industrial Revolution as jobs moved out of the household or close by to larger factories and offices owned by corporations. While technology may have blurred the lines in recent decades, we still tend to have strong physical and mental boundaries between home and work.

Considering how much time full-time workers put into their jobs today, it should be little surprise that it is hard to keep these spheres apart. At the same time, specifying how it affects other areas of our lives is worth considering.

Negative emotions in the workplace

A recent Time magazine piece discusses the role, or lack of a role, of negative emotions in the workplace:

In the binary shorthand we use to compartmentalize modern life, we think of home as the realm of emotion and work as the place where rationality rules — a tidy distinction that crumbles in the face of experience. As management scholar Blake Ashforth has written, it is a “convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” In fact, in the workplace we are bombarded by emotions — our own and everyone else’s. Neuroscientists have demonstrated over and over in empirical ways just how integral emotion is in all aspects of our lives, including our work. But since companies have generally avoided the subject, there are no clear protocols about emotional expression in the office.

The only instance in which we acknowledge emotion is when doing so is seen as obviously beneficial, both personally and professionally…

But we’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door.

As the last paragraph of the article suggests, not being able to express these emotions leaves employees as less than human. It is one thing to be able to act professional or courteous in the workplace but another to suggest that people have to bottle emotions that we all have from time to time. In high stress environments where the personal identity of employees is often closely tied to job performance, negative emotions are bound to come up.

This reminds me of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotion work.” While there are certain professions that require a public performance of cheerfulness (such as a flight attendant or waitress), this article suggests that most employees have to do some form of this. Just as Hochschild suggests, this is also a gendered issue: women are judged differently when expressing emotion.

So how could companies allow employees to express these emotions in positive ways?

Happy employees = better workers

Forbes has developed a list of the 10 companies in the United States that have the happiest employees. This happiness is not just a good thing for the personal well-being of the employees – it eventually helps improve the company’s quality and bottom line:

Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and healthcare costs. According to Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37%. In fact, the benefits can be seen across industries and job functions. Doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those that are negative.

I’ve seen articles/studies like this before. If this is a consistent finding, why don’t more companies make this a priority? It might take some extra money and convincing up front, but if the payoff is harder-working yet more relaxed employees, who wouldn’t want that?

The importance of having meaningful work

Recent research suggests that the satisfaction individuals derive from work is not based just on a paycheck but rather on the meaning found in even doing menial tasks:

In several recent studies, social scientists have zeroed in on why paychecks alone can’t explain the link between work and well-being. The evidence shows that people can find meaning in seemingly insignificant jobs and that even trivial tasks make us far happier than no tasks at all.

“We become very dedicated to things it would be hard to be dedicated to if we were perfectly rational,” says behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, author of “The Upside of Irrationality,” published in June. “It turns out you can give people lots of meaning in lots of ways, even small ones.”…

The findings suggest that, although people often yield to idleness, deep down they seek excuses to stay busy, because busyness is happiness. However much Sisyphus rued his meaningless job, the authors conclude, he would have been even more miserable with no job at all.

Interesting findings that would have profound implications for the workplace.

Some quick questions:

1. Do these researchers argue that these benefits of working are linked to human nature or is it a conditioned response based on culture and other factors?

2. What are the long-term consequences of people having no work? If work is meaningful, what happens if people cannot work for different reasons (health, unemployment, other possibilities)?

3. How many workplaces (or what percentage) explicitly talk to employees about the meaningfulness of their individual work?