Newswise — Millions of Americans commute to work every day, and for many, it’s a time to look ahead and plan their day, review important documents, and maybe get a little energized for what’s to come.

But the day can often be ruined before it begins if someone is a victim of harassment on their commute. It might be a woman getting groped on a train, a Latino told to go back where they come from, while walking from the parking lot to their office. It could even be the person working from home who gets wolf whistled while walking to the coffee shop down the street from their house.

Researchers have long known what happens to a worker’s productivity when they’re harassed in the workplace, but what are the effects when they’re harassed on their way to work?

Beth Livingston, a professor of management and entrepreneurship in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, said it’s important for businesses to know. While commute harassment is rarely studied and its impact is mostly unquantified, it’s just as real and can affect a workers’ performance just as much as in-office harassment.

“Things happen during a commute that can affect how people work, so it’s in a business’ best interest to learn more about it and think about how they can respond,” said Livingston, who has studied general street harassment for more than 10 years and recently published a paper outlining those possible impacts and how employers can address them.

She said the commute is more important than many realize because it’s the time when a person transitions from their home identity to their work identity, so that they’re ready to go as soon as they arrive at their desk. But harassment can cause emotional and psychological effects that disrupt that transition and linger into the day, reducing their productivity and causing other workplace problems.

“Employees who have been harassed can be slower to get into their job for the day because they’re dwelling on the incident and unable to focus on their work,” Livingston said. “It can also remind people of their marginalization and lower their self-confidence, which can have impacts on the quality of their work.”

She said victims may spend chunks of their day ruminating about the incident, kicking themselves for how they handled it, or wondering why bystanders didn’t come to their aid. It can lead to aggression, incivility, and low morale, which also affects their colleagues. They may even act aggressively or unprofessionally to those who remind them of their harasser.

“This all makes it difficult to engage in your work,” Livingston said.

The nature of commuting harassment also makes it difficult to hold anyone accountable because it’s unlikely the police can identify the harasser, and the behavior may not even be illegal. Public harassment by a stranger also carries the threat of physical harm, Livingston said, so it can be perceived as more threatening than workplace harassment. All of this can increase a victim’s frustration and impact their work.  

Livingston said that while more study is needed to determine the full economic impact of commuting harassment, businesses can take steps to mitigate the damage. They can provide a quiet space for harassment victims to calm themselves and work through the incident before they start working, form a support group where victims can share their experiences and realize they’re not the only person this happens to, or provide extra flex time to cope.

Journal Link: Academy of Management Journal