Economy

What a long trip to work is doing to your health

Engel Schmidl /

Trudging your way to work on public transport or battling heavy traffic in the car can have a huge impact on your daily happiness and health, but just how bad is it?

According to the global Regus Work-Life Balance Index for 2012, long commutes of over 45 minutes are associated with poor sleep quality, exhaustion and low general health. Long-distance commutes apparently also put so much pressure on families that commuters are 40% more likely to separate from their partner.

And commuting has an even bigger impact on women.

The Regus Index showed that longer commuting times affect the rate of employment of women with children of schooling age, while a 2011 study, It’s driving her mad: Gender differences in the effects of commuting on psychological health, revealed that commuting has a detrimental effect on the psychological health of women – more so than men.

Women tend to have a greater sensitivity to commuting times because they share a larger responsibility for day-to-day household tasks, including childcare and housework.

“Studies show that one third of people who commute for more than 90 minutes a day report more back and neck pain and obesity, as well as less enjoyment and more fatigue and worry,” says psychologist Sabina Read. “Interestingly, female commuters who feel low levels of self-control in their lives report the greatest stress levels compared to their male counterparts.”

According to University of Sydney professor Chris Rissel, studies have shown that the act of driving increases people’s risk of being overweight or obese by 13%, even after adjusting for physical activity and leisure time.

“It’s a function of being sedentary,” he says. “Even sitting on a train or bus is better because you walk to the bus stop, and sometimes you have to stand up.”

But while driving increases the risk of weight gain, driving to work doesn’t necessarily mean more stress.

“It’s affected by the predictability of people’s commute and how much control they have over it,” he says. “If you’re on the train, you usually know how long it’s going to take.”

All of this can also affect our career thanks to increased tiredness, stress and lower productivity, according to Melissa Johnston, a career consultant from Suzie Plush Consulting.

“They might have increased stress which means they’re demotivated or less engaged at work,” she says. “Also, they’re not taken as seriously as those who don’t have a long commute because they can’t stay back as late.”

Why we put up with it

A recent NRMA survey of New South Wales drivers found that one in four commuters spend more time getting to work than they receive in annual leave entitlements each year, with 24% spending up to one and a half hours a day commuting to and from work, equivalent to 22 days a year.

So, why do we put up with such long commutes?

For many people, a long commute isn’t a choice and is usually dictated by financial constraints.

“In short, people tend to tolerate a longer commute time if they feel they are being compensated intrinsically or financially in their chosen job or housing and living environment,” says Read.

A 2008 Scandinavian study titled Stress that doesn’t pay: The commuting paradox, says while commuting might be a burden for those involved, those people’s partners might benefit, so that overall, the household will benefit. Others can feel trapped in their commuting situation and therefore experience lower subjective wellbeing when they had bad luck and ended up with a long commute or didn’t foresee the costs of commuting.

“People benefit from commuting when it allows them to get to an office or a factory in order to supply their work, or when they can find either superior or cheaper housing, albeit a greater distance from work,” the study states.

What can we do about it?

While it’s clear most people who have a long commute are unhappy about it, many employers are starting to do more to help staff reduce their commute time in an effort to improve employee work/life balance and wellbeing.

According to the Regus Index, more firms are engaged in reducing staff commutes in 2012 than they were in 2010, highlighting that attention to the employee commute time is becoming mainstream – a result of the benefits to be gained from providing flexible work practices such as reduced costs and improved staff productivity. Two fifths of workers surveyed said they feel that companies have made an effort to reduce employee commutes in the past two years.

“Technology advances now allows more freedom for many people with flexibility to work from home, which can serve as a helpful circuit breaker from the demands of regular, lengthy commutes,” says Read.

But overall, professor Rissel says ‘active travel’ is the best way to go.

“The whole net effect of travelling actively is really positive if they’re able to do that,” he says. “There are significant health benefits of squeezing in more walking or cycling.”

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda.

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