It’s official: commuting to work is bad for us. A study by the Office for National Statistics in the UK found that those of us struggling with long journeys to work are more likely to be anxious and dissatisfied, even if our jobs pay better. According to Swedish researchers at Umeå University, it could even make us more likely to get divorced.
How much better could life be if we could work nearer to home? Let’s count the ways that commuting drives us round the bend:
You’re under pressure to get to work on time but so many factors are out of your control – that’s a recipe for stress. It takes a toll: a recent study of 34,000 UK workers found that those with a longer commute (more than half an hour) are a third more likely to suffer from depression, 40 per cent more likely to have money worries and 12 per cent more likely to report work-related stress than those with shorter journeys.
2. Lost time
All that time in traffic jams or stuck with signalling delays is eating into your free time. The same study of UK workers found that people with a commute of half an hour or less gain an extra seven days of productive time a year compared to those with journeys to work of an hour or more. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 3.7 million people spend two hours or more a day travelling to and from work, while the average commute was almost an hour.
If you must suffer public transport every day, the least you can ask is that it turns up on time. Yet buses and trains are constantly delayed – or cancelled – as a result of everything from roadworks and traffic accidents to staff shortages, and, in the UK, leaves on the line or “the wrong type of snow”.
4. Your fellow passengers and drivers
Commuting doesn’t bring out the best in people, especially when it’s combined with overcrowding and traffic. Regular travellers will be well acquainted with – and thoroughly sick of – passengers who take up a seat with their bag when the train is full, play loud music or have long phone calls at shouting volume. Drivers on their mobile phones, tailgaters, middle-lane hogs and drivers who never indicate are all likely to send our blood pressure soaring on the roads.
5. Dealing with the weather
It’s one thing to put up with a long journey to and from work on a bright, clear spring day. It’s quite another when you have to de-ice the car, wait for it to warm up and the windscreen to clear before heading out onto treacherous roads. Or if you use public transport, you have to brave icy streets or downpours before you even get to the station – where they inevitably tell you that the weather has delayed your train.
The amazing thing is that we pay a fortune for all this stress and unpleasantness. On average, UK commuters spend £1,087 a year on their journey to and from work, according to research by Santander. Some monthly rail passes can cost 14 per cent of the average wage. That’s a huge amount of our earnings going on something we hate.
7. It’s hard work
How can it be that after sitting down for an hour on a train or in the car, we feel so exhausted? The stresses of commuting are mentally tiring, but they’re physically draining too. A Gallup survey found that one in three commuters with journeys of over 90 minutes a day experiences back and neck pain.
8. Bad health
The time taken up by commuting makes us less likely to spend time on things that are good for us. A study by Brown University researcher Thomas James Christian found that the longer our commutes, the less we exercised, cooked food from scratch and slept. Staying sedentary, eating fast food and not getting enough sleep are all factors in being overweight. So it’s no wonder that researchers found the number of miles we travel in our cars has the strongest correlation to obesity of any lifestyle factor.
Those Swedish researchers weren’t sure why divorce rates went up when people’s commutes got longer. But social scientists have a good idea why people with long journeys to work are generally more lonely. According to Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, for every 10 more minutes spent commuting people tend to have 10 fewer social connections. Moving further away from the workplace in search of affordable housing tends to put us in more isolated places.
10. It never gets better
Still, you can get used to anything, right? After a while, even a gruelling commute becomes part of the daily routine? Not so, according to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The unpleasant parts of commuting can be different every day, with delays one day and an obnoxious fellow passenger the next, or roadworks followed by an encounter with an aggressive driver. “You can’t adapt to commuting, because it’s entirely unpredictable,” Gilbert has said. “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”