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Commuting: is it a bad thing, and if so, how can you improve it?

Posted by: Shaun Carter
23/06/17

For me, as a commuter, one of the many reasons that I really enjoy working for Worldwide Recruitment Solutions is that we have a management team who are aware of some of the life factors that affect people, such as being a parent or guardian or carer. WRS are also, I’m proud to acknowledge, ready to offer ways for people who want to reduce their commute time in order to channel time saved into positive well-being activities such as going to the gym or playing a sport, pursuing a fulfilling hobby, or getting more time to spend with the family. WRS achieved this (as mentioned by our Operations Director Dan Ward in a recent post) by introducing flexible working hours. Being able to start at 7am and then finish at 4pm if you wish, and even make decisions like taking an hour and a half for lunch to visit the gym or practise meditation, have positively affected workforce satisfaction at WRS.

When I consider the work our Charity Committee has undertaken, including setting up fundraising events such as our upcoming Yorkshire 3 Peaks walk for our 2017 charity, UHSM; and the prepared social events, such as a recent wine tasting evening, I realise that the reduced social time a person has to adjust to when entering the world of work can be mitigated to some extent by acknowledging that WRS is making a great effort to operate its business in a lively, vibrant, societally interactive manner, whereby people are working with friends as well as colleagues, and this inevitably makes the journey to work more fun. There are plenty more reasons why I like WRS, and, since we’re currently hiring recruitment consultants, I recommend you take me up on my claims by reading this article here by our esteemed Director and Head of our Mining Division, Lucy Donald.

Being able to start and finish my work shift before rush hour kicks in has had a hugely positive impact on my motivation, my ability to get home and see friends and family, and enables me to carry on with my other projects such as writing. 

Of course, not everyone necessarily has such a positive outlook during their commute.

Employers and HR departments are paying increasing attention to the job and life satisfaction of their employees, which is a great sign of continued innovation of research. One of the biggest aspects of a job that can affect a person’s job and overall life satisfaction in a huge way, negatively or positively, is commute time. And that’s what the subject of this blogpost is.

There are factors that can affect commute time, and there are ways to combat many of these factors, I shall walk you through some of the salient considerations.

There are, of course, numerous ways to travel to and from work. Car or other private vehicle; bicycle; train or tram; bus; walking. A 2012 study undertaken by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that more time spent in a car meant less time spent exercising. This can of course be applied to any transport method whereby there is the possibility of traffic, or sitting down for a long time (cycling is the exception here). Blood pressure and weight gain, the report found, both rose in people who had to surrender their time to sitting, isolated, waiting to get to work. A 2011 Swedish report published in BMC Public Health found statistical links between a person’s commute and their decreased level of energy, increased stress, and higher illness-related absences.

According to a Harris Interactive Poll conducted by The Workforce in the United States, 5 million workers (around 4% of working Americans at the time of the poll) had admitted to “calling in sick” at least once to avoid the lengthy commute they faced that day.

The United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics discovered that the greatest levels of dissatisfaction are in commuters whose travel accounts for anywhere between 91-179 minutes. This is, of course, a huge portion of a person’s day to spend commuting to work, whether it’s one way of their journey or "there and back".

The Office of National Statistics measured factors including general happiness, a sense that their life was worthwhile, and anxiety. So what sort of things are going on in our minds that lead to us feeling negative before/during/after our commute?

  • Time pressure. People can feel under pressure to make the most of any free time they do have and, paradoxically, end up doing nothing with their free time because they struggle to prioritise between non-work activities.
  • Family life can suffer. A longer commute is likely to prevent a person from attending children’s school activities such as sports day or a school play or a parents’ evening. It can also lead to a person being absent at the dinner table. Missing family, as we’ve all experienced, can be tough.
  • Health can suffer. As already mentioned, the amount of physical exercise a person does generally decreases because of longer commutes.
  • Lateness is increased. In some cases, various studies found that longer commutes led to people being late for work more frequently. 
  • Decreased energy and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). FOMO is a recognised term that was singlehandedly made prevalent in society because of the internet and social media. If people are stuck in traffic and see their friends or family have posted exciting photos or statuses on social media, or if bad traffic leads to a person missing a social event, or even just being late, the Fear of Missing Out can have a negative impact on a person’s well-being and increase anxiety throughout the week.

Loss of control in one’s day can have an enormous effect on how anxious and positive a person can feel. Buses, trains, trams arriving late, adverse changes to weather during the day, and unexpected occurrences can all lead to the commute feeling like a tough place for a person heading to work.

But there are plenty of reasons to approach your commute positively as well! And I can say this from personal experience as somebody who currently commutes daily. My commute involves roughly a mile of walking, and two bus journeys, one very short, the other about 35-40 minutes.

A 2005 study in Transportation Research found that commutes could be productive for various reasons such as creating a mental shift between home and work, enabling a person to arrive at work in a focused state of mind; and, given the rise of technology and the increased power of mobile phone data/WIFI, there are plenty of other things to potentially do while on your way to work; here are some (note, some of these can’t be achieved if you’re driving):

  • Read. As somebody with a Master’s in Creative Writing, I admit to always being curious when I look around on the bus and see people reading books or eBooks. The rise of the eBook has definitely had a positive effect on numbers of people reading. And, you don’t even need to buy a Kindle or an eReader, just download an app like Serial Reader or Amazon’s Kindle app. Most buses, trains, and trams often have newspapers lying around, too. If you’re driving, then audiobooks can be a fun way to engage in a great story while sitting in gridlock! Personally, I find my commute a great time to read.
  • Work! People can access their work emails on their smartphones and tablets, and there are plenty of apps that we can effectively do work on while travelling. Maybe don’t do this if you’re driving…
  • Music/the radio. Many of us have Spotify or Apple Music or any other music streaming service these days. Listening to your favourite tunes heading to or from work can be a very useful way to calm down, to motivate yourself, or to simply switch off.
  • Reply to all those notifications. If you’ve got an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to travel, then get out your phone and reply to those texts and messages you’ve seen flashing on your phone all day. Given that many people finish work around the same time, you could get involved in a fun conversation with your pals.
  • Podcasts. Perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of long commute times/distances. Creative people making radio-show like content on just about every single topic you can think of – a personal favourite of mine when I’m not reading a book is Sam Harris’s very informative, multi-topical The Waking Up Podcast.
  • Meditation/mindfulness/thinking. Sometimes a person needs a little time to quietly sit with their thoughts, and not do anything. If this applies to you, then perhaps try to work these moments into your commute?
  • Consider alternatives. If you currently don’t cycle, then why not give it a go? You’ll be achieving plenty of weekly exercise, and many companies now offer various “cycle to work schemes” whereby they will help you to fund a bicycle. If you need to drive or take the bus, what about a new route? Are you definitely maximising your time or are you currently just using the route you know?

If you take the time to think about your commute, and try to come to terms with the time you will spend travelling, you might change your perspective on the opportunities available to you while you’re commuting; an opportunity might exist to speak to your employer about shift alternatives. With these considerations in mind, you might find that your job satisfaction and overall well-being, increase!

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