Commuting has become an inevitable but often dreaded part of most people’s lives. Between the hours of 7am-9am and 5pm-7pm, our roads and railways have become battle grounds, riddled with stress, anxiety, anger and misery as millions of people fight with each other just to get to work and do things they could quite easily do remotely.
But why does commuting have to be an inevitable part of many people’s lives? The answer lies in the combination of a dramatic increase in the cost of housing that is pushing employees further and further from their place of work, coupled with an old fashioned notion within businesses that you have to go to a single place of work between 9 and 5 every day in order to do your job. As a result more and more people each year are being forced to commute long distances if they want to stay in their job but live somewhere bigger than a shoebox!
To put into context just how prevalent commuting is, over 3.7 million people or 1 in 7 employees in the UK commute for more than 2 hours a day, which has increased by a third in just five years. This trend is also echoed in other countries with major cities such as Beijing, Mexico City, Moscow, LA and New York experiencing the highest levels of commuting. So, with the length of commutes only seeming to continually increase, just what is it doing to employees, the businesses they work in and the wider economy as a result?
Stealing precious free time
The biggest impact commuting has on individuals is the removal of what precious time people have left after already long and ever increasing working hours. Adding an extra 2 hours each day equates to 10 hours a week or 500 hours a year, which is 3 months a year travelling! All this extra time spent sat sedentary in a train or car removes time people could be using on more worthwhile pursuits such as spending it with friends and family, exercising or even relaxing, which can damage our relationships and significantly impact our mental health and physical health as a result.
Damaging employee’s Physical Health
In addition to the time stolen by commuting that stops you from exercising, commuting has been proven time and again to reduce your physical health in other ways too, including increased blood pressure, reduced cardiovascular fitness and lower sleep quality. With more people commuting each year, it is not hard to assume that commuting has a significant impact on the year-on-year increase in obesity rates, with nearly 40% of the world’s population in 2016 being classed as overweight or obese, a rise of 10% since the year 2000.
Increasing mental illness
The cost to our mental health is equally if not more detrimental. A study by the Office of National Statistics concluded that regular commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters, with the worse effects being felt for those that travelled between 61 and 90 minutes. And another study by a team at the University of Montreal found that it only takes 20 minutes of train, car, bus or bike travel to make people liable to chronic stress, which causes both emotional and physical pain.
With millions of people all travelling to work at the same time it creates congestion, which in turn creates a significant increase in waste whether this is toxic gas emissions from exhausts or an increase in litter. To take just these two examples, a study in America found that in 2014 road congestion alone caused commuters to spend an extra 6.9 billion hours on the road resulting in the use of extra 3.1 billion gallons of fuel and the release of 62 billion pounds/28 Billion kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some of you maybe thinking so what, but this unnecessary increase of Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide needlessly being pumped into our local streets results in an increased level of smog affecting air quality that was estimated to have cost 9,500 deaths in London alone in 2015. In addition to the direct pollution of commuter transport, there is also a dramatic increase in litter caused by commuting. In the UK, 7 million coffee cups are used and disposed of every day, a large majority of which are by commuters, adding tonnes of largely unrecyclable cups into Landfill every day.
Commuting is slowing killing us
It is evident that commuting steals our spare time, impacts our relationships with others, affects our physical and mental health and damages the environment. And with house prices continuing to rise and wages stagnating, employees are left with no choice but to move further and further out, making the problem worse. So what is the answer?
Flexible working should be a necessity, not a perk
Put simply, businesses need to throw out industrial era thinking where being in the office is the only place acceptable to work. Embracing flexible working and enabling employees to work in a location and way where they are most effective should not be seen as company perk, but as a necessity for all businesses wherever possible if they are to attract, engage and retain the best talent. And if businesses aren’t focussed on staying relevant in order to attract and retain the best talent then they better do so soon before they find themselves with no good people left to keep them competitive.