Should We Mourn the Daily Commute to Work?

 

Now that we have a moment to pause, what was the commute to work really doing to our wellbeing?

commuting represented via headlights at night and traffic delays

Should We Mourn the Daily Commute to Work? What Was it Doing to Our Mental Health?

If you were given an extra 59 minutes a day what would you do with it?

This was a question faced by some workers during the pandemic and its aftermath. 59 minutes is the average time we spend commuting to and from work each day (at least in the UK).[1]  If you add that up (and let’s be honest, bigger numbers look better) that’s a whopping 221 hours a year travelling to and from work. [2]

If you have ever been one of those people yourself, you will have spotted many coping strategies which can even turn the time into an opportunity. Some sleep on the train, others write or read, some use the time to get themselves out or into the work frame of mind or simply listen to a good audiobook. But for most, and really that’s the vast majority here, commuting is a strain on mental and physical health. It is something to be endured and not enjoyed. Every year millions of people will be asking – is commuting worth it?

Now that many workers have been able to take a break from the daily commuting routine, we have an opportunity to reflect and understand its impact on mental health. We are going to break this up into three key areas that affect commuter mental wellbeing:

  • What is gained
  • What is lost
  • What habits are formed

How we commute to work, school or college makes a difference. Commuting is categorised as either active (walking, cycling) or non-active (car, train or bus). It is this second, sedentary category where effects are greatest.

Commuters themselves are well aware of the impact on their own wellbeing (which is no real surprise considering how much it shapes a working day). A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that [3]:

 

%

Say they experience increased stress

%

Say it decreases their time sleeping

%

Say they eat more fast food

These statistics are really useful to us. They start to hint at three main impacts: gains, losses and habit forming. Let’s take a look at each.

    What is gained?

    The biggest gain for most commuters is additional stress. Many of the features of modern society are stressful but the physical act of traveling on congested roads or overcrowded trains can lead to anger, aggression and irritability. Delays, physical comfort, pollution and perceived ‘unfair’ or unsafe behaviour by other commuters can all add to a general rise in blood pressure.[4]

    Psychologists have long been interested with the impact of choice and control on our stress response (let’s not mention the infamously flawed 1950s ‘executive monkey’ study)[5]. But it would appear that choice really can impact commuting. A lack of choice over quality travel options can lead to increased feelings of stress.[6] Even relatively minor options can help. For example, despite travelling for longer, those who get on a train at the start of the journey (and benefit from a choice of seat and carriage) often feel lower stress levels than those who join the route mid-way.[7]

    Choice and flexibility are even less present for those with a disability. Using public transport is often significantly more difficult and introduces higher levels of stress and anxiety.[8]

    Route or seating options can add or reduce stress, but there is also the question of whether to commute or not. We cannot overlook the fact that many workers may not feel that they have the financial choice to give up long journeys that bring better job prospects. This financial pressure can be a key factor unrelated to the journey itself but serves to add a potential sense of helplessness for some.

    Although more physiological than psychological, public transport can also add the burden of increased colds and other viral illnesses. Those already feeling drained by the commuting lifestyle may find common coughs and colds add further to the exhaustion or feeling of being overwhelmed.

    Additional stress can come in many forms on the daily commute from journey and commuter themselves to issues of socio-economic status and freedom of choice.

    What is lost?

    So, we have covered the obvious – the daily commute and all of its pressures can result in additional stress and physical ill health. What about broader, more indirect impacts?

    At the start of this post we asked what you would do if given an extra 59 minutes a day. What about if we changed that slightly. What you what you would do if you lost 59 minutes a day? What would you cut from your normal routine to compensate?

    For commuters, common casualties include family time, leisure and hobbies, exercise and sleep.  If we go back to the survey, we see[9]:

     

    %

    Say they lost time with family and friends

    %

    Say they lost time for physical activities

    %

    Say they lost time sleeping

    Thinking about these activities, they represent some of the things that can bring overall happiness, reduce loneliness and bring a sense of purpose and meaning (not to mention the issues caused by insufficient sleep). We can therefore expect their loss to create broader mental health impacts. Indeed, those with longer journeys to work are 33% more likely to suffer from depression.[10]

    We should also address gender at this point. Despite men having longer average journey times, women appear be more prone to the ill effects. In fact, research has found that increasing women’s journey times by just 10 minutes creates a wellbeing reduction that is only a third less than the wellbeing reduction caused by losing a job.[11]  It is worth noting that studies have not looked at broader genders or non-binary individuals so this impact remains unknown. Personality factors and resilience are also likely to play a part.

    Failing to sufficiently exercise, socialise or sleep is inevitably going to put pressure on both the individual and their relationships with others. Partners at home may feel as if they have to take on a higher share of household or caring responsibilities. The reactions of children to a parent who is more absent may add to an even more pressured home life.

      

    What habits are formed?

    If we add up stress, a shortage of time and overall unhappiness we end up with some inevitable poor habits. Commuters have reported being far more likely to snack, eat junk food and spend less time prepping healthy meals[12]. The impact of diet on mental health is an interesting topic of debate and there is clear research to suggest that there is a link between poor nutrition and poorer mental health (although we should note that this can also be affected by socio-economic background and poverty).[13]

    Longer journeys to work result in a 21% greater chance of being obese.[14] A combination of issues is likely to be at play here, but this does indicate that commuting via non-active methods (e.g. car or public transport) is at least a factor in poorer physical health and broader wellness.

    Unhealthy diets are not just an impact on the body, but on the wallet. Food bought at the station or on the go can be significantly more expensive than homemade, healthy alternatives. This may in some ways add to a vicious cycle of economic dependency on the commute itself.

    Cafe where commuters eat less healthy food

    Is there such a thing as a good commute?

    The ideal commute does exist. Unfortunately, we have one problem – people’s ability to access it.

    As we have seen, there are very clear negative impacts of a commuting lifestyle. Changing the context and mode of transport has the ability not only to reduce the negatives but bring positives as well.

    Cycling to work has been linked to good self-perceived health, lower stress and reduced feelings of loneliness.[15] Walking shows equivalent benefits.[16] Why? Well, as ever, there a few reasons behind this.

    Commuters are more likely to experience feelings of stress and exhaustion when they believe they are in a crowded and unpleasant environment.[17] Cycling and walking can remove or reduce these factors and provide a less stressful start to the day accompanied by greater feelings of choice and control.

    Along with benefits to the mind, cardiovascular health is improved.[18] When we commute in an active way, the downsides of potential pollution and traffic safety are usually offset with the mental and physical benefits of exercise. Although less of a high priority for mental health, some may also get personal satisfaction from a more environmentally sustainable commute. There is also a positive impact on finances. Whether using a car or a season ticket, non-active travel is not cheap. After an initial outlay on a bike or pair of good trainers, active commuting can be drastically cheaper.

    The issue is simply that for many, this ideal walk or cycle to work, school or college is simply not accessible.

    How does this affect mental health care and wellbeing?

     Overall, the picture is stark. The Office for National Statistics found that:

     

    commuters have on average lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and a higher level of anxiety, with effects being particularly marked for those commuting between 61 and 90 minutes per day.[19]

    In some shape or another, commuting will undoubtedly have an impact on the wellbeing of working age individuals that you see professionally, and perhaps even your own wellbeing. Awareness of the scale of the issue is important, especially as there is a temptation for clients to downplay the role it has on health and accept it as a necessary or inevitable part of employment. Many also don’t have the choice of an alternative commute (e.g. by bike or walking), or don’t perceive there to be a choice.

    The moment of pause that Covid-19 brought us from commuting shows more than ever the negative effects it can have on wellbeing. How businesses, councils and clients themselves choose to address this may impact the mental health of generations to come.

    Time for a Change?

    If you are feeling the need to reduce your commute, or to provide mental health care which is accessible to clients without travelling then view our Diploma in Online and Distance Therapy. The course will develop your professional skills and competencies to allow you to work online ethically and knowledgably.

    Custom CSS Box

    Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

    How to Reference this Blog Post

    Suggested reference for this post:

    School of Applied Mental Health (2020). Should We Mourn the Daily Commute to Work? Available from: https://www.schoolofappliedmentalhealth.com/commuting-mental-health

    References

     

    [1] TUC (2019). Annual Commuting Time is Up 21 Hours Compared to a Decade Ago. Available from: https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/annual-commuting-time-21-hours-compared-decade-ago-finds-tuc

    [2] TUC (2019). Annual Commuting Time is Up 21 Hours Compared to a Decade Ago. Available from: https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/annual-commuting-time-21-hours-compared-decade-ago-finds-tuc

    [3] RSPH (2016). Health in a Hurry Report: The Impact of Rush Hour Commuting on our Health and Wellbeing. Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/b1320af3-7ba3-4b4e-a14351e7d8cfb24b.pdf

    [4] Singer, J., Lundberg, U., and Frankenhauser, M. (1978). Stress on the Train: A Study of Urban Commuting. In Mahudin, M., and Diana, N. (2012). Quality of Rail Passenger Experience: The Direct and Spillover Effects of Crowding on Individual Well-Being and Organisational Behaviour. PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham. Available from: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/12457/1/Mohd_Mahudin_2012.pdf

    [5] Payne, K. (2013). The Myth of Executive Stress. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-myth-of-executive-str/

    [6] Cox, T., Houdmont, J., and Griffiths, A. (2006). Rail Passenger Crowding, Stress, Health and Safety in Britain. Transportation Research: Part A, 40, pp. 244-258. Available from: https://core.ac.uk/reader/190512400

    [7] Novaco, R. W., and Gonzalez, O. (2009). Commuting and Well-Being. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Raymond_Novaco/publication/251358676_Commuting_and_Well-being/links/55c1612e08ae9289a09d0567/Commuting-and-Well-being.pdf

    [8] SCOPE (2019). Dealing with Stress on Public Transport. Available from: https://www.scope.org.uk/advice-and-support/dealing-with-stress-public-transport/

    [9] RSPH (2016). Health in a Hurry Report: The Impact of Rush Hour Commuting on our Health and Wellbeing. Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/b1320af3-7ba3-4b4e-a14351e7d8cfb24b.pdf

    [10] Vitality (2017). Long Commutes Costing Firms a Week’s Worth of Staff Productivity. Available from: https://www.vitality.co.uk/media/long-commutes-costing-a-weeks-worth-of-productivity/

    [11] Rice, N., and Roberts, J. (2019). Does Commuting Affect Health and Well-Being: If so for Whom? Available from: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/sil/impact/2019/00002019/00000001/art00023#

    [12] RSPH (2016). Health in a Hurry Report: The Impact of Rush Hour Commuting on our Health and Wellbeing. Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/b1320af3-7ba3-4b4e-a14351e7d8cfb24b.pdf

    [13] Mental Health Foundation (2018). Diet and Mental Health. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/d/diet-and-mental-health

    [14] Gallant, G. (2019). Why Your Long Commute is Bad for Your Health. Available from: https://patient.info/news-and-features/is-your-commute-bad-for-your-health

    [15] Avila-Palencia, I. et al (2018). The Effects of Transport Mode Use on Self-Perceived Health, Mental Health, and Social Contact Measures: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study. Available from: https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/62973/6/01_B7AMSGH_Manuscript_v5_ei.pdf

    [16] Avila-Palencia, I. et al (2018). The Effects of Transport Mode Use on Self-Perceived Health, Mental Health, and Social Contact Measures: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Study. Available from: https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/62973/6/01_B7AMSGH_Manuscript_v5_ei.pdf

    [17] Mahudin, M., and Diana, N. (2012). Quality of Rail Passenger Experience: The Direct and Spillover Effects of Crowding on Individual Well-Being and Organisational Behaviour. PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham. Available from: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/12457/1/Mohd_Mahudin_2012.pdf

    [18] Otto, C. M. (2018). Heartbeat: Commuting and Cardiovascular Health. Available from: https://heart.bmj.com/content/104/21/1725

    [19] Office of National Statistics (no date). Commuting and Personal Well-Being. In RSPH (2016). Health in a Hurry Report: The Impact of Rush Hour Commuting on our Health and Wellbeing. Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/b1320af3-7ba3-4b4e-a14351e7d8cfb24b.pdf

    Image Credits

    Header photo by Florian Steciuk on Unsplash

    Image of Cafe by Roman Kraft on Unsplash