Killing You Softly: The Perils of a Long Commute

The research is abundantly clear: a long commute kills. So why do we do it? And how can we change our commutes for the better?
Long commute

The soporific vibrations gently ease my eyes shut. For the briefest of moments I’m resting. A few seconds follow before soothing reverberations turn to a turbulent alert system. My eyes widen and my heart rate rises. I’ve done it again.

Once more, the sleeper line comes to my rescue. As I edge out of my lane, the sudden change in vibration snaps me out of my microsleep. I bring the car under control and my adrenaline sees me to my destination.

Death by long commute

This mess, I’m ashamed to say, is the story of my commute during one of the dumbest periods of my life. Blinded by career ambition, my encounters with sleep at the wheel were a regular occurrence for more than six months. Yes, you read correctly. For half a year, I was willing to risk my own and others’ safety. Could I have been more stupid?

Commuting can kill – quickly and slowly. Most of us are so desperate to get from A to B that we rarely stop to take stock of this reality.

It can kill us quickly through the consequences of exhaustion and stupidity – both aptly demonstrated by my old commute. And like my own example of stupidity, we can take our chances along the way. A quick commuting death can come with stark warning signs beforehand: a near miss, a non-fatal accident, a sleeper line jolting us awake. But make no mistake, this gamble is unadulterated stupidity. One cannot afford to rely on luck in the small matter of life or death.

The slow commuting death, on the other hand, is often imperceptible at first. It’s insidious and gradual, ebbing away at our health, sometimes without us even registering root cause. It slowly reduces our sleep, increases our stress, and eats into our time for health-promoting activities – and the force of all these negatives can have devastating effects on our well-being. But don’t just take my word for it; there’s an abundance of research supporting this view.

The physical and mental tolls of commuting

On that note, let us first look at some of the results of studies of commuting impacts from across the developed world. (If you want to skip through the detail, scroll down to the next section.)

In Sweden, a study of more than 21,000 commuters found that longer commutes were linked to sleep disturbance, stress, exhaustion, low self-rated health and increased sickness absence.

Similar results were found in a recent partnership study of more than 34,000 workers in the UK. Those commuting for more than one hour each way were found to be 33% more likely to suffer from depression, 21% more likely to be obese, and a whopping 46% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep per night.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a paper citing aligned findings in 2016. Increased stress, higher blood pressure and BMI, and reduced time available for health-promoting activities like exercising and sleeping – all were all again flagged as risks of longer commutes.

Across the pond in the US, a study of around 4,300 Texan citizens found that greater commuting distances were linked with decreased cardiovascular fitness, increased weight, and other indicators of metabolic risk.

In Canada, a review of cross-sectional data from the 2010 Canadian General Social Survey found that longer commutes were associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and an increased sense of time pressure.

The devastation of long commuting in a nutshell

You get the picture. There is ample research from across the world showing that long commutes can do wide-ranging damage to our physical and mental well-being. Recent research has even found that couples in which one partner commuted for longer than 45 minutes each way were 40 percent likelier to divorce. It seems the effects of longer commuting can spill over into all aspects of our lives.

Let’s take stock for a moment and sum this all up before we move on. Among other factors, long commuting has been associated with the following:

  • Higher stress (and associated problems such as anxiety and depression).
  • Poorer physical health (e.g. higher rates of obesity, higher blood pressure, exhaustion).
  • Increased sickness absence, harming overall productivity levels.
  • Less sleep (again increasing the risks of associated health problems).
  • Lower social activity (as a result of reduced spare time and exhaustion).
  • Less exercise (exacerbating the physical health impact of commuting).
  • Lower life satisfaction and happiness (presumably driven by the above factors).
  • Higher divorce rates.

The time we commit to commuting

While the consistency in the research is not directly indicative of causation, it’s easy to see why there is an association with so many problems. Commuting sucks away time. That means less time to go to the gym, prepare healthier meals, relax and unwind, socialise, and importantly, sleep.

But despite the well-documented health risks, we continue to commit a staggering amount of time to them. According to research, the average daily commute time is 58 minutes in the UK and 53 minutes in the US. That varies considerably by location, with some commuting into major cities comfortably exceeding the hour mark both ways. So-called ‘super commuters’ even take on commutes well above the hour mark each way.

Let us consider for a moment what that means across a working life. Assume that you’ll work for 40 years (this might even be considered optimistic given the rising retirement age) making an average daily commute of 1 hour during your working years. We’ll also assume you work 5 days per week during that time and that you receive 25 days of paid holiday and 8 days of national holidays each year. (Note: I’m taking typical UK holiday allowances here and I’m aware this may draw gasps of disbelief from American readers.)

Under these assumptions you would be commuting for 9,080 hours during your working life, or 378 days.

Take that in for a moment.

378 days. That’s over a year of your life spent contending with road traffic, trying to find a seat on packed trains, walking to the bus stop, and so on. What’s more, that’s using a fairly conservative set of assumptions.

As you can see from the below graph, even if we manage to reduce our time in work, to 30 or even 20 years, we’ll still face astronomical periods of time sat in our cars or on public transport. You can also see how quickly this can get out of hand. If you start to drive 45 minutes each way, it may not feel like much, but you will cost yourself half a year over a 40-year working life. Just think of what you could have done with all that time.

Small increases in total daily commutes take huge chunks from our lives over the longer term – that’s irrefutable. Meanwhile, longer commutes have a serious negative impact on our well-being, even over the short term – that’s backed by the evidence.

When I introduced the CRAP Factor a few weeks back (a formula to assess your work-life balance) I had these realities in mind. The C (commuting) is a time thief and potentially even a health thief.

The commuting trade-off

So why on earth do we do it? What possible compensation could be enough for the damage that commuting does us?

Our commuting choice is most often a trade-off between expensive accommodation near the workplace, or something cheaper and ‘better’ further away. We tolerate an unpleasant commute, in other words, so long as we feel our overall satisfaction is higher as a result of our choice.

The thing is, we’re just not very good at this trade-off. We’re not calibrated to maximise ‘utility’ like an economic equation. Instead, we factor in housing and transportation costs, but we’re terrible at factoring in our time. In short, we make decisions that don’t fully compensate us for the burden of commuting.

A famous study by two economists at the University of Zurich sought to quantify this trade-off. In order to maximise our overall utility, their calculations suggested that commuters in Germany needed a 19 percent pay increase to compensate for 23 minutes of additional commuting.

Now ask yourself if you’ve always demanded truly commensurate pay increases for jobs that brought additional commuting. We may think we’re getting a good deal, but the all-in hit to satisfaction tends to require much greater compensation than we first realise.

What can you do to improve your commute?

If you’re commuting more than 30 minutes each day, the evidence suggests you might get a health boost from cutting your commute – that’s assuming you don’t dramatically cut income in the process.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple. We can’t just wave a magic wand to reduce a harmful commute. Some of us can have firm ties to jobs in distant locations. We can’t pick up our houses and move them overnight, nor can we find scarce work closer to home at the drop of a hat.

There are therefore some potential quick wins, as well as some slower burners to address the perils of commuting. Each are worth some thought over short or long timescales.

#1: Change your mode of transport

I’ve talked a lot about the harm commuting can do in general terms, but this doesn’t account for the differences in satisfaction that come from distinct forms of commuting. For some, a car can be life-changing. It may not even cut a commute, but it gets us away from sharing public transport with strangers. For others, a move to public transport can be a breath of fresh air. Suddenly we have time we can use for our own good. We can read, work and at least feel productive while sat on a train.

The upshot: give your type of transport due consideration. Consider whether alternative modes of commuting might bring you more satisfaction, even if they don’t necessarily cut your commute.

#2: Mitigate factors that exacerbate your commute

If you can’t change your type of commute, think about how you can mitigate its biggest pain points. That might be traffic on your route to work, overcrowding on the train, or an intolerable temperature on the bus. Whatever it is that bugs you, take a deeper think about how you can manage it.

If you get up earlier (which has some extraordinary benefits of its own) could you dodge the overcrowding and arrange to finish work earlier? If you’re sick of the traffic, could you map out a more peaceful route, even if it doesn’t get you there quicker?

#3: Make the most of your commute

One of the most common commuter frustrations is the wasted time. Time sat in traffic or waiting at the bus stop is time forever lost – and with it, nothing gained.

But this doesn’t have to hold true. Commuting is also an opportunity. For many of us, it’s alone time. That’s a chance to be deep in thought, for better or worse.

When we get smarter with how we use our commutes, we can offset some of the negative effects on life satisfaction. A short commute can be a mental bridge between work and home. When we cross that bridge, we disconnect. It draws a line under our work day.

We can use the space between work and home to relax to music, to learn via podcasts, or to simply enjoy our own company. Embrace the commute time and make the most of it. That may be easier said than done, but you’ll feel better for it.

#4: Work from home more often

The advent of the internet has brought with it the perils of constant connectivity to our work, but it’s also brought about the march of the virtual worker. Huge numbers are now spending more days working from home. In doing so, many have cut down their commutes to sustainable levels.

Unfortunately, not everyone can or has taken advantage. Moreover, many of us find ourselves compensating for the lost commute through extra work hours from home.

Notwithstanding, have that conversation with your employer. Even if it’s one day a week from home, the benefits can be lifechanging and cumulative time savings colossal. Imagine you saved one day of an hour commute for that 40-year work life set out earlier. That would be a saving of over 1,800 hours in that working life.

#5: Price in your time in negotiations

Finally, it is not enough to factor in the financial cost of travel and accommodation when negotiating a salary. You must also price in your time.

How much extra pay do you really need to offset the harm of a longer commute? Think in terms of overall well-being and not solely in terms of bank balance. That in itself is a paradigm shift and will require a different mindset.

Once you have an amount in mind, draw a line. But remember this: in the long term, if you’re facing a commute that seriously risks your health, no amount of money is likely to justify it. Think instead about how you can reduce it.

The slower road to death

As I begin the sixth month of the stupidest period of my life, I reach the end of my tether. I’m miserable, fatter, addicted to caffeine, and far less social. I’m paying a physical and mental price for my career ambitions. And unbelievably, I’m still taking stupid risks with my life every morning. What the hell am I doing?

But this time the s**t has hit the fan. I try to negotiate a new role closer to home, but there’s no doing. I review countless accommodation options closer to work, but the costs are astronomical. In short, I’ve ran out of options.

And so after 6 months of madness, I do what I should have done months earlier: I quit.

As I drive to my first day in a new role, perspective finally slaps me in the face. It wasn’t worth it. And it wouldn’t have been worth it for much more.

Everything slowly kills you, but a long commute does a bloody good job at speeding things up. We should all draw the line between a faster road to death and a slower one.

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