How does commuting to work affect our wellbeing

How your morning commute affects your happiness and wellbeing

Joe Wedgwood blog

In light of today’s strikes, we thought we’d examine how much of an impact our daily commute has on the health, happiness and overall wellbeing of our people…

When it comes to our daily commute to and from work, it is (for the most part) something we endure, rather than enjoy. For many it is an exercise in ‘grin and bearing’, that stretches our coping skills to their very limits.

This is evidenced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), who conducted a study to analyse our personal wellbeing across four measures when we are commuting to work: Happiness, anxiousness, life-satisfaction and the extent to which we feel the things we do in life are worthwhile.

The ONS suggests that with every succeeding minute of travel to work, our satisfaction, happiness and life satisfaction decrease – thus increasing our anxiety. This doesn’t come as much as a surprise when you reflect that British workers spend an average of 54 minutes commuting to work every day. This understandably takes a toll on our happiness and wellbeing – especially during a train strike!

The ONS adds that lengthy commutes, ranging from an hour to an hour-and-a-half, have the most negative effect on our overall wellbeing. While taking the bus to work on a trip that takes longer than 30 minutes is the option that is most likely to impact upon our mood in a negative way.

Why does it impact on our mood so much?

Lack of control:

Professor Jenny Roberts from the University of Sheffield says that commuting affects wellbeing because of the link between stress and mental health. Her research concluded that one of the reasons it can decrease our wellbeing and unhappiness is due to the overwhelming lack of control we have during our daily commute. Will there be a delay? Will there be traffic? Will the weather affect my journey time?

The risk of depression rises:

Researchers from the Cooper Institute in Dallas and the University School of Medicine in Saint Louis compiled a report on the effects of commuting on our wellbeing – their findings were published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine. They found that commutes of at least 10 miles each way have a higher tendency toward depression, anxiety, and social isolation. It is important to note that driving to work is more common in the US than over here – which explains why social isolation is a big problem.

Moreover, further research from professor Jenny Roberts from the University of Sheffield suggests – Social isolation, coupled with boredom can lead to unhappiness and sometimes depression.

Concentration and enjoyment suffers:

A 2014 study by the University of East Anglia found that people who commuted to work by driving or taking public transportation were less able to enjoy daily activities and had more difficulty with concentrating compared to cyclists or walkers.

The researchers noted that wellbeing and happiness scores decreased for car commuters as their average time spent behind the wheel increased. Interestingly, the opposite was true for walkers – those who travelled on foot for longer registered higher wellbeing scores.

It’s a pain in the neck:

One third of people with commutes that surpass 90 minutes, say they have to endure neck and back pain – according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

This is further evidenced by Andrew Wolf, exercise physiologist at Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona, who suggests that the extra time spent sitting slumped forward in the train or a car seat can contribute to these issues.

Does the mode of travel affect our happiness and wellbeing?

The ONS compared the different modes of travel used for the daily work commute to find out which one affects our happiness most. It may not come as a surprise to anyone who’s experienced the feeling of being crammed into a train like a sardine in a jar, that those who take the train to work recorded higher anxiety levels on average than those who travelled in a private vehicle or walked/cycled. Something we can all empathise with after today’s strike!

Here are the key findings:

  • People commuting more than 30 minutes by train had higher anxiety levels on average
  • Those making long bus journeys to work of more than 30 minutes had lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that daily activities are worthwhile, lower happiness levels and higher anxiety
  • Those travelling to work in a private vehicle had lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety levels on average for all journey times (that is, both 16-30 minutes and over 30 minutes)
  • People spending between 16 and 30 minutes cycling to work had lower happiness levels and higher anxiety on average. However, cycling for more than 30 minutes is no worse for personal wellbeing on average than a short commute of up to 15 minutes.

Everything is not lost

While all the research we examined reflected what most people likely feel instinctively – that spending too long commuting to work negatively impacts our wellbeing; it can still be a positive activity if you make some adaptations and encourage your people to follow suit.

To make your commute more enjoyable you can listen to music, learn a language, read a book or even take up meditation to help you block out all the negative aspects of your journey and be more mindful.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that train and bus commuters reported more positive experiences when they interacted with other commuters, than when they kept to themselves.

You could always consider walking, jogging or cycling. You may not be into exercise, but the health benefits are undeniable for both your physical and mental health. It will also serve to make your employees healthier and happier – which will boost performance, engagement and profit.

More and more companies have started to encourage their people to work remotely to combat the effects that commuting can have on their employees’ health. Business leaders have become increasingly more aware of the productivity and concentration-boosting effects that flexi-working has within their organisation.

Combine this with the fact that without daily commutes, teams can increase their working day, and decrease all the negative mental health problems associated with commuting to work – it is understandable why it is on the rise. Plus absences related to train strikes will be significantly decreased!

 

 

 

 

Joe Wedgwood
Content & PR Executive at The Happiness Index, Joe is a published journalist and blogger with a passion for employee engagement and HR. Previously working as a language teacher, counsellor and content manager at a recruitment agency – Joe has developed a broad set of skills and a strong interest in working with people to learn what makes them tick.