One of the downsides of living in the world’s great cities and business centres is that more and more of us are commuting longer distances to get to work.

May Viewpoint: Are your employees’ commutes having a negative impact on their health and well-being?

One of the downsides of living in the world’s great cities and business centres is that more and more of us are commuting longer distances to get to work. As populations rise and, in many cases, property prices escalate, journey times are expanding to absorb social changes. So, what, if any effect does this have on an employees’ work / life balance and subsequently their health?

Choosing whether you can afford to live in a more expensive property in the centre of town and pay less to travel, or vice versa, is a decision that everyone has to make according to the needs of themselves and their families. Location will usually depend on cost, commuter time, the wish for family time, or space. And these requirements will change along with the different stages of an employee’s life: from renting a property near work with city living, to buying a large family home further away, or even across borders. Interestingly, in spite of the rise of home and remote working, commuting remains a daily reality that is hard to avoid. A research study1 conducted in 2016 in the UK, found the number of workers who commute daily for two hours or more has increased by a third in five years.

The survey concluded that around 3.7 million, or about one in seven, workers in the UK spent at least that length of time travelling to and from work. Other information from The European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, found that London is also the European capital city with the highest share of commuting from one region to another i.e., almost half of London’s workforce commutes from another region to get to work – and this is timeconsuming, expensive and often problematic.

In Japan, Metro systems may be cheaper and more reliable, operating at 99% plus punctuality compared to 67.2% on New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and 90% in Paris, but can be packed so tightly that commuters boarding have to be pushed through the doors by an infamous oshiya or ‘pusher’ – an experience that, we can assume, is not a relaxing start or end to the working day!

The potential health impacts of commuting

As journey times have lengthened for many people around the world, the health impact of commuting is increasingly coming under the microscope, especially when individuals are driving or travelling long distances, waking up early in the morning to get to work on time and often arriving home late.

Driving can be associated with high blood pressure, anger (road rage) and even musculoskeletal conditions or heart attacks, while a poor experience on public transport or on the road can also impact an employee’s attitude to work when they arrive, causing an inability to concentrate and focus on the task in hand.

Long commutes can impact employees’ families too. According to recent research2, children whose fathers commute to work over a long distance tend to have more emotional and social problems, regardless of whether mothers commuted to work as well. Stress and fatigue lead to inconsistent and poor parenting, especially when parents are commuting Monday to Friday and are only home at weekends. And if their commute means an employee has a very long day, are they then likely to have time to exercise and properly relax? Are employees skipping a lunch break and some fresh air to make sure they can leave on time and get home at a reasonable hour? Choices like these are made daily by millions of workers, but are probably not always the best ones in terms of health. 

Steps that employers can consider to help

How businesses accommodate longer staff commutes is an evolving topic but one that is becoming increasingly significant. Discussions are particularly relevant when looking at retaining or attracting talented and skilled workers. Employers must ask themselves “will they travel further to come to work for us and what flexibility do they require in order not to go with our competitors?” While choices about commuting time and distance are ultimately up to individuals, there are some steps that employers can consider when helping their team make the best decisions, such as:

  1. Flexible working
  2. Encouraging active travel
  3. Making deals with gyms and fitness centres
  4. Give access to fitness facilities and healthy food
  5. Provide access to beds and resting facilities

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