Whether you take the bus, the train or a car, commuting equals boredom, occasional strain and mostly a lot of lost time. On average, commuting takes up 38 minutes a day summing up to several 24-hour days a year. Such a massive time investment should have a serious return, right? Obviously, it does. Commuting enables many of us to combine a job of own choice (or a job at all) with a life in the place of our liking. Commuting is a necessary evil for those who don’t want to (or cannot) live where they work or work where they live.
The downsides of long commutes are quite clear and are not only suffered by the commuter. Think about the (often fossil) energy and infrastructure needed for moving people from one place to another, about the stress one gets when missing the bus, not finding a seat in the train, or finding one just opposite that colleague before having your coffee. According to some, an increase in your commute with roughly 20 minutes would decrease your satisfaction as much as a 19 per cent (!) pay cut would.
No, long commutes are not good for one’s well-being. The question is therefore how ‘evil’ the commute is and how one might reduce its negative consequences. The self-help industry is thriving on providing ready-made solutions for this: we should listen to audiobooks, use one of these 36 apps, start a romance, meditate, buy these special commuting shoes, sleep, or listen to a podcasts. And preferably, do them all at once. A refreshing energising commute is within reach, right?
The thing is, all these solutions are focused on us and our behaviour. Yet new research shows that part of the key to a better commute is in the hands of our employers. Changing the way our jobs are organised might seriously change our experience of our commuting time.
Let’s compare Emel and Frank. Both have a similar commuting time and jobs. Yet, the way the work is organised is radically different. In Emel’s case, she has little control over her work. Her supervisor gives her tasks at the start of the day and checks what has been done. What she does is highly prescribed and should always be the same. Frank does the same tasks but can choose when he does what, and how he goes about it. He gets a general task and considerable autonomy and freedom. What matters is if it’s done well in the end. In short, Frank enjoys considerable autonomy at work. Emel doesn’t. And this affects their experience of their commute.
For Emel, a long commute will be stressful. She knows she’s losing time. Ifs she’s 15 minutes late this means 15 minutes extra work. What work is still unknown to her. She cannot mentally prepare, think about how to order the tasks or even just relax. The time on the commute is literally lost and she should quickly resort to some meditation techniques.
For Frank, the long commute isn’t fun either. But he knows what’s coming to him in terms of work. He knows he can postpone some stuff to tomorrow if the commute takes longer. He could even get some great idea about how to do the work in a better way during the commute. And if he wishes, he can start a novel knowing he can arrange stuff (in terms of work) once he’s in the office.
Our job and how much autonomy we have in our jobs matters. As the new study shows: employees who enjoy autonomy at work suffer less from long commutes. Both in terms of well-being and as commitment to their job.
And don’t get us wrong. We don’t dispute that e-books, apps, shoes and commuting romances, can reduce the stress of a commute (although with the romances we’re not very sure). We also don’t push you to do real work during your commute. We only show that a key for a harmless commute is in the hands of your immediate boss. Time to have a conversation about your job before putting up your special commuting shoes and hitching the 17:32 train home!
- This blog post is based on the authors’ paper The role of work–life balance and autonomy in the relationship between commuting, employee commitment and well-being, with Onur Emre, in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 0(0), 1–25, 2019.
- The post gives the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Diego Torres Silvestre, under a CC-BY-2.0 licence
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Stan De Spiegelaere is a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and a guest professor at the University of Ghent. He has a PhD in sociology from the KU Leuven University. Stan worked as a researcher at the KU Leuven Research Institute for Work and Society (HIVA) until he joined the ETUI in 2015. Twitter: @stan_ds