Commuting can negatively impact employees’ performance and wellbeing, as highlighted in Harvard Business Review by Francesca Gino, Bradley Staats, Jon M Jachimowicz, Julia Lee and Jochen I Menges. Addressing this often underestimated problem, they suggest some simple tweaks to make your commute a more positive experience.
Workers with long commutes are more anxious, less satisfied with life and less likely to find their job and daily activities satisfying. They are also more exhausted and less productive at work, and more likely to get divorced.
Gino, Staats, Jachimowicz, Lee and Menges offer five strategies to avoid these ill effects of commuting:
1) Shift your mindset. Use your commuting time to transition from your roles at home to your professional role, and then vice versa on the way back. If you don’t, the cares and worries of one role will hinder you in the other.
A simple daily ritual can help in making this mental shift. For example, check the news, look at your diary, or buy a coffee from a particular shop. Better still, make a ritual of some of the activities recommended in sections 2, 3 and 4 below.
Rituals have been proven to increase enthusiasm and satisfaction, lower stress and speed up recovery from loss or failure – even in individuals who are sceptical of their value.
2) Plan for productivity. Spend some of your commuting time making work plans for the day or the week. You will arrive with a sense of being readier, keener and more energised for the tasks ahead.
The authors have discovered that a key attribute of those who remain content, despite long commutes which should sap their energy and wellbeing, is self-control. These people are able to ignore distractions and focus on their planning.
Delving deeper, their experiments have shown that anyone – not just the most self-controlled – can benefit from this tactic. In test groups, those instructed to spend most of their time planning reported greatest satisfaction.
3) Seize your “pocket of freedom”. Forget about the many commuting-related frustrations you can’t control and focus on something over which you do have a choice: the way you spend that time.
Even in the most dire of circumstances, people can escape into a world of their own for a while to do something they find enjoyable or fulfilling. Depending on your form of transport, you could consider music, reading, learning a language or pursuing a creative hobby.
Studies have shown that those who feel they have control over what they do and how they use their time feel better and are more productive.
4) Be sociable. Make contact with other people as you commute and you will be surprised at what a difference it makes. Commuting’s most insidious ill effects include limitation of social connections and increasing isolation.
Subjects in one study group were asked to talk to strangers while commuting. Despite predicting that solitude would be preferable, these individuals were found to enjoy the journey more than those who were told to keep to themselves or to follow their normal pattern.
Aside from chatting to a stranger, your social options include arranging to travel with colleagues, making calls and using online networking platforms. Being sociable does, of course, conflict somewhat with strategies 2 and 3, but you can seek a balance.
5) Cut your commute. If you’ve tried the other approaches and you’re still not happy, do something to reduce your commuting time.
When the authors asked US workers to choose between a $64,000 job with a 20-minute commute and a $67,000 job with a 50-minute commute, 85% opted for the latter. This equates to 250 extra hours away from home each year, in return for just $3,000. Money can blind us into overlooking the cost to our happiness and wellbeing of commuting.
If you can’t live closer to work, explore the possibility of working at home for some of the time. This increasingly common practice has been demonstrated to increase both satisfaction and productivity.
Happiness, wellbeing and productivity
Gino, Staats, Jachimowicz, Lee and Menges make it clear that commuting is more than a mild inconvenience. It causes deep unhappiness and loss of wellbeing for employees, and affects their ability to perform well at work.
In a European survey by Ford Motor Company, commuting was ranked as more stressful than working, moving home or visiting the dentist. Elsewhere, a study of female office workers in Texas identified the morning commute as the day’s most unpleasant activity, work as the second-most and the evening commute as the third-most.
Bearing this in mind, it makes perfect sense from both a human and a business point of view to take the issue of commuting seriously and try out the strategies described here.