You probably know that commuting increases time pressures, as people have time siphoned from their already busy lives for travelling between home and work. But it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that commuting is related to lower satisfaction with life.
That finding comes out of research by Margo Hilbrecht, a professor at the University of Waterloo and associate director of research for the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. She has another tantalizing finding: The impact of commuting on life satisfaction is less profound for those who partake in physical leisure. But social leisure, meeting with friends or catching up on Facebook, doesn't have the same mitigating effect.
Her research report, with University of Waterloo colleagues Bryan Smale and Steven Mock, was published in the World Leisure Journal, and is couched in careful academic terms. By the nature of the study – using data from the Canadian General Social Survey – she can't prove a causal link between commuting and life satisfaction, just a correlation. People who commute are less likely to be satisfied with their lives. The more they commute, the less satisfied they are.
Research by others outside Canada has shown the detrimental effects of commuting. A study two years ago reported that lengthy commutes are linked to poor physical and mental health outcomes such as hypertension, obesity, decreased cardiovascular fitness, stress, low energy and illness-related work absence.
Her interest was in understanding how commuting is associated with time for leisure and other activities beneficial to well-being. She figured that might offer insight into workers' quality of life and ultimately contribute to programs and policies designed to better support health. She was open to the possibility commuting had some beneficial effects, since some people enjoy the transition time to relax between work and other responsibilities.
"I wanted to see with Canadians whether it was a burden or a gift," she said in an interview.
The average time spent travelling to and from work, both ways, was 53 minutes a day, with men spending more time than women. To determine well-being, she looked at life satisfaction and time pressures, both self-reported by respondents. Having a partner, having a higher household income, flexible work hours and not living in a large urban centre were significantly associated with greater life satisfaction. But commuting was negatively related to life satisfaction: The more time people spent commuting, the lower their overall satisfaction with life.
Being female or having a partner or spouse was associated with higher levels of time pressure. On the other hand, those with flexible work hours and older participants reported significantly less time pressure. A longer commute time was also related to greater time pressure.
She found that the perceived seriousness of traffic congestion was a crucial ingredient in understanding the well-being of commuters. So it wasn't just a case of how long you spent commuting but also how awful you felt the commute was. "If you were driving for an hour on country roads and saw nobody, that wasn't as bad as an hour in congestion," she said.
But interestingly, some of the impact of commuting was reduced for those who made time in the day for physical leisure. That actually increased the time squeeze on people as they tried to fit more in, but presumably the physical release reduced stress and increased the sense of well-being. "If you commute, you need to work physical leisure into your day," she stressed.
Social leisure didn't have the same impact but she thinks the way she designed her study may be at fault. She looked at online activity, which bunches together a lot of pursuits including texting, joining chat groups, and participating in social network sites such as Facebook (but not handling e-mail). She wonders whether she had zeroed in on just face-to-face social time, whether that might have shown signs of dampening the negative effects of commuting.
She feels the study is a message to employers on the importance of encouraging flexible work, which seems to be associated with well-being in itself but also opens the door for employees to insert more physical activity into their days. Someone might start one hour or two hours later, generating time for an early morning workout and also allowing the worst of the rush hour commute to be avoided. Employers might also look at how they might encourage biking and walking to work, allowing physical activity to become part of the commute.
Governments need to improve public transit, which she feels can reduce traffic congestion and make the commute easier. She questions the federal government requirement that unemployed people must look for a job up to an hour's commute from their home. "It may not be helpful to people's well-being," she suggests.
But individuals must also take her findings into account, and reconsider their current arrangements for home and work. "A long commute is detrimental to health. Maybe it's better to take a job that pays a little less money but is closer to home. If you have a choice, it's worth looking at the impact of the commute on well-being," she says.
And remember the benefits of physical activity. You may feel too tired and dissatisfied with your lot in life to squeeze it in. But her study suggests greater well-being if you make the time and effort.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter