When accidents snarl traffic and bad weather cripples mass transit, images of frustrated commuters often lead the nightly news. But the normal, everyday insanity that commuters endure is the bigger story.
Mobility is a prime mover in today's job markets. Workers who want to "make it" have to be flexible and willing to take the punishment. Move to another branch office? No problem. Still want that nice house in the country? Absolutely. The result of our desires is that more and more people commute, and more travel longer than ever. The percentage of Americans with a commute greater than 90 minutes a day nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The added time and distance may not be worth the hassle, however. Research from around the world is leading psychologists to conclude that the heightened stress that commuting puts on individuals and their families can easily overshadow the work and home gains they might realize.
Cost per Minute
Commuting exacts considerable stress on the human mind and body and on family relationships. All the stressors, day in and day out, take their toll. Each added travel minute correlates with an increase in health problems. Several studies have shown that long-distance commuters suffer from psychosomatic disorders at a much higher rate than people with short trips to work. Physical symptoms range from headaches and backaches to digestive problems and high blood pressure. Mental ills include sleep disturbances, fatigue and concentration problems. Commuters who drive have it especially hard--bad weather, traffic jams and accidents all cause stress.
These basic patterns were laid out a decade ago, but since then, American, British, Irish and German studies have advanced our understanding. A 2001 study by scientists at the Center for Psychotherapy Research in Stuttgart and the University Clinic of Ulm in Germany demonstrates just how dramatic the insults can be. The researchers surveyed 407 commuters at the Stuttgart and Ulm railroad stations. The commuters also completed questionnaires covering quality of life and possible psychological problems.
About 90 percent of the men and women had trips of more than 45 minutes each way, putting them in the long-distance category for many parts of the world. A fair number were extreme commuters, too, trekking as much as three hours daily. Half had been taking the same route for more than five years. "The psychosomatic condition of these people was terrible," says Steffen Haefner, who led the study. The proportion who complained of symptoms such as pain, dizziness, exhaustion and severe sleep dep-rivation was twice as high as in a control group of noncommuters. Of the long-distance travelers, Haefner says, "31 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women were, from a medical point of view, clearly in need of treatment." Other studies show that workers who use mass transit suffer from higher infection rates and that car drivers have a greater incidence of joint disease.
More neglected, perhaps, are family, friends and hobbies. A 2001 study by Norbert Schneider, a sociology professor at the University of Mainz in Germany, reported in depth on 65 long-distance commuters and the spouses or domestic partners of 45. Almost 60 percent of the workers complained that they had no time to pursue their own interests--no sports, no clubs, not even an occasional outing with friends.
Furthermore, when the people with families finally got home they often had insufficient time for spouses and children. Spending open-ended time playing with the kids or cultivating a shared hobby with a spouse could happen only on weekends or vacations. Interestingly, two thirds of the spouses and partners felt that they were just as burdened--or even more so--noting that they essentially had to take care of all family duties and household chores themselves. Often they managed this task only by sharply curtailing their own professional obligations and personal interests. Perhaps Schneider's deeper finding was that one third of the spouses and partners felt the negatives of a long commute simply were not worth the positives.