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 deprivation 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.
So why do individuals subject themselves and their families to this torture? There are three main reasons: a more interesting or better-paying job, the ability to own a home or live in a desirable area, and family priorities such as a better school or proximity to a partner's workplace.
Unfortunately, say Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, the benefits people expect are often unrealized or outweighed by the downsides. The two economists drew that conclusion from their study of several thousand German households that were surveyed annually from 1985 to 1998.
Frey and Stutzer calculated total personal satisfaction values for each individual by tabbing up the “profits” against the “debits” of the disadvantages. They concluded that for every minute longer a worker spends getting to work he will be less satisfied with his life. In a 2004 report the two researchers calculated that Germans who commuted two hours a day were so much more dissatisfied than those with the average commute of 40 minutes that it would take a 40 percent raise in pay to make up for the disgruntledness.Why Do It?
Experts such as Frey and Stutzer say many workers who commit to a longer commute probably underestimate the human costs. And once the routine is under way, people quickly become accustomed to the greater income or the pretty house in the suburbs. It takes longer for the unpleasant aspects of the grind to set in, yet the physical and mental health effects become stronger and stronger over time.
The degree of dissatisfaction may vary among commuters, however. Schneider found that workers who freely chose to make long trips were better off than those who felt forced into doing so, say, to resolve unemployment.
Other individuals misjudge the strength of their self-determination, according to Haefner. When they first begin commuting, they think, “I’ll put up with this for two or three years, and then I’ll reconsider things.” But the force of habit, chronic shortage of time and lack of energy all thwart the victims from seeking a better solution later. Schneider adds that “long-distance commuters often simply cannot imagine any alternative to the status quo. They do not even think of changing jobs or moving, no matter how much they suffer from the daily ordeal.”
Choosing a job closer to home or moving home closer to work are the obvious solutions. If that is not possible, workers can at least explore ways to reduce the human cost of commuting. Carpooling can lighten long drives. Buses or trains can be less taxing if a single, longer route is taken rather than a shorter one that involves transfers, which raises the risk of anxiety-inducing delays and missed connections. People who can sleep for a few minutes on a train often endure commuting life more easily. For nonsleepers, a good book can help; Haefner discovered that train riders who read suffer less than others who fret or do nothing to pass the time. Drivers, of course, should opt for audio books instead.