Mental health

Commuting 'can lower your sense of wellbeing'

“It's official: Commuting to work makes you miserable,” the Daily Mail reports.

A new report compiled by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has found that daily commuting took a toll on most commuters’ sense of wellbeing.

The ONS said that commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their activities are worthwhile, are less happy and more anxious than non-commuters. But, while differences were statistically significant, they were relatively small.

Not surprisingly the worst effects on personal well-being were associated with longer journey times – between 60 and 90 minutes. Taking a bus or coach to work for longer than 30 minutes had the worst impact.

The report’s findings reflect what most people feel intuitively – that spending long periods travelling to and from work every day is not good for wellbeing. Often a commute is unavoidable, and as the report points out, undertaken for family and financial reasons. And not having a job to commute to might have an even worse impact on an individual’s sense of wellbeing.

Interestingly, the negative impact on personal wellbeing disappeared when journey time reached three hours or more. It may be that those people travelling for lengthy periods are able to sleep or use the time constructively.

Why did the ONS produce the report?

The ONS report is part of its Measuring National Well-being Programme, which started in 2010. The programme aims to produce valid measures of the wellbeing of the nation – or as the ONS puts it, “how the UK as a whole is doing”. The programme includes areas such as health, relationships, job satisfaction, economic security, education, environmental conditions and other measures of personal wellbeing.

What evidence did the report look at?

The report is based largely on data from the Annual Population Survey (APS), carried out by the ONS from April 2012 to March 2013. It includes both employees and self-employed people who were interviewed either face to face or by telephone.

Participants were identified as commuters (people who spent one minute or more travelling to work) or non-commuters (people who said they worked from home in their main job.) Those who said they worked in different places using home as a base or that they worked somewhere different from home were excluded.

The final sample included about 60,200 people, of whom 91.5% were classified as commuters and 8.5% classified as non-commuters. They were asked four questions on personal wellbeing which are asked each year in the APS:

  • how satisfied they were with life
  • to what extent they felt things they do in life were worthwhile
  • how happy they felt the previous day
  • how anxious they felt the previous day

Respondents were asked to give their answer on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘completely’. The difference between a responder’s answers and the average response was considered to be:

  • large if 1.0 or more
  • moderate if 0.5 to less than 1.0
  • small if 0.1 to less than 0.5
  • very small if less than 0.1

Commuters were then asked a series of questions about their travel to work, including time spent travelling and travel mode.

The researchers used a statistical technique called the regression model to analyse the results. This enabled them to analyse how the response to questions on personal wellbeing varied according to multiple specific characteristics and circumstances. As opposed to looking at the relationship between only two characteristics at a time.

Regression analysis is the most appropriate method for assessing complex relationships such as the impact of commuting on personal wellbeing.

The analysis meant that different models were used to capture the different aspects of commuting, for example:

  • commuters versus non-commuters (not including actual travel time or travel mode)
  • commuting time in minutes (from 1 to 179 minutes)
  • commuting time in banded time periods
  • travel mode only (without travel time)
  • travel mode and travel time (defined as 1-15 minutes, 16-30 minutes, or more than 30 minutes) included together

All the models featured important underlying factors, including:

  • age
  • sex
  • ethnicity
  • migration status
  • relationship status
  • presence of dependent and non-dependent children in the household
  • health/disability
  • interview mode (telephone or face-to-face interview)
  • economic activity status (permanent employee, non-permanent or self-employed)
  • religious affiliation
  • where in the UK a person was based

This meant comparisons between commuters and non-commuters were based on people who were otherwise the same in every other respect.

What were the main conclusions of the ONS report?

Holding all else equal, the ONS found that on average, compared with non-commuters, commuters have:

  • lower life satisfaction
  • a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile
  • lower levels of happiness
  • higher anxiety

However, the difference for each was small (between 0.1 and 0.2).

The worst effects of commuting on personal wellbeing were associated with journey times lasting between 61 and 90 minutes. On average, all four aspects of personal wellbeing were negatively affected by commutes of this length, when compared to those travelling only 15 minutes or less to work but again these differences were small (between 0.1 and 0.4).

When commuting time reaches three hours or more, the negative effects on personal wellbeing disappear, suggesting that the small minority of people with this commuting pattern have quite different experiences to most other commuters.

Taking the bus or coach to work on a journey lasting more than 30 minutes was the most negative commuting option for personal wellbeing.

The effects of more active forms of commuting, such as cycling and walking, on personal wellbeing varied with the amount of time spent travelling in these ways.

How did the ONS interpret the findings?

The ONS says its findings suggest that commuting is negatively related to personal wellbeing and that longer commutes (up to three hours) are generally worse for wellbeing than shorter ones. However, it does point out that the size of the association is small. This may suggest that other factors such as health, relationship status and employment status, affect wellbeing more than commuting.

It says the results suggest that, “other factors such as higher income or better housing may not fully compensate the individual commuter for the negative effects associated with travelling to work and that people may be making sub-optimal choices.”

The reasons why people stick to their commute are also discussed, including financial constraints, limited job opportunities, lack of awareness of the benefits of changing their commute, or even inertia.

It also points out that results on commuting by bicycle or walking give a mixed picture. Cycling or walking to work for between 16 and 30 minutes seems to have a negative impact on wellbeing while cycling or walking for longer does not.

“Overall, the results suggest that although physical well-being may be enhanced by cycling and walking, getting exercise in this way on the daily commute may not necessarily have the stress relieving qualities we would expect.”

The report points out that this is cross-observational data and cannot establish causality.

It also says the statistics are “experimental in nature” and “published at an early stage” to gain feedback from users.

How accurate was the media’s coverage of the report?

The UK’s media coverage was fair. Most used the report’s key findings without going into detail about the research methods.

Can I be happy and commute?

Yes. While the report’s findings reflect what most people feel intuitively – that spending too long travelling to work makes us miserable, commuting can be a positive activity.

Possible ways you could make your commute more enjoyable and constructive include listening to music, learning a language, mediating, and if using public transport, reading novels, or even our extensive Behind the Headlines archive. And although modestly long walking or cycling commuting did appear to have a somewhat negative effect, the health benefits are clear.

An important final point is, as the ONS point out, “While commuting is a burden for the individual, other members of their household may benefit from it, for example through the additional income, improved housing and neighbourhood or a better choice of schools.”

So looking at in this way, many commuters are heroes, putting up with the daily grind to help out their loved ones. 

NHS Attribution