The commute trade-off: Impacts on productivity and health

By Mary Ebeling

Americans are making trade-offs between commuting time, housing costs, and health related activities. The trade-offs push individuals to make decisions negatively affecting personal health (physical and psychological), which in turn correlates with reduced productivity in the workplace. People hate their commutes and the longer the commute, the more likely the individual will adjust their time budgets to account for time lost to the commute, even if these adjustments negatively affect professional productivity and/or personal wellness.

Over time, the effects of the long commute manifest in weight gain, cardiovascular issues, troubled relationships, and less time for family or fun.  In the UK workers lose about 1.5 working days of productivity each year as a result of commuting stress, resulting in approximately $3.84 billion in lost profits.

“People should recognize that long commutes may siphon away time that could otherwise be spent on healthy activities, potentially [leading to] adverse health impacts,” said Thomas J. Christian, a public health research fellow at Brown and author of a study in the Journal of Urban Health. He suggests some ways employees could mitigate the effects of long commutes. “Where possible, they might consider coping strategies to save time, such as telecommuting, active commuting modes (walking or cycling), or even parking a bit farther away from their destination in order to walk for some additional physical activity.” Moving closer to work is clearly another strategy, but some individuals are unwilling to make this change.

Christian acknowledges that commuting is an activity with diverse practices. The majority of the problems he cited came with long drives to work. A Canadian study found commuters with long transit commutes report less frustration than those with long auto commutes. This finding may come from the fact that transit allows one to multi-task, and therefore can be a positive for a commuter’s time budget.

Despite the decline in VMT, the majority of commute trips remain single-occupancy vehicle trips. We can assume workers with longer bike, walk, or transit commutes may not experience the same level of frustration or negative personal and professional outcomes as car commuters. However, in sprawling metro areas, transit and active transportation are not always available options.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.