Guest Blog: The growth of extreme commuting times puts a strain on health and happiness - by Frances O'Grady - General Secretary - TUC

As autumn starts to bite we may start to feel a bit sorry for ourselves. Many of us are already travelling home from work in the dark, and as the year wears on we will lose the light in the morning as well.

The average two-way home-work journey is 55 minutes per day for UK employees (Source: ONS Labour Force Survey), that’s enough to make most of us grateful by the time that Friday comes around.

But some travel for much longer than average, and we should spare a though for those who have extreme commuting times. In fact, three million workers now commute for two hours or more each day , and this has risen by a startling 72 per during the past decade.

Furthermore, a whopping 880,000 employees now commute for a minimum of three hours per day, which must be ridiculously long and tiring.

There is obviously a link between pay and willingness to travel a long way. Indeed, a quarter (27.4 per cent) of those undertaking these very extreme 3 hour-plus commutes are in the finance sector, but some of the less well-paid occupations are also seeing growing number of extreme commutes.

It is difficult to identify a single main cause for these increases, but factors are bound to include:

•             The recession making some people willing to travel further to find a job. This may also apply to routine financial jobs, giving the turmoil of the 2008 banking crisis.

•             The cycle of boom and bust in house prices making it more attractive for some people to commute than to move house.

•             Increasing congestion on the roads and railways making commuting journeys take longer.

This trend has to be read in a context where eight million employees (30.5 per cent) report that they want to work fewer hours, and where just over four million more people want flexible working and a similar figure want home-working. 

Long hours of commuting are strongly associated with full-time jobs and with long hours working. The stress of a three hour commute must add significantly to the pressure on working people and the fatigue that inevitably goes with such a hard way of living and working can’t be good for their health.

Those who are committed for such a great part of the day are also less likely to have time for family, friends, exercise, learning and hobbies.

Employers have nothing to gain from extreme commuting patterns, since work-related ill-health, fatigue and tiredness can only damage productivity and employees’ quality of work.

Flexible working has, quite wrongly, fallen down the agenda since the onset of the recession, but the UK economy is now entering a different phase. Economic growth is returning, and with it real pay growth. The fact that labour market is tightening, with just over half a million (511,000) more jobs created last year alone , and unemployment falling to 5.4 per cent means that it cannot be readily taken as a “buyers’ market” any more.

Whilst the pace of the recovery is still impeded by the creation of too many poorly-paid, insecure jobs, there are some straws in the wind that suggest that this may be starting to change. For example, the trend is moving towards creating more permanent jobs, and another indication is that the number of elementary jobs increased by just 0.6 per cent last year whilst managerial jobs grew by 4.4 per cent.

Smart employers should be starting to think about how they can attract, retain and motivate good staff. Salaries will always be important, but a better match between the patterns of work that are on offer and what people actually want will also be important. The issue is also likely to rise up the trade union bargaining agenda.

Commute Smart Week is a an excellent time for employers to think about how we could cut the strain of commuting by offering flexible working, mobile working or homeworking to staff who want to take it up.

Smarter commuting could actually provide a triple win, helping both employers and workers to achieve their goals, but also making Britain a place that is less troubled by transport congestion, vehicle omissions and poor air quality in our cities than at present. Who could possibly resist this offer?