Guest blog: Health in a Hurry - the impact of rush hour commuting on our health and wellbeing - by Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health

Estimates show that 90% of the UK workforce commute to work every morning. This is due largely to the industrialisation of modern modes of transport, which has revolutionised and mobilised our workforce. In London, for example, just under 50% of workers commuted using public transport in 2011. Surveys completed in 2008 and 2013 showed the rise of the ‘extreme commuter’, individuals willing to travel more than 90 minutes each way to get to work, with further indications that this may be a growing trend. It is often assumed that those who commute long distances receive pay-back in terms of enhanced job prospects, higher wages, or the ability to live in more affordable areas. But what cost do we pay for these conveniences and opportunities?

Our commute to the office is often a strain on both the wallets and free time of workers, with lasting impact on our stress levels long after reaching work or returning home. The benefits of active travel such as walking or cycling are established, while there is growing evidence demonstrating the detrimental impact non-active commuting can have on our health, be it in terms of mental wellbeing, physiological measures such as blood pressure, or the time available for healthy activities like food preparation or sleep. Although often ignored, this is clearly an issue that correlates to the overall health and wellbeing of the population and, by extension, workplace productivity.

Our morning commutes frame our day, with the potential to set the tone of our day at work and impact our behavior elsewhere. Studies show that subjective health measures such as self-reported health status and satisfaction were indeed lower for individuals who commute longer distances; this also correlated to a greater number of GP appointments. On average, commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and a higher level of anxiety. Some link these findings to the perceived lack of control and unpredictability we experience while commuting, and that these factors impact the level of stress which we experience.

Other research has found that commuting can also lead to physiological effects such as an increased pulse rate and higher systolic blood pressure with some studies demonstrating a connection between commuting and a higher BMI. Some of these effects may be the result of ‘time scarcity’ or ‘time crunch’ – a difficulty faced by those seeking to achieve a positive work-life balance, but struggling with ever-increasing demands on their time. Longer commutes are also associated with modest reductions in time spent preparing healthy meals, exercising, spending time with family and particularly, sleeping.

The evidence base clearly demonstrates the impact that commuting can have on the health and wellbeing of workers, but we sought to explore this further. Through the use of opinion polling, we were able to understand the factors viewed by commuters themselves as the most detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Our ‘distress-o-meter’ highlights journey delays, overcrowding, anti-social behaviour, uncomfortable temperature and a long commute as the five aspects of commuting seen as having the greatest impact on the public’s health.

So, how can we go about solving this issue? Our smart phones and tablets may hold the key to this dilemma and avoiding the hectic stressors of the rush hour. Because of the widespread availability of portable technology, employees no longer have to be physically in the office in order to work. The possibility of working from home gives employees a greater sense of perceived control and more flexibility in terms of time management. In a survey conducted by The Work Foundation, 54% of managers felt that they ‘get more done’ when working remotely; a study done by CIPD found that 56% of employers reported a drop in absenteeism since the introduction of flexible working, a 58% increase in productivity and 73% increase in motivation.  Although there is undeniably a balance to be struck between remote and office-based working in terms of building team relationships and morale, this model presents an interesting look at what workplace policies could be possible in an employment culture where results matter and ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how long’ are increasingly irrelevant. Time that is usually spent on public transport could then be used for healthier activities, such as a quick workout.

Although there are policies that individual offices can implement to fight this issue, we must take a whole-system approach in dealing with the impact of commuting. For instance, by introducing ‘health and wellbeing’ as an explicit criterion in the award of rail franchises, we could help ensure that the public’s health is taken into consideration and that companies create a healthier traveling experience for commuters.  

Greater restrictions on unhealthy food and drink outlets at stations would be another step forward. Our polling shows that one in four commuters feel that food and drink outlets in stations increase the temptation and frequency with which they purchase unhealthy snacks. Many even consider an unhealthy snack as a reward for a stressful and crowded journey. It is vital that stations offer travelers a range of healthy options as well.

Alongside these measures, more effort must be put into researching the effects of commutes on travelers’ health and wellbeing. Physical inactivity poses a major challenge to the public’s health, and so, encouraging a greater number of commuters to adopt even a partly active commute is truly more important than ever.

Read RSPH’s full commuter health report, Health in a Hurry, here.