I used to drive 50 minutes to work. Each way. I lived in a cool city neighborhood but worked in the soulless suburbs with their sad lunch options. That commute really weighed on me. With traffic, it could be 1-hour-and-15 minutes. Brutal. I felt my mental state fading. After five long years, I quit and finally started working near my home. Since then, I’ve been living and working within a 20-minute radius and couldn’t be happier.
But I’m in the minority. The average American is traveling 26 minutes to their jobs—the longest commute time since the Census started tracking it in 1980, up 20 percent. Commutes longer than 45 minutes are up 12 percent in that time span, and 90-minute one-way commutes are 64 percent more common than in 1990.
The longer your commute, the less time you have for family, friends, exercise and nutrition—and it’s awful for your mental state. A study of more than 34,000 U.K. workers found that people with long commutes are 33 percent more likely to suffer from depression; 12 percent more likely to report work-related stress; 21 percent more likely to be obese; and 46 percent get less than seven hours of sleep each night.
“If people are time poor they make poor lifestyle choices,” said Chris Bailey, a partner at Mercer, who helped conduct the research. “There’s a real correlation between poor nutrition, lack of exercise and poor mental wellbeing.”
Interestingly, 37 percent of people with sizable commutes are more likely to have financial worries—and gas and transit prices are likely to play a big role. Meanwhile people traveling by train or bus may feel added stress because “they’re not switching off,” said Bailey.
“Traditionally, commuting meant you’ve left work. Now people are working before and after work. That leads to less overall down time while the increased screen time could be interrupting sleep patterns,” said Bailey.
Still, commuting in a car is more stressful than riding the rails. A study by researchers at New York University and Cornell University found that “car commuters showed significantly higher levels of reported stress and, more negative mood.” That’s due to the increased effort associated with driving, as well as the unpredictable nature of traffic.
Underestimating Commute Horrors, Overestimating Salary
Just how bad is a commute on job satisfaction? A study by the University of West England found that adding 20 minutes to your daily commute has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19 percent pay cut. In fact, every extra minute commuting lowered satisfaction with their job and leisure time.
Will more money ease the pain of commuting? That answer is different for every person, but it’s clear that salary is the main determining factor. A recent study asked 500 people to choose between two job scenarios: Job 1 offered $67,000/year with a 50-minute commute. Job 2 offered $64,000/year with a 20-minute commute. The winner was clear: 84 percent picked the job with more money and a longer commute.
“People are consistently underestimating the daily pain of commuting,” said Julia Lee, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan. “People are biased. Salary seems like the most important aspect of a job and the value of time is pretty much discounted. That’s why people make the wrong choices when it comes to commuting decisions.”