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How long is too long to commute?

How Long Is Too Long to Commute?

Posted September 25, 2018 By Jared Shelly

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.”


Considering a Long Commute? Do These 5 Things First

Only you can decide if a long commute is worth it. Here are a few things to do before making the decision:

Visualize your day-to-day life. Take the commute during your regular business hours. Fight the traffic while listening to a podcast. Navigate the crowds at the subway station. Grab a bagel along the way. Living your soon-to-be-normal routine is a great way to help you make the decision.

Add up the costs. What would the reality of that additional paycheck mean to you? What are the costs associated with making that move? Will you have time to eat breakfast at home or will you be stopping at Starbucks every morning? Questions like these make you realize that salary isn’t everything.

Examine what you’ll be missing. Are you heavily involved in the community? Do you have hobbies you enjoy? Are you coaching your son’s baseball team? Realize that you might not have time for those activities anymore.

Find out if your commute is predictable. Will you be facing chronic transit delays or heavy traffic? Or will you be cruising on rural roads and skipping rush hour? The latter will certainly make it easier.

Determine if job satisfaction and salary can carry you through. If you’ve been fighting for more money, increased seniority, and a corner office, a long commute might just be worth it.

“If you have two equal choices, obviously go with the shorter commute,” said Lee, “but if the longer commute gives you much more satisfaction and meaning you should take it—just remember that there’s a hidden cost that people tend not to think about.”


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