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How a Grueling Commute Can Quash Productivity

People in traffic on their commute home from work

In recent years, several studies conducted throughout the Western World have looked at how longer commute times and frustrating commute methods are taking their toll on employee health – both physical and mental – and how that problem is translating to lost productivity and lost profits for organizations.

So how does Canada stack up, and what can Canadian employers do to help their employees cope with commuter discontent and its consequences?

Commuting in Canada

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2010, the average Canadian commuter travelled 26 minutes to get to work. However, when you break down that national average by population and modes of transportation, commute times can vary greatly. Not surprisingly, the more populous the area, the longer the commute times. Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal all had average commute times of around 30 minutes, while regions with less than 250,000 residents saw an average commute of only 19 minutes. Looking at the ways in which Canadians got to work – rather than where they worked – it turns out that those who took public transit faced an average commute of 44 minutes, those who drove travelled 24 minutes, and those who walked or biked arrived at work in just 14 minutes.

From those results, you might expect more people to be dissatisfied with public transit, but it turns out that the longer the commute, the more drivers were dissatisfied than transit riders. Overall, however, only 15% of Canadian commuters are dissatisfied with their commute times. The highest concentration of those dissatisfied commuters was located in metropolitan areas of at least a million residents – and traffic congestion was cited as a major factor for their unhappiness. Not surprising since recent data from the makers of a popular GPS device shows that Vancouver is now the second-most traffic congested city in North America, just slightly behind Los Angeles. Toronto comes in at sixth, and Montreal is ninth.

Despite the general satisfaction Canadians had with their commutes as of 2010, alarming traffic congestion in Canada’s major cities could point to increased frustration in the future. So what can employees and employers expect?

The cost of long commutes and lost productivity

Longer commutes mean greater employee absenteeism. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: the longer one’s commute, the more likely they are to be late and/or the more likely they are to leave early. But how much money does this absenteeism amount to? According to a survey done by a British integrated computer technology company, UK workers lose about 1.5 working days each year due to long commutes. These workers are also more tired and stressed, which drains them of their productivity even more. This lost productivity amounts to a whopping £2.24 billion, or $3.84 billion, in lost profits.

Effects on physical health and productivity

The fatigue and stress associated with long commutes affects the physical health of your employees – and the less healthy your employees are, the less productive they’ll be. Studies show that commuting is generally perceived as a mundane and stressful task, contributing to worse eating habits and – of course – less exercise. Both of these factors can have drastic consequences on an organization’s bottom line. In fact, a study conducted by Brigham Young University in Utah concluded that a lack of exercise and proper nutrition throughout the day made employees over 90% more likely to experience a loss in productivity. It’s also not surprising to see that the most common physical ailments associated with longer commutes include weight gain, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues, which – apart from the potentially devastating effect they can have on an employee’s personal life – can cost employers a fortune in healthcare benefits.

Effects on mental health and productivity

Despite Canadians’ overall satisfaction with commutes that can last as long as 45 minutes, a 2008 study conducted by Umea University in Sweden showed that commutes longer than 45 minutes for one partner in a marriage increases the likelihood of divorce by 40%. Needless to say, that kind of personal turmoil can take its toll at work as can other mental health-related symptoms generally associated with long commutes, such as loneliness (because more time commuting means less time to socialize with friends and family), sleeplessness, and stress. Mental health issues are now the fastest growing reason for disability claims in Canada, amounting to $6 billion in lost productivity, and the effects can lead to the physical ailments discussed above.

How employers can help

According to research conducted at Brown University, it is the commute itself, not the time spent commuting, that is the root of the problem. (In fact, this conclusion parallels StatsCan’s discovery that traffic congestion itself more than the delays it causes are to blame for Canadian driver dissatisfaction.) The research showed that someone with an extra-long workday but a minimal commute had healthier habits than someone who had a shorter workday but an hour-long commute. With that in mind, there are several practices employers can implement and/or encourage to help their employees cope with their commutes, thereby increasing their performance at work.

  • Introduce flex hours and working from home
    The internet makes it easy for employees to work from home without losing too much valuable interaction with their coworkers. While there’s much to be said for face-to-face interaction, webmail, instant messaging, video conferencing, and other easy-to-use communications tools allow employees to get much of what they need done without having to undergo a productivity-sucking commute every day. It’s also worth considering offering employees flex hours, where they can choose the timeframe in which they work, so long as it’s within reason. For some, starting and leaving work just a half-hour later or earlier can make all the difference.
  • Encourage exercise at work
    To help stave off heart disease and general fatigue, employees should be encouraged to not only take breaks, but to go for a walk, walk up and down stairs, or fit some other physical activity in during the day. If there’s an onsite fitness facility, employees should be reminded that it’s there for their benefit and that they should take the time to use it. Some organizations will even cover a percentage of the cost of fitness equipment that an employee purchases for use in their own home.
  • Promote alternative modes of transportation
    Some employees have unnecessarily long commutes; they may live relatively close by, but insist on driving or taking public transit. Such employees should be encouraged to walk or bike to work if possible. Even if these methods don’t dramatically cut down their commute time, the physical activity involved will increase their health, energy, and productivity. If employees absolutely have to drive to work, encourage them to carpool. Driving with others can make traffic congestion more tolerable because everyone in the car has someone to vent to and/or converse with.
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