For many, the word “commute” sends a shudder down the spine. Whether it’s spending an hour stuck in traffic first thing in the morning, or a long journey home on a packed, hot train, travelling to and from work is rarely a pleasant experience.
Research has shown commuting can be bad for our health. It contributes to anxiety and stress, as well as impacting our physical health, including our weight. A longer commute affects happiness and satisfaction levels, with one study of British commuters suggesting that even just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.
Commuting is also something we’re spending an increasing amount of time doing. Getting to and from work now takes five minutes longer than a decade ago, according to research by the TUC. Those who commute by rail spend an average of 2 hours 11 minutes a day travelling — and drivers spend around 52 minutes on the road to work.
So how can we make the most of this time — and reduce the harmful impact of commuting on our health?
Limit the time you spend working
It can be tempting to spend your commute checking emails, but it can be beneficial to limit the time spent doing this. Working an extra hour in the morning as well as an extra hour after work can contribute to added stress, which unchecked, can increase the risk of burnout. If answering emails on your journey to work helps reduce your workload throughout the day, then allocate 15 minutes for it. If it just lengthens your working day, spend your commute time doing something you enjoy — like reading.
Learn a language
Time spent sat on a bus or a train doesn’t have to be time wasted. You could try learning a new skill — such as a language. Duolingo is a fantastic and free app that makes learning languages fun. Slate called it “the most productive means of procrastination I've ever discovered.” Just choose the language you want to learn, and get started. Rosetta Stone also has an app with downloadable lessons and quizzes for 24 different languages.
Try meditative apps
If you find your commute particularly stressful, download a mindfulness app such as Headspace. The app offers a range of targeted meditation programmes, aimed at tackling anxiety, stress, anger, and more. You can even download programmes specifically for commuting — to help keep you calm and relaxed when jostling for elbow-space on the train.
Tune into podcasts
Not in the mood for music, but don’t want to spend an hour listening to others around you on the bus? Try listening to podcasts instead. For news and politics-based podcasts, try the Guardian’s Today in Focus. Each episode is around 25 minutes and gives an overview of both UK and international news. You could also try Today, Explained by Vox and Stitcher — each episode is around 20 minutes and explores a different news topic. For fans of true crime, try Criminal — each half-hour episode explores people who have committed crimes and the people affected by them.
There are hundreds of podcasts to choose from to broaden your mind during your commute, covering a whole host of topics from entertainment and business, to women’s rights, health, technology, and music. Spotify has a good selection, which you can download at home before you set off — useful if you commute on the Tube.
It might not shorten your commuting time, but walking or cycling for at least some of your commute can help improve your physical and mental health. A 2017 study by the Black Dog Institute found regular exercise of any intensity can help prevent depression — and just one hour a week can help. Getting off the train a stop earlier and walking the distance to work can help clear your mind and get your blood pumping, particularly if you’re in a sedentary office job.
Negotiate for flexible working
If your commute is affecting your life and your work, it might be time to make a change. Flexible working, or working from home, is becoming increasingly common. About 4 million people in the UK work remotely, according to the Office for National Statistics — and the figure is predicted to rise to half of the UK workforce in 2020.
Everyone who has worked 26 weeks of service for an employer is entitled to make a formal request for flexible working. Before you speak to your employer about flexible working, though, consider the impact on the employer and the company and think about what will work for both of you. Depending on where you work and what you do, you may be able to negotiate at least some days working from home.