Commuting is a necessary evil. For some, it’s a quick trip with public transport, on a bike, or in the car. But, for many people, it’s a long and painful journey via multiple modes of transport, often in cramped conditions.
And it can take several hours out of the day.
What’s worse is that we pay for it, but we don’t get paid for it because tradition on this matter favors the employer, not the employee—but the principles upholding this don’t stand up to scrutiny anymore. Something needs to change.
We are a world of commuters
Commuting is on the rise across the world. And the statistics are astonishing.
- In Japan, 8 million commuters pass through Tokyo every day.
- In the United States, 3.6 million workers commute for 90 minutes or more, one way. This translates into one whole month of commuting every year—that’s twice the average amount of annual vacation a worker gets.
- In the U.K., commuters traveling into London will spend, on average, £305 ($397) a month and 2.5 hours commuting each day.
- In Beijing, China, hundreds of thousands of workers spend up to six hours a day commuting to and from work—they’re forced to live outside Beijing due to rising housing prices in the city.
The belief that people commit to commuting long distances because it will improve their employment and living standards is a fallacy.
Sofia commutes four hours every day
Sofia is a real person—although I’ve changed her name for anonymity.
She works full-time in the information and communication industry, in London, and her commuting story is increasingly typical of the average commuter.
Commuting isn’t a choice for Sofia: Her partner lives outside London because of his work and earns less than she does, so they can’t afford to live any closer. But where they live, her skills and experience aren’t in demand, so she has to work in London. “Paying for my commute would really help me financially and boost my motivation to go to work,” she says.
Sofia wakes up at 6:20 a.m. and addresses some basic life needs (showering, eating etc.). She leaves the house at 7 a.m. to catch the train into London, where she walks from the station to arrive at her desk at 9 a.m. Then, at 5:07 p.m., she leaves work and does the journey in reverse, getting home at 7.30 p.m. every day.
Her departure from work has to be precise because she can’t afford to miss the train home. Otherwise, it adds another hour to her commute. Her season ticket costs £480 ($625) per month, which accounts for 12% of her monthly wage.
Sofia’s company is actually better than most—they have a policy that pays for part of the commute if the employee lives within a specific radius of the offices in London. But because Sofia falls outside that radius, as many employees do, she isn’t eligible for any financial support.
Like other commuters, Sofia’s not paid for her commute, but she works while on her journey to and from work because she feels guilty about leaving when she has to: “I work both ways because I leave the office at 5:07 p.m, and I feel I have to work before I arrive and after I leave.”
If she left work any later, then she would arrive home just in time to go to bed before starting the whole process again. Essentially, working any later means no life outside work and her commute.
This isn’t much of a life.
Commuting is increasingly undermining employees’ health and happiness, and it’s only getting worse.
Sofia’s been making this commute for six months, and it’s already having a huge impact on her life. She was an elite athlete at university and an avid traveler, but since commuting into London, she says, “My fitness has decreased, and it’s preventing me from sleeping, going to the gym, eating healthily and socializing.” Moreover, train delays and price increases are causing her “huge amounts of frustration and anxiety, and a loss of working hours.”
All of which means it’s difficult to switch off in the evenings. Her mind is already thinking about the journey the following day. Like all other commuters, Sofia’s making a huge sacrifice to meet her employment obligations and prove she’s valuable to her employers.
Commuting is increasingly undermining employees’ health and happiness, and it’s only getting worse. This will quickly create issues for employers. Happy, healthy and engaged employees are more productive and less likely to be off sick.
Why aren’t employers easing the burden and funding their employees’ commutes?
The main reason is that commuting time isn’t counted as working time. This has established a status quo that most businesses exploit to avoid spending profits on their employees’ commutes. Two principles underpin this maxim, but both are archaic and don’t stand up to closer scrutiny.
First is the belief that workers have control over the distance and travel time between home and work.
In fact, the majority of workers don’t have control over where they live and where they work. Companies tend to concentrate in or around urban centers for enhanced connectivity, transport links, and status—having offices in affluent urban zones projects an image of success.
However, housing prices in urban areas have increased drastically over the last 10 years, partly because landlords and estate agents are out to make a profit. This is problematic for employees who want to live close to their work but can’t afford to do so, like Sofia.
The status quo that favors the employer over the employee remains unchallenged.
Affordable housing is a very real problem and is placing huge demands on councils and district administrations. To meet this demand, suburban areas are ambitiously expanding, and this is welcome so long as the environment is protected.
But it extends the distance between job and home and forces workers into a dilemma. On the one hand, live in high-cost housing close to work and have a short commute; on the other hand, live in better value housing farther from work and face a lengthy daily commute.
It’s not much of a choice and is acutely affecting the hundreds of thousands of six-hour commuters in Beijing.
The second flawed principle is that employers specifically don’t instruct their employees to work during their commute, assuming that staff can use this time freely to pursue their own interests.
But, in reality, commuting time is de facto working time. Working time is the time that employees are at the disposal of their employer to carry out their duties. In contrast, free time is time spent in the presence of family and friends and where someone’s personal interests lie.
I don’t know anyone who considers commuting time as time spent with family and friends or as an opportunity to pursue their own interests. If anything, it’s dead time and not really useful for anything other than working.
A 2015 ruling by the European Court of Justice recognized that for some European workers commuting time is working time. The ruling states that workers without a fixed place of work often travel from home to meet clients and are at their employer’s disposal throughout.
This ruling is helpful, but it doesn’t capture the majority of employees who travel to a fixed place of work, like Sofia. For these commuters, their smartphones along with increasingly WiFi-enabled public transport means they’re constantly connected and available throughout their commutes.
While most employers don’t instruct their staff to work during their commutes they certainly don’t ban it or proactively prevent it or even passively object to it. And for some workers, it makes sense to work during the journey so that workloads can be tackled and evenings freed up.
This is especially the case for workers in industries with the highest proportion of extreme-commuters (those who travel for 90 minutes one-way): finance, insurance, information and communication, education, health care, and social care.
As more people are forced into longer, more expensive commutes, and more commuters are forced to work on their journey to work, this maxim and its principles no longer make sense.
Yet the status quo that favors the employer over the employee remains unchallenged.
For employers, cost is an issue—albeit an unjustifiable one
The 225 biggest companies in the City of London, defined as employing 250+ staff, collectively contributed £45 billion ($58.5 billion) to the U.K. economy in 2014. Employees delivered this contribution, which averaged £114,000 ($148,000) per employee in 2015 and is set to rise to £141,000 ($184,000) per employee by 2025.
A cost analysis of these companies suggests paying for their staffs’ commuting would cost around 3 percent of their national contributions annually. And this figure is about the same in New York City when analyzing the cost percentage of commuting against the average revenue of the 20 largest NYC companies.
Micro-businesses, defined as employing 0–9 staff members, account for 99.7 percent of U.S. businesses and 96 percent of U.K. businesses. Comparatively, their contribution to the national economy is much less. But with fewer staff, and fewer staff who travel long distances, the percentage costs of paying for their commutes is about the same.
When stripped to its core, commuting is nothing more than the sacrifice an employee makes to meet the conditions of their employment.
On the face of it, 3 percent might seem like a lot. But can we really put a value on people’s well-being when employees are so vital to business output and growth? And if we want to put a value on it, then surely 3 percent of a company’s national contribution isn’t too much to ask.
Companies in the United States already spend, on average, $693 (£535) per employee every year on staff well-being incentives. In the U.K., that figure is much less: around £51-£75 ($67-$98) per employee per year.
These incentives include employee assistance programs, discounted or free gym memberships, and health screenings. But that’s not a lot when you consider staff are the critical point of failure or success for any business and commuting is an increasing issue for most employees.
And commuting doesn’t appear to be a concern for future well-being strategies to address. This needs to change.
If employers demonstrate loyalty and commitment to employees, employees will reciprocate in other ways
Commuting has symbolic value: It demonstrates an employee’s loyalty and commitment to the organization. But when stripped to its core, commuting is nothing more than the sacrifice an employee makes to meet the conditions of their employment.
If companies truly value their employees, care about their employees’ well-being, and want to attract the most talented workers, then they should reward commuting by funding journeys between home and work.
This doesn’t mean changing labor legislation, which would be difficult to implement as law and would be problematic to apply in a way that makes sense across all industries. Moreover, it would be tough to enforce, and prone to some employees gaming the system for their own benefit.
Instead, it’s about establishing a norm.
Fully and unconditionally funding employees’ commutes would include no instructions to work during the commute, no return of service, and no deductions to salaries. This small gesture would go a long way and would send a clear message to staff: We want you here.
But for employers to recognize this norm as mutually beneficial to the organization and the employee requires a fundamental shift in traditional thinking on the matter. In practice, this is challenging, but not impossible to achieve.
Nonetheless, at present, businesses aren’t incentivized to alter the status quo and go the extra mile to fund their employees’ commutes. The question is, then, how long can this continue before commuting becomes a significant drain on employees, and, by default, the employing organization?