AB Thinks  →  4th October 2018

Commuting: the ultimate battleground of the work-life balance?

The average daily commute in the UK is close to 30 miles – 15miles to work, 15 back. Only six per cent of people now walk their commute and travelling by car, tram, train, tube or bus is often more convenient and sometimes quicker than getting to work on your own two feet.

And these days, having someone else drive for you has an extra perk associated with it: more time to spend with your most dependable distraction – your smartphone.

With free wi-fi increasingly available on train services, the commuting space has quickly become an extension of the office. A study by the University of the West of England recently discovered that over half the people using free wi-fi on a train service will be sending work emails. Look down the carriage, see fewer newspapers, hear fewer snorers. But you’re guaranteed to see illuminated faces and spot twitching thumbs.

The first week of October is National Work Life Week, ‘an opportunity for both employers and employees to focus on wellbeing at work and work-life balance’. As David Bissell argues in his recent book ‘Transit Life: How Commuting Is Transforming Our Cities’, commuting has become one of the key battlegrounds of this fabled work-life balance.

Add to that the mental health impacts of increasing screen time, which don’t look great. And it begs the question: is working on the commute good news or bad?

Some commuters say they like to use the time to sort through piles of emails, leaving time for focusing on the most important things once they arrive at work. Others use it to ease themselves into the working day or say they use their commuting time productively, time they otherwise see as wasted.

But others aren’t saving time on work, just spending more time doing it. Perhaps they’re sending emails they needn’t send or replying to a thread they could stay out of and are unnecessarily adding to their own work load. As Bissell said in a recent interview: ‘flicking through websites and social media… was completely addling my brain before getting to work. It forced me to think “OK, what else could I do with this 20 minutes of time to maybe improve my wellbeing and make me arrive at work feeling a little bit more in tune with the world.”’

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide what works for them. Give someone an empty glass and it’s their choice how they fill it. But surely employers have a responsibility, too. If their employees are working overtime it should be recognised. If their wasting their time sending pointless emails or adding to stress levels, employers need to find ways of protecting them.

You could question whether an employer has any jurisdiction over what anyone does on their commute. It’s their free time after all. Bissell again: ‘A lot of the debates around autonomous vehicles are filled with this kind of productivist impulse: “If only we could use that half an hour to work, to do office-based stuff.” And I sit there thinking “Is that actually really what this space should be, a spread of work-based capitalist activity?” Surely we should actually be almost revering that you can’t work sometimes in these places.’

When I was commuting from Cambridge to London, I spent a lot of time looking out of the window. I came to recognise a link between half-a-dozen intermittent patches of graffiti painted on bridges along the line – each read the words ‘déjà vu’. Whether the artist was commenting on the monotony of that particularly pancake countryside or the tedium of modern life, I don’t know. But I do know that I saw those signs most mornings and I could hazard a guess at how many of my fellow commuters saw them, too.

Many were staring at their screens, some visibly flustered by the things they were having to deal with at 7.30am. And it seemed to me they were experiencing a far less magical sense of déjà vu than if they’d simply been looking out of the window.

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