Commuting can help improve work-life balance, study suggests

But experts say the benefits are largely dependent on the type of commute, and that other routines to break up the work day are just as effective

Nearly half of employees are expecting some form of psychological benefit and improved work-life balance when they return to the workplace, research has suggested. However, experts have cautioned that daily commuting could still harm wellbeing.

As more people return to the workplace, a study by University College London (UCL), commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group, found that almost half (48 per cent) of people returning to the office expect to experience improved mental health, while 46 per cent expect to have a better work-life balance.

The research polled just over 3,000 working-age adults across the UK.

Professor Joseph Devlin, one of the UCL academics who worked on the research, said the commute could have a positive impact on cognitive performance, wellbeing and productivity.

“The commute delineates boundaries between home and work life and can be used to switch one off and transition to the other,” he said. “Just going to work generates more diverse experiences than working from home, especially through interactions with other people.

“This greater novelty helps generate new memories, making each day more unique, sharpening recollection and reducing this 'brain fog' so commonly experienced during lockdown,” Devlin said.

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However, other experts have cautioned that daily commuting might not always be good for wellbeing.

While acknowledging that commuting can act as a useful divide between home and work life, Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said it could also be a source of stress, particularly for those travelling long distances.

“Many people who've embraced home and hybrid working say the biggest benefit is not having to travel to work every day,” she said. "It's important that employers recognise views and opinions on the commute differ, and the working arrangements they offer should reflect this fact."

Commuting was only a positive experience when workers are able to make it enjoyable and productive, added Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, giving people a chance to plan or reflect on their day.

“We know these routines can be very beneficial to our mental health, though similar effects can also be achieved through other mindful activities like walking the dog or doing some other form of exercise, if we are disciplined enough to do these daily,” she said.

“It's not the commute itself, but what we are able to do with it, that counts,” said Bullivant.

This was echoed by Nancy Hey, executive director at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, who said that not all commutes were made equal. 

It was true that a daily routine, physical activity, setting boundaries between work and home, and having downtime were all beneficial to wellbeing, she said. “But if you’ve got a stressful commute you never get used to that. And that can take a toll on mental health.”

There were also other advantages to working from home: women, for example, often do better working remotely “partly because [they] tend to feel greater anxiety on public transport,” said Hey.

“Overall, we trade off on a commute. We trade off money, contact and interesting work, with the stresses and strains of the journey.”

Employees’ home circumstances also affect how beneficial commuting to work is for them, said Christina Marriott, chief executive of Royal Society for Public Health.

People who live in house shares or who have less space in which to work at home have been disproportionately affected by remote working, she said. “In this context, having a separation between work and office by commuting might have some positive impact on physical and mental health.”

Marriott also stressed the importance of the method of transport. While walking or cycling was good for physical and mental health, “the mental health outcomes are very different for commuters who are stuck in a traffic jam, or whose trains are frequently delayed, overcrowded, and cost a small fortune,” she said.