It’s not often you hear a long commute to work can positively impact health — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

“It is no secret that commuting… is the source of significant stress. Yet, while the stress of journeying to and from work is a part of everyday life… its effects have not been properly understood,” said Dr. David Bissell, senior lecturer and an Australian Research Council DECRA award holder in the sociology school at the Australian National University, about his project CommutingLIFE. “This project is the first of its kind to explore how commuting stress emerges, plays out through home and work life, and impacts on the longer term plans of city workers and their families.”

Bissell interviewed 53 commuters and 26 key stakeholders, such as transport advocates, policymakers, and politicians, in Sydney, Australia, to better understand how commuting changes people, their work, and their lives. In addition to these interviews, Bissell observed commuters in and around Sydney for two week-long experiments.

Like the research conducted before his, Bissell found commuting negatively impacts individual wellbeing. Commuters using public transportation feel more fear, distrust, and depression, and commuters driving themselves feel more stress from other aggressive drivers. Since commuting can take up so much valuable time, workers who have to travel into the office often work out arrangements in which they can telecommute, or work from home. This can cause a loss of social contact, as well as the struggle to manage work and leisure time. 

However, commuting doesn’t always results in decreased social connection. Bissell said “a glace, gentle nod, smile, frown or shrug all carry meanings that connect people in different ways.”  Some of the commuters Bissell interviewed even found pleasure in commuting with the same people every day, looking out for them, and being interested in their lives. The time spent in a car, or on a bus or train, can also serve as a “valuable time out.”

Some commuters find the commute home is an opportunity to process work-related issues unwelcome at home, while others use the trip to take time out from both work and home responsibilities. Of course, the longer time a person spends commuting, the more their thoughts and ideas about it will change. Ultimately, it's the way commuters talk about their, well, commute that sways the kind of impact it has on their health, Biswell said.

“The way that people ‘commentate’ on their experiences both to themselves and to each other can really change how they feel about their commutes. For some people, the journey ‘debrief’ is an important part of quickly overcoming the stress of traveling to and from work," he added. "For other people, however, having to listen to these gripes can get them down, particularly if it becomes a routine thing. … Rather than getting caught up in these everyday commentaries, many people described how different relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness, while on the commute were an effective way of reducing stress.”

Source: Bissell D. Understanding the impacts of commuting: Research report for stakeholders. Australian National University. 2015.