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Is your drive to work taking a toll on your health and well-being?

David Clark / November 14, 2015

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Is your drive to work taking a toll on your health and well-being?

Hypertension, waist circumference, and body mass index, all are negatively associated with longer work commute times. So is reduced physical activity, which is a “risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and metabolic risk syndrome” (in Highway to health? Commute time and well-being among Canadian adults, 2014).

A study by researchers affiliated with the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (University of Waterloo) reports that longer commute times are negatively associated with many health and well-being indicators. The study used a sample of 3409 men and women, who regularly commute for paid work by car, from the 2010 Canadian General Social Survey. Canadians, very similar to other advanced countries, primarily use personal vehicles for their commute to work (82%) compared to public transit (12%), and active transportation (walking and bicycling, 6%).

Automobile travel is also associated with poor sleep quality, lower levels of (self-reported) health, higher obesity rates, poor mental health, ore negative moods, and higher stress levels.

And, with higher commute times, less time is available for social and active leisure activities. This is especially important as active leisure includes physical activity which is positively associated with overall health, both physical and mental.

The average profile of the sample shows a commute time of 53 minutes (46 for non-urban commuters; 58 for men versus 46 for women), 8.5 hours working day, 52 minutes for social leisure, and 19 minutes for physical activity.

The study included the perceived seriousness of traffic congestion, life satisfaction, and time pressure. Perceived congestion was moderate (1.9 on a scale of 1-4); life satisfaction rated 7.5 (1-10 scale), so generally satisfied, and moderate time pressure 4.0 (0-10 scale).

Perceived seriousness of congestion is important as it is not only the quantity of drive time, but also the quality which affects workers’ wellbeing. Perceptions of congestion differ for each worker even though the commute times may be similar.

Even considering longer commutes, greater life satisfaction was associated with being partnered, flexible work hours, and higher income, and living in other than large urban areas (smaller cities, semi-urban, and rural). And, as stated, lower life satisfaction is associated with more time commuting. A sense of time pressure (10-item time crunch index) was higher for females with partners, and less pressure was found for older commuters with flexible work hours. Longer commutes were related to greater time pressures. (Time pressure included, for example, “feeling trapped in daily routine”, “not having time for fun”, and worrying about a lack of time for family and friends.

The study found that higher commute times have negative effects on workers. Workers who are stressed from long commutes, and generally feel, and are, less well, may not be as effective at work as others with shorter commutes. The study did not look at employee absence due to sick time / illness but it may be likely that it too is positively associated with higher commute times.

Although the study did not look at the quality and quantity of various social interactions (with partners, family, friends, and co-workers) we may infer that these may be compromised because of longer commutes and stress.

The authors suggest a number of strategies to increase workers’ well-being: “a concerted effort by policy-makers and employers to reduce traffic congestion”; access to fitness programmes, either through on-site facilities or flexible hours; and, employers encouraging employees to use more active transportation (i.e., bicycling, walking, combined public transit and walking).

Further research is needed to determine possible effects of the findings on the public health care system and “to understand how long commute times affect opportunities to volunteer or participate in community activities”.

Article can be found here: High to health?

Canadian Index of Wellbeing: CIW

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