The workplace: The long way home

The tradition of 40-hour working weeks has been under sustained attack for quite some time.

vectorstock 1879542By Asher Goldman

While Samuel Parnell declared an eight-hour day in 1840, the standard five-day, 40-hour working week has long since ceased to be a reality for many New Zealand workers.

As well as spending longer and longer in the office, many workers are also facing longer commutes to and from their homes. With our largest cities expanding, traffic increasing and centrally located housing becoming more expensive, people are forced to live further and further away just to be able to survive.

Data from 2006 shows New Zealanders spent an average of 15 minutes commuting to and from work each day, the lowest in the OECD. This survey does, however, include people who work from home, and the unemployed, who have no commuting time at all, so the figures are skewed.

In a survey in the UK, from 2003 to 2011 average commuting time increased from 45 to 54 minutes per day. This included 100 people who said they commute from the Orkney Islands to South London, a distance of 853 kilometres that requires two flights!

What may be the world’s longest commute also has a New Zealand connection. A 2004 report talked about Chris McKee who worked for the Metropolitan Police in London. He used flexi-time provisions to work for two months (including overtime) before commuting home for two months – in faraway Dunedin, more than 19,000 kilometres away.

Meanwhile, for those of us with shorter commutes, it is not uncommon to add an extra hour a day getting to and from work. With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops, many of us even spend those extra hours working on public transport, gifting extra time to our employers.

A number of public sector workplaces now observe a 37.5-hour week – meaning the half hour unpaid lunch break can be held within an eight-hour workday, rather than on top of. Maybe a 36-hour work week is next, to cater for 18 minutes commuting per workday per person?

Research shows that happiness declines the longer a commute takes. A Swiss study found that you require 20 per cent higher wages to counteract the unhappiness brought by a 45-minute commute. Of 13 common daily activities used in a study of enjoyment, including housework and cooking, the two least favourite were commuting to and from work.

How you commute also makes a difference. In Sweden, a study took 106 drivers and switched them to train commuting for a month. Once they had started, their happiness was measured on a range of values throughout the month. They all were much happier than they expected to be with public transport, and their happiness increased the more they did it.

What can we expect from the future of commuting? For some, long-distance rail commutes appeal – a Hamilton – Auckland commuter train is favoured by some as a way to get around high Auckland house prices, while the Palmerston North – Wellington commuter train is still used, although it is under threat of closure.

For others, more working from home, or increased flexibility of hours to avoid the worst traffic, are real options. What is clear is that the impact of commuting is a significant factor in our working lives, and we need to find ways to lessen it that work for each of us.