The commuting crisis: supporting your employees

This week marks the return for much of the UK and US workforce following time off to celebrate the festive season. For those within the UK, it also marks the controversial introduction of increased rail travel fares across the national network, sparking protests as the biggest rise since 2013 comes into play.

Commuting for work is a fact of life for the overwhelming majority of employees. Despite the rise in telecommuting and remote working, statistics show that the misery of the daily commute is as prevalent as ever. The average UK worker takes 57 minutes to commute to work, according to the ONS. It’s 25.4 minutes on average for the American worker, according to the US Census Bureau – but the degree of variability according to zip code is significant, and commute times have been steadily increasing.

commute rise stats

In fact, a rise in ‘extreme commuting’ or those traveling two hours+ suggests we’re a long way off from eradicating the need to battle rush hour in order to perform our jobs. Meanwhile, costs are increasing – leaving experts warning that people are being priced out of getting to work.

Given the associated risks to not only employee health, wellbeing and productivity, but also business success, what should we be doing to support our staff?

How can we help our employees manage the commuting crisis?

The impact of a long commute

As anyone who commutes on a regular basis will testify, it can be a demoralizing experience. Overcrowded trains, stationary traffic and shoulder-to-shoulder sidewalks are unlikely to make for a positive start to your day.

However, research now shows there is a measurable negative impact on employee well-being, meaning that travelling to work is not just a necessary evil, but a genuine threat to our health. A study conducted by VitalityHealth, the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer, shows longer commuting workers (30mins+) are:

  • 33 percent more likely to suffer from depression
  • 37 percent more likely to have financial worries
  • 12 percent more likely to report multiple aspects of work-related stress

They were also 46 percent more likely to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night and 21 percent more likely to be obese. In an article published by Time, Carolyn Kylstra also links the daily commute to high blood sugar, increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol and a drop in cardiovascular fitness.

Perhaps most interestingly for employers, however, Vitality’s study also showed that employees commuting less than half an hour have an extra seven days’ worth of productive time each year.

Placing the commute on the management agenda

As employers, we have a responsibility to our staff and a vested interest in their overall well-being. Healthy work-life balance is also shown to deliver many returns, including reduced staff turnover, improved levels of engagement, a decrease in workplace errors and greater innovation and creativity. Increased research and focus around the issue of mental health, and how to support staff, is also making its way onto the management agenda.

Traditionally, however, the question of the commute has been seen as an employee’s responsibility. Factoring in commute times and options is something job hunters should consider when applying to a role – and not become the burden of senior management at a later date.

The truth is, failing to address the commute is no longer an option if we are to attract – and retain – top talent. It is also essential to maximize the productivity of employees and ensure they remain engaged with the business.

How to support employees

If we can’t impact where our employees are traveling from, or where our offices are based, what difference can we make when it comes to commuting woes?

1. Offer flexible working

Help employees beat rush hour by offering flexibility on start and finish times. In many instances, even just half an hour can make a significant difference in reducing the overall commute time. In an article discussing the study, Vitality states:

“Flexible working has a positive impact on both employees’ physical and mental health and their productivity.

“Employees who are able to work flexibly were less likely to be stressed or depressed, and were also less likely to smoke, be obese or get insufficient sleep. These employees also had an additional five productive days each year compared to those with no flexible working arrangements.”

Flexible working is on the rise, as demand and value of the practice increases. In the UK, employers are under obligation to consider requests meaningfully, and can only refuse on the grounds of one or more of eight specific business reasons.

However, many organizations retain a culture where flexibility is the exception, rather than the norm – leaving some employees uncomfortable with approaching line managers or putting forward requests. Creating a flexible work policy and promoting this as an option to employees may help address concerns.

2. Season ticket loans or discounts

As the backlash from the UK’s rising rail fares demonstrates, concerns about the commute aren’t isolated to the time it takes. The increased cost to travel to work – which is rising faster than wages in real terms for UK workers – means many commuters face annual rail fare costs in excess of GBP3000-5000, depending on the route.

In the US, annual fares vary significantly by zip code – but commuters can expect to fork out anywhere from $1800 – $3000 to travel to and from the nation’s largest cities. Simply put, the financial burden of commuting is significant.

Support employees by considering options such as a season ticket loan, which will enable staff unable to pay upfront for a monthly or annual pass to benefit from the cheaper rates these offer, and pay back the cost directly from their salary over an extended period. Or go one step further and consider discounting travel for employees, working with local transport providers to negotiate discounted rates or options for employees.

3. Consider remote working and telecommuting options

Vitality’s study actually showed that contrary to popular belief, remote working had no positive health or productivity impact – it was flexible working that offered the greatest benefits for both employer and employee.

However, this doesn’t mean this is an option that should be ruled out altogether. Perhaps couple remote working options alongside an office-based role, such as offering the opportunity to work from home once every 1-2 weeks. This can alleviate some pressure or stress, meaning employees don’t have to commute every day.

Don’t forget, there are benefits for the employer too. Global IT giant Dell introduced its Connected Workplace program in 2009, allowing 25 percent of the company’s staff worldwide to work remotely or flexible hours. The company estimates the move has saved them $21million in office space, time wasted in traffic and electricity bills since 2013 alone.

4. Put commuter benefits into your compensation package

Commuter benefits don’t come solely in the form of season tickets for public transport. If you’re looking to support employees – including those who don’t get a bus or train to work – you may want to look at introducing benefits such as:

  • Parking reimbursement
  • Pre-tax funding benefits
  • Carpool tax-free benefits
  • Gas gifts cards
  • Onsite car tune-ups or maintenance
  • Cycling and running amenities, such as bike storage and shower facilities

Although they may not sound like the most impressive options to include in your compensation package, research shows they’re highly desired and uptake is usually high.

5. Encourage healthier options

Throughout both the UK and the US, increased emphasis on the value of exercise and healthy living has seen a surge of investment in cycle routes and bike programs, designed to get us out of our cars.

In the UK, the ‘Cycle to Work’ scheme is a Government tax exemption program that enables employers to loan bikes and safety equipment as a tax-free benefit, with employees able to ‘buy’ the bike in question at the end of the repayment. For those in the US, city programs such as New York Citi Bike offer an option for staff who don’t want to fork out for a bike of their own – consider offering discounted annual passes to your staff.

Participating in events such as Cycle to Work Day or running an internal Commuter Fair can show your employees the options available – and hopefully get them engaged with healthier alternatives.

Commuting: it pays to care

According to a survey conducted by Glassdoor, 17 percent of employees would take a pay cut of 1-10% in order to halve their commuting time. A further 12 percent of employees would take a pay cut of 11-25% – a significant amount of money.

Average commute times in the UK and US are increasing every year, compiled by issues such as house prices in city centers that force workers further and further out. Failure to address these concerns will not only prove detrimental to employee well-being, but will threaten the long-term stability of organizations who risk losing valued staff. It’s time to take action.