Carla Vertesch winces when she speaks about the day she left work later than usual and endured nearly two hours of traffic. Late to after-care, she found her daughter in tears, last child remaining. Her daughter begged her never to come that late again. The next day, Vertesch went into her office and negotiated an arrangement to leave work earlier, giving her a two-hour window for a commute that should take 45 minutes.
With clogged highways and a rebounding economy, commuters are once again negotiating with bosses and changing jobs to cut back on the time they spend on the road. According to transportation consultant Alan Pisarski, as of 2014, the average American spends 25.8 minutes each way driving to work, but at peak hours and on congested roadways, most of us find it takes double or triple that time. For those who battle traffic, the commute to work has become an increasing factor in work/life satisfaction.
Research shows that the longer a person’s commute, the more profound the effects on personal well-being and life satisfaction. Spending hours in a car, day after day can be a drain on productivity and happiness. To improve work/life balance, attorney Patricia Ferran looked at her options. “Driving an hour each way made my day feel longer, and I wanted more free time,” she says. In her job for a year, Ferran set out to find a new one, narrowing her choices to law firms who were hiring at similar salaries and were within 10 miles of her home. She also searched for law firms with cases mostly in Miami-Dade courts. She found one about 10 minutes from her home: “Now I can sleep more and go out at night with friends because I’m not as tired.”
People tend to commute for better-paying jobs or to live in nice or affordable neighborhoods. A 2013 Census Report shows that more than 1.5 million American workers commute 90 minutes from work to home, a time toll that can make it a struggle to put dinner on the table, pick the kids up from childcare, make it to an exercise class, or have downtime before going to sleep and doing it again the next day.
For one person, an hour-long commute may be doable; for another, it could be a terrible burden, notes Sue Romanos, president/CEO of CAREERXCHANGE, a Florida staffing agency. “It really depends on the individual,” she says. “People who are lower-wage earners are not inclined to travel as far, especially because gas costs and tolls will eat up some of the money they are making.”
With unemployment improving, executive recruiters and staffing-firm leaders are fielding more requests from people looking for jobs closer to home. “We deal with it every day,” says Jorge A. Gonzalez, executive vice president of Albion Staffing Solutions in Doral. “The commute is one of the top three hot-button points behind compensation and work hours.” Candidates are specific that a new position be in close proximity of their home or where they have childcare, Gonzalez says. Lately, he has been getting more rejections from job candidates who don’t want to drive the distance — even with the promise of a higher salary. “Employees now have choices, and they will turn down an amazing job because the commute is out of what they consider comfortable.”
It wasn’t primarily the distance or time that led Susan Greene to change jobs — it was the stress and toll on her health. After 21 years as marketing director at Becker & Poliakoff, Greene’s driving pattern changed. First, Greene moved south from Weston to Miami, and then the law firm moved north from Hollywood to Fort Lauderdale. The effect was that her commute grew longer and put her on crowded highways: “I was dealing with at least two hours a day of stress. I found it wasn’t just about the time I was spending on the road, but also about the craziness of taking my life into my hands.” Two weeks ago, Greene took a new job as chief marketing officer for The Beacon Council, about 10 minutes from home. “It’s liberating,” she says. “I can make dinner plans. I am so much happier.”
Despite the risks to life satisfaction, people who like their job and co-workers are more willing to cope with a longer commute. In Detroit, James Robertson made national headlines for walking 21 miles through some of the city’s worst neighborhoods — for four hours each way — to get to and from work. Robertson said he endures the brutal walk to work in harsh weather because he likes his job and the people he works with and because the plant manager makes him a nice homemade dinner, which he eats in the lunchroom during his shift every night. While Angela Foskolos’ commute is nowhere as torturous, she added about two hours of driving to her day when she took on a new position with her company, a currency exchange near the Miami International Airport. Foskolos said her cross-counties commute is a tradeoff for a higher salary and additional experience, but mostly she endures it because she likes her co-workers: “Everyone is in an upbeat mood, and the environment is positive. It makes me happier to do the drive.”
Track down commuters, and most have done the cost-benefit analysis of their commute, factoring in income, job benefits, workplace culture, the monetary cost of commuting, the health toll, and the effect on family or home lives. But what they often overlook is the gender difference. A study out of the UK titled “It’s driving her mad” found that women feel the psychological impact of commuting four times as strongly as men — even though men leave earlier in the morning, work later into the evening and have longer trip times. The study found commuting, for women, gets added to an already-heavy workload that often includes childcare and day-to-day household tasks. It may be why women tend to seek the majority of work from home or flexible work arrangements.
In her family, Vertesch says the overall cost of her commute factors heavily into all decisions. Less than a year ago, her husband, Steve Vertesch, fulfilled a longtime goal of owning his own business when the couple opened CertaPro Painters of Central Miami. The business is growing, and that means Steve might be supervising jobs close to home or miles away. Because Carla needs to be the one to pick their two children from after-school care, her commute time from Coconut Grove to Doral became a huge factor in their family’s work/life balance. With her income critical while CertaPro gets established, the flexibility of her employer became more crucial: “They understood how stressful getting stuck in traffic could be. I know not everyone is as lucky.”
Life stage also factors heavily into commutes and career decisions. One woman in her mid-50s, an estimating coordinator at an equipment-rental company, started her job further from home after her children left for college. She now commutes about 50 minutes to an hour each way. Teri Foskolos says when her children were younger, she limited her job choices to those close to her home in Sunrise. She often popped home for lunch or bolted from work to drive her children to activities. Now she works at a higher-paying job that brings her more fulfillment and income: “I can tolerate the conditions on the road. It’s now worth it.”
A lot of managing the daily commute comes down to making compromises — in terms of limiting where you take a job, what kind of job you take, what neighborhood you live in and the nearby schools, and which partner in a dual-income household sacrifices personal time. “For some of us, commuting to our jobs is just a normal way of working,” South Florida commuter Lynn Holtsberg says.
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regular on workplace and work life issues. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.
A few facts about commuters
More than 1-in-4 workers — 27 percent — commute to work outside their county of residence. (2011 U.S. Census data)
Of all Americans, 4.3 percent work from home. (2011 US Census data)
Employees are more likely to start looking for another job when their daily trek to and from work exceeds 45 minutes each way. (2008 research published in Transport Reviews)
More than 75 percent of commuters travel alone by car. (2013 Census data )
People who spend the most time on the road experience higher levels of stress because they constantly feel hurried. (2014 study conducted by Canada’s University of Waterloo)
People with rigid work hours and lower incomes were particularly susceptible to decreased life satisfaction associated with long commutes. (2014 study conducted by Canada’s University of Waterloo)
Commutes can be beneficial when people view the time as a break from other commitments and responsibilities. (2008 study published the Journal of Transport Geography)