Is commuting good for work/life balance?

A study this week won headlines for saying that many people enjoy the commute, which is true, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that many don’t. There is no one size fits all approach.

London travel underground tube


It was reported this week that commuting can have a positive impact on people’s mental health by compartmentalising work and home life. “The commute delineates boundaries between home and work life and can be used to switch one off and transition to the other, which can have a positive impact on cognitive performance, wellbeing and productivity,” Joseph Devlin, professor of brain sciences at UCL, said. “Just going to work generates more diverse experiences than working from home, especially through interactions with other people.”

It is certainly the case that some people like to – and are able to – have firm boundaries between work and home life and that homeworking is not for everyone, can be isolating and not everyone is set up to do it. And there seem to be a lot of studies around about the negatives of homeworking at the moment. What there don’t seem to be – at least what is not reported as much – is the negative impacts of going to an office. The exhaustion of commuting, the stress of trying to get home in time for childcare pick-ups, the impact of office politics, the face to face bullying, etc.

The whole ‘back to normal’ bandwagon would have us believe that everything about ‘normal’ works perfectly for everyone, but the truth is it doesn’t and that different ways of working work for different people, depending on their circumstances and responsibilities.

The study reports that household chores, taking deliveries and longer lunch breaks were the biggest distractions for those working from home. What kind of distractions are there in the office? I know of colleagues in the past who would faff around most of the day. In my own experience people work in a more focused way at home. Yes, they may load the washing machine [which takes all of five minutes] and take a delivery [again, five mins max], but they tend to have shorter lunch breaks if anything. My lunch break is basically the school run. Maybe some people find it harder to concentrate when they are on their own or to motivate themselves. One thing parenting teaches you is the ability to focus in the midst of absolute chaos and to get as much crammed into the school hours as is humanly possible.

But the survey is not, of course, just about parents, and not all parents are the same. Some are desperate to get to the office to escape home and childcare. Some find they do need a strong dividing line between the two realms of home and work. But many don’t or are able to create their own dividing lines at home. I’ve always found it difficult to disentangle home and work entirely. Indeed I’ve always found compartmentalisation hard. At university, so much of the literature I was reading was about the struggle between mind and body. I simply couldn’t relate. Is it a female thing?

Many of the writers I was reading were male. Surely we are both mind and body and everything in between, I reasoned. So everything I am at home, which includes being a mum, I bring to my work. There is no dividing line in my head. It’s just logistically easier – and less tiring – to work from home.

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