My commute is a big chunk of my working life these days. I’m more than five years into a job for which I commute about 3 hours a day (1.5 hours there and back). It’s usually a two-leg journey—train then bus—and occasionally a three-leg one—two trains then bus.
I love my job and the people I work with. It is a dream job that I didn’t think existed.
I feel profoundly grateful for finding a space in academia where I can make a difference and in which I am (relatively) secure. My manager is sympathetic to my commute and I am able to work flexibly on a consistent basis, whether that’s working from home or leaving earlier to avoid the peak-hour crush.
Even so, if I leave this job, it will be because of the commute.
I wrote about starting this extended commuting life back when I was a month or so into my job. Even though I have become used to it and, at times, even look forward to the gift of time to reflect or do such things that can be done on a train or bus, I know it takes a steady and often stealthy toll.
Studies and articles say repeatedly that long commutes have negative consequences, and the longer the commute, the lower a worker’s job satisfaction. Good salaries don’t make up for the deterioration in physical and mental health to which commutes are shown to contribute. Bus and train commutes don’t stack up as well against walking or cycling commutes.
This all seems like a no-brainer to me. Walking and cycling are self-determined types of transport: you choose when you want to go and you can go. When you’re using public transport, you can’t. Whether your train or bus turns up is dependent on schedules, traffic, vehicles working properly, and at times your ability to push yourself into a wall of humanity that is already bulging out of the train carriage so that you don’t have to wait for the next train because then you’ll miss the bus and have to wait for the next one and you’ll be late to the workshop you have to facilitate… ahem.
But I didn’t write this to complain about my commute—it is what it is, and it was my choice to take this job—but to share some of the ways I’ve lowered the stress levels associated with it. Most of my commute stress stems from overcrowding, surprise delays and cancellations, and the occasional train meltdowns that mean my work day is derailed (!). These actions would also be relevant to those who don’t have a long commute but may need to de-stress their schedule.
Don’t schedule things for 9am starts.
9:30am is fine, and people don’t even care that it’s 30 mins later. Lots of other people come in slightly later because of school or childcare drop-offs and slightly delayed morning meeting time ensures that they are included. When I meet people at 8:00am in the city, it’s because it’s on my way in to campus and allows me to hold that meeting and spend, more or less, a whole day on campus, too.
If I’m not rushing in to a meeting or workshop, my stress levels are immediately much lower. Most of the time, I’m on campus before 9am and working in my office already, but the idea that I have to be on campus by that time freaks me out.
Ensure those around you are familiar with your work habits, and give yourself the best chance to work well consistently.
It makes it a lot easier when people know the days I tend to work from home and are happy to let me join a meeting remotely or reschedule if they want face-to-face. I don’t have my schedule in my signature because there are anomalies in my “average” week.
I will tell those who need to know what my plan for the week looks like if it deviates from the average, but I don’t need to justify or explain it to anyone else. Meeting-free, work-from-home days are fantastic, as they are the days when I’m most likely to churn through work and make progress on projects and planning. Because of this, I try to keep my work-from-home days as meeting-free as possible. In saying this, I try very hard to keep my entire life as meeting-free as possible, so this is not a big stretch.
On the home front, my family is trained well to know when I’m working from home and what that means in terms of their being able to interrupt me. If I get home “early” on a given day, they also know that means I do a couple of hours’ work from home.
No meetings after 4:30pm.
With a long commute, it really matters when I leave. I will work later at times, but I try not to be later too often. Being later can often mean not getting home till 8pm and beyond. One of the disadvantages (possibly the only disadvantage!) of not travelling in peak hour later in the evening is the reduced frequency of public transport. With multiple legs to take, this can have a compounding effect and I end up at home much later. When I’ve been caught up in train meltdowns and get home closer to 9pm, I know I have to be back on that station platform again the next morning in about 10 hours.
In essence, much of the de-stressing of my schedule is in managing others’ and my own expectations of what my working week looks like, complete with the long commute and its potential delays. None of them are blanket rules and I make exceptions every once in a while.
Maintaining the boundaries requires a certain amount of confidence and assertiveness and also a flexible employer, but I remind myself that the prime aim in all this is to make my work practices as sustainable as possible.
I don’t want just to survive my working weeks. I want to enjoy them and give my best possible self to my work, my colleagues and my family.