independent

Monday 21 April 2014

How the trip to work can ruin your marriage (and other travellers’ tales)

For many of us, our working day begins and ends with a journey. And whether we travel by bus, train or car, for one mile or a hundred, it can be a stressful experience. A number of recent studies examined the extent to which the daily commute affects our lives. There were some surprising results.

THE ROAD TO SEPARATION

According to Erika Sandow, long-distance commuters have a 40pc greater risk of separating from their partners than other people. Sandow, a social geographer with Sweden's Umea University, led a study that looked at the lives of two million Swedes who were either married or cohabiting.

She found that, while those willing to commute were likely to benefit from increased income and career opportunities, it came at the cost of broken relationships.

"Commuting requires physical and mental energy, which may generate stress and reduced quality of health, which can spill over into family life."

What qualifies as a long commute varies across Europe. In Scotland it's 15km; while in Sweden 100km is considered a long commute. For the purposes of her study, Sandow defined it as 30km each way. This journey length would be familiar to many Irish workers.

In the study, Sandow found that those who commuted longer distances had a broader job market to choose from, had better career development opportunities, and had better income development. She also discovered that the vast majority of these commuters were men.

This meant that the women in these relationships had to take responsibility for the children, and often had to settle for less well paid jobs closer to home.

While there were women in the study who commuted longer distances for better jobs, Sandow found that they often experienced greater pressures and felt less successful in their work than the men did.

"Female long-distance commuters have been found to experience more stress induced by commuting than men have. This stress is also found to be a consequence of too many duties to fulfil, of which concerns for children are the most stressful."

RURAL RISK

Not all of those included in the study were commuting out of choice; many were commuting because of deficiencies in local job opportunities.

Those in rural areas were most likely to be in this category and were also at the highest risk of relationship problems. Sandow paints a bleak picture.

"For those long-distance commuting and living in a rural area there is a high risk for both women and men that the relationship will end within five years."

Sweden may be considerably bigger and less densely populated than Ireland, but many of the issues identified in Sandow's study are being seen here. Jacqui Swan is with the relationship counselling service Relate NI.

"Through our work with clients we find that the pressures and stress from work life are brought into the home and transferred to the relationships there -- either consciously or unconsciously.

"It would appear many workers accept jobs that they may have not considered in the past, with their additional demands and sacrifices, due to financial need. So although the job may seem like the ideal solution at that time, they may not fully appreciate the practical impact of this until they have lived it for a while," she says.

HEADING IN THE SAME DIRECTION

While it's easy to understand that the length and duration of a commute can impact on a relationship, strange though it may seem, the direction each partner travels may also have an effect on the quality of their relationship.

Researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that couples are happier with their marriage if they both travel in the same direction to work.

The first part of this study took part in the United States, where 280 couples were asked to complete a questionnaire. They were led to believe that they were taking part in a study about the living conditions of married couples, but the researchers were actually interested in finding out about their journeys to work and how satisfied each partner was with their spouse and their marriage.

On analysing the responses, the researchers found a strong link between commuting in the same direction and marital satisfaction.

The second part of the study took place in Hong Kong, in a cultural environment very different to the United States. Again, the couples were questioned under the pretence of providing information for a study on the living conditions of married couples.

The results in Hong Kong mirrored those of the United States.

In interpreting the results, the researchers believe travelling in the same direction to work somehow triggers a metaphorical sense of heading in the same direction together as a couple.

According to Xun Huang, who led the research, couples looking for a home should choose somewhere that will allow them to travel in the same direction to work.

She believes that this is the most important factor to consider, even if it means one or both partners making a longer commute each day.

WEIGHTY ISSUE

Xun Huang may be alone in thinking that a longer commute can be beneficial. Researchers at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, found that it may cause a larger waist.

Dr Christine Hoehner and her team studied commuters in a number of urban areas in Texas.

Those with longer commutes were more likely to have poor cardio-respiratory fitness and weight problems.

The team found that the risks increased with journey length.

Those who commuted 10 miles to work were at increased risk of high blood pressure; while those who commuted 15 miles were less likely to take part in physical activity and were at greater risk of obesity.

"Those with longer commutes can be exposed to heavy traffic resulting in higher stress levels and more time sitting," says Dr Hoehner.

If you're using public transport to get to work, you're six times more likely to get an acute respiratory infection, according to research carried out by the University of Nottingham.

Their research was conducted at a Nottingham GP practice during a flu outbreak in December 2008 and January 2009.

Patients were asked about their use of public transport in the days preceding the outbreak of their illness. The researchers found that a high percentage of those with an acute respiratory infection had used public transport in the five days before the symptoms appeared.

They also found that occasional users of public transport were at greater risk of infections, while regular travellers seemed to have developed a higher immunity.

According to Professor Jonathan Van Tam: "This is a small exploratory study whose findings require confirmation by a larger study. However, the findings justify the need to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene when using public transport during periods when winter viruses are circulating and where possible to avoid situations where you might spread your germs to others when you have a respiratory illness."

IS THAT SEAT TAKEN?

It does seem that, when it comes to commuting, we would prefer not to have any contact with other people. Esther Kim, from Yale University, spent three years taking bus journeys in the United States, studying the lengths we go to to avoid each other. Kim calls this "non-social transient behaviour.

"We live in a world of strangers, where life in public spaces feels increasingly anonymous," she says. "However, avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport.

"We engage in all sorts of behaviour to avoid others, pretending to be busy, checking phones, rummaging through bags, or falling asleep."

Kim found that the most important issue for commuters was avoiding having to sit beside someone. She was particularly intrigued by the strategies employed by those who wanted to ensure they didn't have to share their seat.

Some passengers placed a large bag on the empty seat; others sat in the aisle seat listening to their iPod and pretended they couldn't hear people asking for the window seat; then there were those who had perfected a blank 'crazy' stare to frighten off potential seat invaders.

This latter group may have been on to something. Kim found that when people had to share their seat, they were unconcerned with the race, class or gender of their new companion. They just hoped that they weren't crazy -- or smelly.

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