Is commuting good for you? I miss the break between work and home | Emma Beddington

If you’re reading this standing in a stationary train’s vestibule, squeezed between a furtive flosser and someone eating a keto breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and sardines, while everyone listens to Jolyon on speakerphone review the new draft pitch deck, take heart: commuting is good for you.

It’s the second outing I have spotted for this argument. In 2021, the Harvard Business Review asserted the value of commuting in setting and maintaining boundaries between work and home selves, thus avoiding burnout. Now the concept is back, with US researchers further exploring the role of the commute as a “liminal space” that allows for psychological detachment and recovery from work. There are psychological as well as physical and temporal dimensions to the commute, they argue, and “the experience of rolelessness” during it may create a mental space for “psychological role transition and recovery”.

I’m not sure anyone on a (supply your preferred failing rail operator here) commuter service is now enjoying their “rolelessness” or experiencing recovery. Think of all the proper therapy you could get for the price of a season ticket, for a start. Unsurprisingly, the researchers do note that on days when commutes were more stressful, participants “reported less psychological detachment from work and less relaxation”.

The soul suck is real: I saw a tweet last week from someone whose commute neighbour had clipped his fingernail on to her lap. Yet, there is something in this idea that commuting can be mentally beneficial. My past commutes have been a mixed bunch: the best was the Brussels tram stuffed with garrulous eccentrics (including one man who mused for 20 minutes about whether it would be possible to milk a rabbit). The absolute nadir was schlepping to Brentford with morning sickness; the sight of an Upper Crust can still make me heave.

Now I’m working from home I don’t stop working so much as lapse into blank staring. I used to walk the dog, but now he’s so old and baffled by his own limbs, he barely gets through the front door before demanding to go back inside. Instead, I move to the sofa for more motionless sitting, frequently ignoring the large, bright rectangle in the corner of the room in favour of the small, sweaty rectangle in my hand, rationalising that someone might need me urgently. No one ever needs me urgently, but I will continue queasily poking my phone, perhaps doing some light catastrophising as I brush my teeth, then falling asleep to dream of mistakes and lawsuits.

The bleed of work into not-work happens to everyone now that reminders are available in our pocket 24/7, but for homeworkers, especially, the blurred physical boundaries are bound to erode mental ones. Right-to-disconnect campaigners are valiantly trying to legislate around this and the wider expectation of workers being permanently available, but part of the problem is human nature, and that may be harder to address. I occasionally think longingly about the TV series Severance, in which the characters’ work and home selves are completely separate, a switch in their surgically altered brains flipped by their creepy corporation employer in the lift. Admittedly, it’s not – spoiler alert – an unqualified success.

Perhaps a “temporal” liminal space does help. I asked how others wind down. Mostly it involved drinking. Other options included gardening, knitting, snacks, gaming, piano, lying on the bed and moaning or watching men try out labour simulators on YouTube. A French person suggested a “sieste”, which I assume means sex. I’ve tried a couple of the suggestions. Alcohol: effective but probably unsustainable. Moaning: what I do all day. Gardening: at this time of year it’s just poking muddy sticks. Crisps are great – each crunch a tiny exhalation of stress – but I’m still looking.

We don’t need to commute, but wherever we work, we need a way to assert we are more than our jobs, more also than parents or partners or people with dishwashers to empty and bills to pay. What’s yours?

#commuting #good #break #work #home #Emma #Beddington

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