Linda Nazareth, educational gapIt may be time to ask whether working during the commute should be counted as official work time, writes Linda Nazareth.

By Linda Nazareth, September 12, 2018

September is here, everyone is back to work and commuting takes longer than ever if you drive. So maybe public transit looks good to you: If you were to take the train or the bus, you could catch up on some work, maybe send some e-mails.

After all, according to Statistics Canada, Canadians who took transit to work in 2016 spent an average of nearly 45 minutes commuting, which is plenty of time to get things done. Thing is, if you do send those e-mails, should the time spent be counted as official work time? Researchers at a British university say that it should, and that it would be better for everyone if it was.

In a paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society, authors Juliet Jain, Billy Clayton and Caroline Bartle from the University of the West of England detailed their observations of 5,000 rail passengers over a 40-week period in 2016/17. When presented with free WiFi, most used it, with many saying that they used the time to "catch up" with work either before or after their usual workday, effectively extending the time that they spent "at work." In her presentation, Dr. Jain made the case that if that travel time were actually counted as work time, there would be many social and economic benefits. For one thing, people would presumably be able to go home early, which would ease commuter pressure during peak hours and have a positive spin-off on travel times and on the environment.

From a North American point of view, the idea of paying for commuting time sounds ludicrous. What if people purposely chose long commutes? They could travel in for two hours, count that as work time, work for four hours and then leave by mid-afternoon, counting the next two hours as work time, too. Not to mention the fact that for almost everyone who is not in a strictly hourly paid position, working more than your allotted hours and checking e-mails (at the very least) at night is pretty much an expectation. Getting paid because you checked an e-mail on a train is pretty laughable (you can test this by telling your boss you did that and want to be paid for it).

Then again, maybe the suggestion of getting paid for overtime is more sweetly retro than it is laughable, a kind of last-ditch effort to set clear boundaries between work time (which is paid) and leisure time (which is not). The reality, however, is that, partly because of technology, the line between the two has become so blurred that it is barely visible at all. If you can work from anywhere, chances are that you are going to do that, and your employer is going to expect it.

That is not necessarily bad if it goes both ways. A worker who spends most of his or her working hours at the office is realistically going to make a dentist appointment from there, and probably take time off to get to it. He or she may even get their Amazon deliveries sent there, since it is easier than having them sent to the house they never get to.

From an economy-wide point of view, where all of this becomes a problem is when people feel pressure to be available 24/7, whether that means on the train or at the soccer game. A paper by researchers at Virginia Tech found that employees who felt that they were "on call" experienced increased mental strain both to themselves and to their significant others, even at times when they were not actually called upon during their non-work time. If you think the boss might call you over the long weekend, apparently, that is almost as bad as if he actually does. "Flexible work boundaries," the researchers concluded, often turn into "work without boundaries," which ends up being negative for the workers and bad for the companies, too, since burnt-out and unhappy workers tend to be absent more frequently and are hard to motivate when at work.

The real answer to all of this might be not to pay people for their commuting time but rather to figure out ways for them to commute less. A larger study done by the University of the West of England found that every extra minute of commute time reduced job satisfaction and leisure satisfaction while increasing strain and reducing mental health. On the flip side, people working from home and those who had shorter commute times were more satisfied with their jobs and more likely to stay at them, which are both good for business.

Either way works: living close to work and going in every day, or living near or far and not going in as often. The worst outcome, however, is apparently the one that prevails most often, which is the one that mixes the long commute with the blurred work hours. You could try to fix that with money, maybe by handing out spot bonuses for the employee who sent the most e-mails on their morning commute. That kind of solution alone, however, is unlikely to have an impact on the environmental or mental-health costs stemming from it, both of which really have to be part of a larger discussion as to what is good for the economy.

Linda Nazareth is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her book Work Is Not a Place: Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post Jobs Economy will be published in November.