Roads are flooded, trains are disrupted and another fuel crisis looms – it’s no wonder UK staff cite commuting as their main cause of stress. Meetings cancelled, skeleton staff in the office – the recent few weeks have been a nightmare for businesses as employees have struggled to get into work.
The chaos and disruption hit companies across the country as the commuter’s journey to work became the sort of epic that makes for adventure fiction.
Floods caused about 200 partial or complete road closures, and a combination of the weather and repair work closed key parts of the nation’s railways. In the background, the threat of renewed picketing of fuel depots prompted queues at petrol stations.
Personnel managers have enough to worry about with the ever-pressing search for skills. Now there is the worry that these skilled staff cannot reach the workplace.
Derrick Ahlfeldt, senior vice-president HR management, Visa International, said the commute to work was stressful enough for many British workers and recent flooding and train problems had only added to the stress.
"When people work hard all day, the last thing they need is to expend as much time and effort getting to and from work. This places an unacceptable burden on both commuters and their organisations."
Yet last week’s travail probably caused less harm to companies than the cumulative effect of week in, week out delays and gridlocks in transport.
A remarkable finding from a recent report by the International Stress Management Association indicated that commuting is more stressful than work itself.
Employees were asked which activity caused them most distress. Rush-hour traffic topped the list, cited by 45 per cent of respondents, followed by work, which came way behind on 34 per cent.
"This past week has been abnormal and it is more acceptable because you can deal with it as a crisis," said Carole Spiers, occupational health consultant. "When it is on a regular basis, there is no let-up."
You experience stress when you have no control – overwhelmingly the feeling of commuters last week.
With mergers and demergers, offices are often relocated, and employees have to make choices. "You have to decide whether to upset a partner’s career, the children’s education and the family and friends network or commute. The chances are you will commute," said Spiers.
"There is an expectation of the business that they will do this, but they underestimate the impact it has on individuals’ working capacity. As long as they see them at 9am then as far as they are concerned that is fine."
In practice, the employee is much less able to concentrate and work hard after a two-hour journey and with the same trial awaiting them in the evening. Over time, the individual loses loyalty and commitment, and the company loses people with valuable skills. Personnel managers are in a good position to pick up the early warning signs, Spiers added.
Roffey Park Management Institute has long taught business leaders about the importance of placing such human concerns at the heart of decision-making on location and mergers. Last week the institute itself, located in a forest in the middle of Sussex, was marooned without power or telephone contact for a day, and many staff were unable to get in due to fallen trees and floods.
"A lot of the research that we have been doing has suggested that issues around travelling are really important," said senior researcher Caroline Glynn. "Earlier this year, we did a lot of research on work-life balance and we interviewed middle and senior managers – quite a number referred to the stress of travelling. They are not only expected to put in increasing number of hours, but are also again commuting four to five hours a day."
There are two clear lessons from the past few weeks – the UK infrastructure is woefully inadequate, and the time for more home working has come. Last week Microsoft published findings from a survey it commissioned through NOP. This found nearly two-thirds of employees in Britain would be happy to work from home.
The International Stress Management Association survey indicated that people could live with such a transition and are comfortable with relying on technology.
Will telecommuting provide the answer? Roffey’s millennium research canvassed views of 14- and 15-year-olds and indicated that almost none of them would be willing to commute. Given that this generation has grown up with the Web, we could be seeing huge shifts away from travelling towards virtual working.
One typical day
AA Roadwatch reported 300 closures or part-closures of roads, compared with around 100 prior to the floods. Incidents included:
- Complete closure of about 10 miles of the M25 between 4.30 and 8am
- Closure of A19 near York.
On the same day, Railtrack reported 34 line closures due to flooding. The previous day, 20 miles had been closed for relaying of track. There were also speed restrictions and emergency timetables.
Flood closures included:
- York to Darlington
- Derby to Stoke-on-Trent
- Crewe to Chester
By Philip Whiteley