Working in an office can harm your health.

According to Swedish research, commuting more than five hours per week correlates with several adverse health consequences, including obesity and sleep problems. 

In the past year, many companies have asked employees to return to the office either full- or part-time after years of pandemic-induced remote working. While this is a good thing when it comes to socialising with your colleagues, it may negatively affect your health – depending on how long your commute is.

Our research project, completed in late 2022, found that a lengthy commute to work is associated with being less physically active, being overweight, and having sleep problems. And depending on where your office is located, you may also be more likely to drink in excess.

To conduct our research, we obtained data from the Swedish Longitudinal Survey of Health, using waves conducted between 2012 and 2018. We looked at responses from approximately 13,000 participants aged 16-64 on a range of topics – including their lifestyle (for example, how often they exercised, drank or smoked, and their weight), their occupation, how stressed they were about work, and whether they had any pre-existing health conditions.

We also looked at the distance between a participant’s home and workplace and the socioeconomic status of these areas to understand how these factors affected lifestyle habits. Finally, we repeated the surveys, allowing us to compare each study participant’s responses at two different points.

We found that commutes of more than 3km increased the likelihood of being physically inactive and overweight and having poor sleep. In addition, people who worked more than 40 hours and commuted more than five hours each week were more likely to be physically inactive and experience sleep problems, compared with times when they only commuted one-to-five hours a week. This may be due to having little time to exercise or stress, which makes sleep more difficult.

Our analyses also showed that participants were more likely to have harmful drinking habits – feeling they needed to cut down or drinking first-thing in the morning to steady their nerves or cope with a hangover – when their workplace was in a high socioeconomic status area. We also found that when a person’s workplace was near a bar, they were likelier to have harmful drinking habits.

These results were accurate even when we considered various factors that may have affected them – such as a person’s age, their history of chronic diseases, whether they had any mental health conditions (such as depression), and their occupation.

Where to work

While it’s clear from our results that work can significantly affect many aspects of your health, our findings couldn’t define a perfect commuting distance or office location.

But, regarding physical activity levels, we showed that participants who commuted 3km or less appeared more physically active. This could be because this distance made commuting by bicycle or foot to work more straightforward – or because a shorter commute gave participants time before and after work to exercise.

The results were inconclusive regarding weight, sleep, and drinking habits. Thus, it will be important to investigate these factors, alongside whether our results are similar for people living in different regions of the world since our study was only conducted on people in Sweden.

And although our research project uncovered these links between a person’s workplace and certain health habits, we only looked at some of the reasons that might explain these relationships. So it will be necessary for future studies to investigate these links further.

Things you can do

Our findings highlight just how great an effect your workplace location can have on your lifestyle and health, which may be essential to remember the next time you consider changing jobs or moving.

Our findings also show how important it is to plan and develop cities that consider various aspects of residential life. For example, people can commute more easily using public transport or cycling, wheeling or walking. In that case, they may find it easier to be physically active and maintain a healthy weight. In addition, limiting access to alcohol both near home and work may also reduce alcohol consumption and the health issues associated with harmful drinking.

But while a lengthy commute can have negative health consequences, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still many things you can do to ensure it doesn’t affect your health too much. For example, active travel is one way to get more physical activity into your day, which has the knock-on effect of helping you maintain a healthy weight alongside being environmentally friendly. Finally, if you like to drink with colleagues after work, consider – occasionally – opting for mocktails instead.

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Note: This article was first published on May 4, 2023, republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here and the authors’ profiles here:

  • Jaana Halonen Research Fellow in Public Health, Stockholm University
  • Auriba Raza Research in Epidemiology, Stockholm University

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