The Logistics of Job Satisfaction

When you’re evaluating the elements of a satisfying career, don’t underestimate logistics. Where we work and how we get there contribute a great deal to our job satisfaction, and the joy of a new job can fade quickly if you have to spend an hour and a half just getting there.

An article in yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street Journal supports my hypothesis. In “Secrets of the Happiest Commuters,” Sue Shellenbarger writes that new national data shows a significant spike in the number of Americans whose commute is longer than an hour, from 300,000 in 2011 to 11.1 million people in 2012. In order for someone to be satisfied with a longer commute, economists estimate that a person needs to make 40% more money to rationalize the trade-off in time. The story goes on to highlight ways in which commuters make the time they spend in cars, on trains or riding the subway more palatable.

As someone who lives in a “train town,” I understand this trade-off. When we first moved from Phoenix to the Chicago area, I was intrigued by the culture of commuter trains. Our Metra rail system reaches out like an octopus from the heart of Chicago to suburbs reaching far to the north, west and south. My job in the city required a five-minute drive from home to a public parking lot; a train ride that could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the time I traveled; then a 20-minute bus ride followed by a five-minute walk. By the time I got into the office I had spent an hour and a half just getting to work. This meant I spent a staggering 31.5 days per year in transit. That’s a full month just getting to and from the job.

Some folks don’t mind the commute. I know a man from my church who commuted from our home town of Wheaton into the city for more than 30 years and he said he enjoyed his commute time. Another gentleman, a former colleague of mine from a publishing company, rode the train with friends and had a running poker game that lasted, literally, years. Back when I was commuting daily, nearly everyone had a newspaper or a book and a cup of coffee. These days you’ll find most commuters plugged into some kind of electronic device, from a laptop to an iPad to a smartphone to a Kindle.  Some use the time to daydream and stare out the window; others take a snooze.

People told me to enjoy my commute–that it provided me with “down time,” time to read or write or do more work (!). But over the years I came to resent the commute and the time it robbed from me and my family. In fact, the WSJ article reports a 2011 study in the Journal of Health Economics noted that “[w]omen tend to be unhappier about long commutes than men, even after controlling for any improvement in income, job satisfaction or housing quality—perhaps because women tend to shoulder more housework at home.” After six years of schlepping to and from the city, I deliberately looked for a job closer to home. Through my “Golden Rolodex” I connected with a hospital president I knew who soon hired me as her VP of marketing for a hospital that was a four-minute commute from my home. And now that I’m self-employed with an office in downtown Wheaton, I can make it to work in 3.5 minutes if I don’t hit a red light.

I’m not saying that everyone should work close to home–where you work and how you get there are personal choices that each of us has to make. I’m just recommending that when you weigh the factors of what makes you happy, remember to include those logistics. Otherwise, what originally seems like a minor annoyance can become an intolerable compromise that threatens your quality of life.