Nuzhat Nowshin Shaily spends an average of three to four hours just commuting to work and back.
Working in an EdTech company, she travels from Uttara to Mohakhali every day, braving the worst traffic hotspots throughout Dhaka. On bad days, her commute consists of a series of buses and rickshaws, switching between them just to get through the traffic.
The long hours not only affect her productivity, physical and mental health, but her education as well, as she is also a student who juggles between work, studies, and her personal life.
"I have to switch between 2 buses and 2-3 rickshaws to get to the office, and spend three to four hours on the road per day. On bad days, the pressure makes me feel very low," commented Shaily.
While our workplaces demand a set of required hours in the office, in reality, our work days begin from the time we leave our homes.
In 2017, a World Bank study found that driving speed in Bangladesh had slowed down from 21 km per hour to 6 km per hour and congestion had led to a loss of 3.2 million working hours per day.
Shaily is not alone in this predicament. While most offices in this city are located either in Motijheel or Gulshan and its surrounding areas, most office goers from middle income backgrounds tend to reside in Mirpur and Uttara, or other residential locations a fair distance from the commercial hubs.
That literally translates to hours spent on streets commuting to work and back for almost everyone, leaving a heavy toll on productivity, mental and physical health, and very little time spent with family or personal needs.
With no quick fix in the horizon to our traffic woes, young people are increasingly looking to find employment with organisations that are either flexible with work-from-home or are located close to their residences, even if it entails lower pay.
After all, people who live near their office are less prone to burnout, having more hours in the day to themselves, which can make them more productive at work, and have healthier relationships with friends and family, all the while saving a lot of money.
Time spent on the road can often be completely wasted, as you can neither work nor rest during that period. Even getting ready to face the commute to work can take a toll as well - it means you have to get up earlier and come home later, leaving you less hours in the day to yourself.
Motivation and energy are finite within a person, and dealing with a long commute means that they have spent a share of their energy before even entering the office. This could lead to workers not being able to utilise their office hours efficiently due to fatigue.
Samiha Khan, a lecturer who travels from Banani to Ashulia for work, mentioned, "When I go to the office, I can work for five hours. However, if I work at home, I can work eight hours at a stretch, and it still would not affect my energy that much."
Saki Rahman, who travelled from Uttara to Kalabagan for work during her internship, mentioned she faced a similar issue with her productivity. She adds, "During the initial work hours, I would need time to recharge before getting into work. I would work slowly compared to the middle of the day."
The domino effect on your health
Even though there is more to a job than the commute that impacts mental health, it is one of the aspects that employees can have a bit of control over.
The work days are generally much longer, which eats away at one's energy. There is also less time at your disposal to recharge your mind, which can even leave you feeling too tired to spend time with loved ones when you get the rare opportunity to do so.
On this matter, Samiha commented "I am usually so drained that most days I do not even talk to anyone. I get angry easily and have a lot of negative energy because I am so tired."
Long commute times, indeed, have a relationship with our mental health.
"Commuting to and from work takes valuable time away from their life. They do not get that time back, for which they feel a sense of loss, with the added fact that they are tired. Sometimes, even when a 15 to 20 minute commute takes longer than expected, they have to continuously adjust with the reality. On top of that, they do not do this for one or two days, it happens every week," comments Kamal Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury, Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Dhaka.
Traffic has not only been taxing on mental health, but affects people physically greatly. Individuals who rely on transportation such as motorcycles, rickshaws, CNGs, and buses, are constantly exposed to the fumes emitted from stationary vehicles.
According to a study conducted by the Environment and Social Development Organisation, at least 200,000 could potentially die by 2019 due to prolonged exposure to extreme air pollution.
This does not exclude commuters travelling to work, who are constantly exposed to pollution.
"Travelling through areas under construction in open vehicles can leave me sick for several days due to my allergies and asthma," commented a staff at a media company.
Less time on the road equals greater productivity
Productivity is dependent on motivation, and what creates a motivated person is subjective. However, having more hours in the day to yourself can indeed help you recharge your mind and body for the day.
Shalim Saju understands the cost of long commutes, even going to the lengths of moving just to be closer to the office. Saju moved to Moghbazar to be near his workplace in Eskaton, explaining, "It is easier to live closer to work so that I can run to the office in case of emergencies, while also being able to be near my family and avoid the horrible traffic."
Ashiq Mahmud, who lives only 15 to 20 minutes away from his office in Tejgaon, commented on this, "If I have any commitment to attend to at home, or even if there is any emergency, I can be the first one to reach home."
He also mentions, "I get 20 to 30 minutes of extra sleep and have adequate time to prepare for the day," whereas he has often witnessed his colleagues who live far from work having to have breakfast at the office, in the fear of clocking in late.
Similarly, a 27-year-old woman working at a telecommunications company mentions how living only ten minutes away from work gives her time to exercise and have breakfast before going to work.
Are pay cuts worth working close to home?
Salary is undeniably one of the important factors, among many, that motivate employees to work. However, if the cost of transport blows a hole through one's pocket, how much money is there left at the end?
On top of that, congested roads can cost you more than just your transportation fees and time. When it comes to Dhaka in particular, getting to work on time is not just a matter of waking up early and managing your time well. The road conditions can be unreliable, yet workers have to face the repercussions of it. Rayan Ahmad, who travels from Motijheel to his office, a corporate company in Bashundhara, mentions how after the ten minute grace period is over, the company begins deducting money from late-comers' salaries by the second.
"Our attendance system is computerised so if we are late, it begins tracking the time by the second. This can be hard to deal with when we face unpredictable traffic."
Furthermore, travelling a long distance every day automatically means that a portion of your salary is reserved as a cost of going to work itself. Work then becomes more than an investment of time, but also creates its own cost, leaving you with less disposable income. Saki Rahman commented, "My transportation cost took up around 35% of my salary."
Shaily added how if she took public transport, switching between buses and rickshaws to work, it would cost her Tk300 per day, which inevitably takes up a huge chunk of her salary throughout the month.
One of the greatest benefits of living near your workplace is that you can almost always get to work on time for under Tk100, or even for free. In such cases, walking or rickshaws are the most popular ways of commuting to work, leaving individuals the rest of their salary to cover other expenses of their life. In support of this, Mahmud mentions, "Less than 1% of my salary is spent on transportation."
On top of that, if you work near your home, you can always have your lunch at home, which can be a great motivator to avoid the extra expense of ordering in at work.
Long commute times should make you think twice before saying yes to a job opportunity - because the costs might outweigh your salary. This raises the question of whether settling for a lower pay is worth working near your home.
The answer to this definitely depends on the percentage of your salary left after deducting your budget for transportation. At the end of the day, an average-paying job that leaves you with more disposable income than a job that pays better could be more beneficial.
On the other hand, you could also bargain for a better salary to cover transportation costs if the job is worth it. Saqib Sarker faced a similar situation, where a new job opportunity came at the price of higher transport costs, whereas his old workplace was within walking distance.
After his transportation budget increased from Tk80 to Tk200 per day, he asked for a pay raise to help cover extra cost.
Does it help the work-life balance?
Despite everything, there are still drawbacks to living near work. Depending on the workplace, there can be unsaid pressure to work overtime during busy workdays.
Furthermore, it will be harder for you to distance yourself from your colleagues, even during your personal time. A worker at a telecommunications company mentions, "There can be an issue of privacy, as many of my colleagues are present in the same area I live."
However, it still seems that long commute time and Dhaka's road conditions can, in fact, lead people to be less productive, feel burnt out, create fractures in personal relationships, and can become very expensive.