To Hell and back (by way of the office): Your journey to work may be causing you more stress than the job itself, says Caroline McGhie

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EVERY morning Hamish Thompson, a marketing director, gets into his car and drives from Nunhead in south London, through the heart of the capital, and out the other side to the small Hertfordshire town of St Albans where he works.

He sets off at just after 6am when the city is at the start of its morning seizure as all the main arteries into London become clogged. On his car radio, AA Roadwatch is broadcasting the traffic jams building up on the A13 through Poplar, the A11 through Stratford, the A2 through Blackheath, the Blackwall tunnel on both approaches, the A1 southbound, the A41 at Swiss Cottage, the North Circular, and yes, the daily two-mile tail-back on the M4 elevated section.

But more than that about his journey Hamish Thompson could not tell you. He suffers from 'car-commuter amnesia'. 'I get out of the car and I can't remember having done the journey,' he says. 'It is such an unpleasant part of the day that I have to blank out the pain of it, I suppose. It just evaporates. The last recollection I have is getting into my car.'

He knows the route so well that he no longer has to think about it. He acknowledges that it makes him feel frustrated and aggressive before the working day starts. Not only does he set off early for the office in the morning to try to avoid the worst of the traffic jams but he stays late in the evening for the same reason, thus elongating his working day at both ends. And then he is constantly switching his route according to the traffic reports, in order to escape what he calls 'this lemming thing'.

Hamish is following a familiar pattern, playing his part in the daily mass movement of office workers which was heralded by the first suburbanites in the Twenties as the perfect way to link home with workplace. Now, however, as more commuters are owning up to the the horror of their journeys, travelling to work begins to seem more like a form of institutionalised madness.

If stress at work was the malady of the Eighties, the stress of getting there threatens to eclipse it in the Nineties. Travel conditions are certainly getting worse. Traffic in central London is moving on average two miles per hour more slowly than it was 10 years ago; levels of traffic within the capital are climbing by about one per cent a year, and the 'rush hour' now lasts for several. Those who travel by Tube now face the massive disruption caused by habitual security alerts: London Transport says that rarely a day goes past without a major alert of some kind, which often means closing down a whole station. Around the country a similar picture of rush-hour chaos is familiar in towns and cities such as Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham.

The toll which all this is taking on our physical and mental well- being, on our work, and our families is only just beginning to be researched. Some interesting new evidence is to emerge next month in a book by two organisational psychologists, Professor Howard Kahn and Professor Cary Cooper. Stress In the Dealing Room reveals that even London's money dealers, who hold down some of the most pressured jobs in the City, find their commute is one of the most stressful parts of the day. Kahn and Cooper assessed the physical and mental health of 225 dealers in 10 City institutions over three years, and found them in a significantly poorer condition than middle and senior managers in other sectors. But it was their journey to work which emerged as one of the major causes. Some dealers (who were all guaranteed anonymity) even said they found three hours travelling more stressful than the equivalent amount of time in the office.

Professor Cooper, who is based at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and has collected data on the occupational stress of around 15,000 people, also found in his research that car-commuter amnesia was common. 'A great number of managers we have interviewed have said they can't remember traffic lights or traffic jams. They break out in a cold sweat wondering how they didn't crash into somebody.' He despairs of the way city life is organised around the rush hour. 'The impact is this. People get up extremely early in the morning and they are totally stressed up by the time they get to work. By nine in the morning they are exhausted by all the people, pollution, and the worry about whether they will get to work on time,' he says.

The recession has made things worse, though it is probably a major reason why the number of people commuting into London has dropped by 10 per cent in the last two years. 'Remember what we have gone through since the Eighties. Whole levels of middle management are being dispensed with. That leaves fewer people doing at least the same amount of work so the pressures on them are immense and we know they are already pre-stressed because of their journeys to work.'

Studies show that most of us react to overcrowding on public transport in one of two ways. Either we become very passive, shut ourselves off, and don't look at people at all. Or we become aggressive and start shouting at other people. Neither is good for us. European research on people who commute over 45 minutes each way shows they suffer increased headaches, aches and pains and susceptibility to flu viruses. They also report higher rates of sickness and absences from work, and are late more often than those with journeys of under 20 minutes. Women especially find they get very tired and have more domestic problems.

Certain basic human needs are denied when we crush together on a train. Professor David Oborne, a psychologist at Swansea University who is leading a European Commission study on teleworking (home-working with the aid of new technology), says that most people have two space requirements. One is personal space, the other territorial space. 'If these are infringed then we know that arousal and annoyance levels go up,' he says. There is also a kind of native instinct that is repressed in the silent strap-hanging tension of the Tube train. Dr Phil Goodwin, director of Transport Studies at Oxford University says: 'The fight or flight hormones are triggered but we can't do anything with them, particularly if we are stuck in trains or traffic jams. So they burn up our insides rather than releasing energy to do other physical things.' A recent study in the United States (where 90 per cent of the labour force travel by car) found that 12 per cent of men interviewed and 18 per cent of women said they would 'gladly kill another driver'. All this aggression drives up the heart rate, increases blood pressure and stimulates production of a chemical called catecholamine. Levels of the stuff can be measured in urine samples and make a very handy stress indicator.

The sense of powerlessness against the anonymous controllers of the trains is another debilitating factor for rail travellers. Ray Walker, a planning consultant who has taken the 7.08 from Chatham into London for 13 years, describes a typical worst day. 'It starts on an exposed platform with no shelter. It's raining and the train is delayed, no-one knows why as they stand there getting colder and colder. One of the worst things is the basic lack of information.' Some commuters take folding stools along with them because they know there is not the slightest chance of getting a seat. 'We know we have to stand all the way. Often there are spare seats in first class, and there have been times when everyone in a first-class carriage, including me, has turned out to have a standard ticket and we've all refused to move - often the guards are sympathetic.'

The late train (which is invariably without lavatories so that the discomfort is complete) then stop-starts its way from one signal to the next, queueing behind other trains, to finally discharge its occupants into the heaving throng of Victoria or Cannon Street. There, Ray has had to wait behind crowd barriers before being packed like a sardine into a Tube train. When he and his hapless fellow passengers finally arrive at the office, they are frustrated and aleady exhausted. 'There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that employers have noticed that employees from certain areas are likely to arrive late and shattered. They think: 'Oh, people from Gillingham, Chatham and Southend are unreliable' - and they decide not to employ them,' he says.

It is quite clear that something needs to be done to improve the lot of the poor commuter. Professor Oborne says that many large companies in central London are now considering ways to reduce the amount of travelling done by employees, but that few of them are prepared to break cover yet to announce their intentions. According to the rough calculations of Richard Delahoy, of the Southend Rail Travellers Association, the delays at Fenchurch Street station alone cost the City pounds 20m a year in lost man-hours.

Professor Cary Cooper is frankly astonished that big businesses haven't already made changes. He believes that a third, if not half, the jobs in London could be done partly from home using new technology, in the form of fax machines and computers. 'What is bad is that an enormous number of people suffer from travel stress, but to put things right we have to undo the mind- set of office managers who do not trust people to do their jobs unless they are watching them. It is all about power and trust and their need to hold meetings all the time.'

Stress experts like Dr Malcolm Carruthers at the Positive Health Centre in Harley Street recommend 'mental circuit training', meditation and relaxation exercises as a way to reduce the tensions of commuting. The long-term answer, however, is more likely to involve reorganising the way we live - and if society fails to do the necessary, then individuals will take it upon themselves.

Giles Clottworthy is a good example. A former civil servant commuting into Whitehall every day, he changed careers to become public affairs manager for the National Trust in Cornwall. His journey to work is now a 15-minute drive to his office in the old stable block of Lanhydrock, a 17th-century mansion owned by the Trust. When he gets there he lets his labrador out for a gallop before he settles down to work.

'I can honestly say that my heart lifts as I cross the wooded valley of the River Fowey, and drive through the little market town of Lostwithiel, and I look across to Lanhydrock nestling in its wooded gardens. At this time of year it is wonderful because the daffodils are out, the bluebells are bursting and the primroses are in the hedgerows.' Now there is a commute to conjure with.

(Photograph omitted)

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