Fathers’ long commute to work is linked to children’s social and emotional problems

Study on the impact of long ways to work on children in Germany

Fathers’ commuting to work has multiple negative impacts on children’s behavior. Children whose fathers commute to work over a long distance tend to have more emotional and social problems. While the impact of commuting on employees has been extensively investigated, the study conducted by Jianghong Li and Matthias Pollmann-Schult from WZB Berlin Social Science Center is the first one to show the negative effects of commuting to work by fathers on the social and emotional well-being of German children.

Commuting to work is a common phenomenon in developed countries. On average German workers commute 13 kilometers or 44 minutes both ways to work. Germany ranks the second highest after the Netherlands in terms of average commuting time among the developed European countries. Male employees commute longer than female workers and working fathers commute further to work than working mothers.

The negative impacts of long commute to work on the health and well-being of workers has been well documented in existing research.  The health and psychosocial consequences of long commute to work raise a concern about its plausible negative impact on children’s well-being. Yet, there was no research on the effect of commuting on children, except for one small scale study of American mothers leaving welfare for employment in the US.

Using a nationally representative sample from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP), WZB researchers, Jianghong Li and Matthias Pollmann-schult, examined the relationship between fathers’ commute to work (daily or weekly and distance commuted on a daily basis) and five domains of children’s social and emotional well-being at ages 5 to 6.

The study has shown that fathers’ daily commute to work two years prior was associated with more peer problems, independent of the number of both mothers’ and fathers’ work hours, both parents’ education and occupational class, mothers’ age and migration status, and whether or not mothers commuted to work, too. Daily commuting distance of 40 or more km each way was associated with lower levels of prosocial behaviors, and longer daily commuting for 60 km or more each way was linked to more problems with peers. Further, fathers’ weekly commute (e.g., leave home on Mondays and return home on the weekend) 2 years before was also linked to more emotional symptoms in their 5 to 6 year old children.

Plausible mechanisms that underpin these negative effects include stress and fatigue associated with long commute to work and the father’s absence in the home, particularly for fathers who commute weekly to work. These factors may lead to another potential mechanism, namely poor parenting (the way in which parents interact with and educate children) on the part of both the father and the mother: when stressed and fatigued, parents tend to resort to harsh and inconsistent parenting styles. This in turn causes behavioral and emotional problems in children. Father’s stress and fatigue associated with commuting to work can have a negative spill-over effect on the couple relationship, which in turn negatively influences mother’s parenting behavior. Moreover, father’s absence from the family during the week can also lead to mother’s stress and affect her parenting behavior due to increased workload in the home without the partner’s support. 

The article by Jianghong Li and Matthias Pollmann-Schult, titled “Fathers' commute to work and children's social and emotional well-being in Germany”, was published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues (online first: (DOI) 10.1007/s10834-015-9467-y).

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