In one of my recent PT sessions, I had the privilege of chatting up my therapist who needed to distract me from the inevitable pain of fixing my hamstring tendonitis. I told him I got it from strenuous yoga, which I try to consistently do for recovery from grueling hours spent in Manila traffic.
“Traffic,” he said, his face suddenly forlorn, “forced me to take a lower-paying job.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I was paid well at my last job at the Asian Development Bank. But the commute was torture. I had to wake up at 4 AM every day for work at 10 AM.”
“You mean you wake up at 4 AM and then get to work at 6 AM so you can avoid the traffic and just sleep at the office?”
“No ma’am. I reside in Novaliches, and to arrive in Ortigas at 10 AM using public transportation, I have to leave at 4 AM.”
“What?!” 6 hours of hell on the road for a travel distance of 21km is truly incredible.
“Yes ma’am. The buses stop frequently so I just sleep on the bus on my way to work.”
I probed deeper. “And you chose to work here in Fairview to shorten the commute?”
“Yes ma’am, and get my life back. My sister, who I live with, was not too happy about the decision. Abandoning the ADB opportunity felt like a waste to her. But my rationale was simple: time with my family is more important than money. Too bad the high paying jobs are in that area.”
Smart man, though deprived of expedited upward mobility he deserves as a tax-paying hard worker.
He is not alone. This is the unreality of the reality we face as residents of today’s Metro Manila which I belabored in an earlier piece. No one is spared from the inferno.
Though traffic is bad here, we do not experience it in isolation. Major cities around the world face the same conundrum. And while context and the citizens’ ability to adapt may vary, the effects on homo sapiens are similar. Right?
Let’s break them down to be sure.
If you live more than 10km from where you work here, you are already doomed to a life of rush-hour Carmageddon. Count on it. You will be at the exhausting mercy of narrow streets bursting with every vehicle and every man for himself, every single day.
I know because this is my daily struggle too.
I deal with it by waking up at 4 AM. The problem with that quick fix is that I get stuck in the evening rush-hour too, making it impossible for me to be in bed by 8 PM to get 8 solid hours of sleep. I would leave work at 10 PM when traffic has eased up and get home by 1130 PM. I sleep at midnight.
That means I get a total of only 4 hours of sleep, half of the 8-hr minimum requirement for optimal brain functioning and a clear deprivation of a basic human need. If you do that daily, you will ultimately become sleep deficient, a serious health hazard.
To understand why sleep is important, we need to understand how sleep works.
According to the US National Institutes of Health, there are two basic types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM.
Non-REM sleep includes what is commonly known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep. Dreaming typically occurs during REM sleep. Generally, non-REM and REM sleep occur in a regular pattern of 3–5 cycles each night.
Your ability to function and feel well while you are awake depends on whether you are getting enough total sleep and enough of each type of sleep. It also depends on whether you’re sleeping at a time when your body is prepared and ready to sleep.
You have an internal “body clock” that controls when you are awake and when your body is ready for sleep. This clock typically follows a 24-hour repeating rhythm (called the circadian rhythm). The rhythm affects every cell, tissue, and organ in your body and how they work.
On days that I do not get enough sleep, I feel tired during the day, not very alert and almost dragging myself from one errand to another. There is no reason to dispute the science because I feel the effects. (Now if only climate deniers lose some sleep too, but that’s another story…)
I do get by with only 6 hours of sleep, but 4 hours every day was torture. I tolerated that nonsense for 7 months and decided that my high-paying job was not worth the nightmare and the hazard to my health.
The health risks of sleep deficiency are real. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7–19 percent of adults in the United States reported not getting enough rest or sleep every day. Nearly 40 percent of adults report falling asleep during the day without meaning to at least once a month.
That is dangerous, especially if you are a driver or a pilot unwittingly falling asleep behind the wheel. The lives of other people would be in peril, not just yours.
Let us assume that you do get the 8 hours of sleep you need. You now leave home for work at 7 AM, as do the millions of people who go to work at the same time.
Inevitably, as soon as you enter the highway, gridlock awaits. Stress arises because you anticipated a travel time of only 30 minutes, and now Waze is telling you that you will get to your destination at 7:35. You are unexpectedly late. It suddenly makes you wish you had taken public transportation instead, an option that is readily available in developed nations.
But what about those of us who live in developing countries?
The situation is dire. For my first job, I had to take the MRT, which is already packed like sardines at 6 AM. To get to work, I had to be at the station by 530 AM. I endured the pain for more than a year because that is what you do when you are a fresh graduate: you do not complain.
That was seventeen years ago. The same trains have expanded their operation but are now servicing ten times more people. The ever-worsening gridlock of vehicular traffic is forcing more people to take the faster but overcrowded rail systems.
But these trains are not reliable. The stress from a train car conking out and the resulting delays in the commute was normal then. Today, there is the additional queue-induced stress when lines of passengers snake around the three-level train station early in the morning. You start to sweat while inhaling the cancerous stench of pollution. And you just showered. In the meantime, the clock is ticking, making you secretly furious about possibly being late for work again.
That kind of stress has unfortunate consequences on your health, as this diagram from the American Institute of Stress shows.
You are one of the fortunate few who realize early on that you are nothing without your health. Nothing is more important to you than getting enough sleep and lowering your stress levels. It is the only way for you to contribute to your family and society at your best.
But do job opportunities that can benefit from your skillset exist in the suburbs? Probably. Do they pay well? Probably not.
I know I am one of the lucky ones because I am a writer and a strategist by training. I earn my living by thinking, making some calls, and formulating plans. To make money, I just need a laptop, a mobile phone and access to the Internet on most days. On some days, I attend meetings with the clients and stakeholders I consult for.
What about other professionals whose talents can only blossom when they are refining ideas with a team? Or a multinational company that cannot outsource its financial unit? Or factories with multiple assembly lines? These organizations are always hiring, and skilled workers want those jobs. But are there affordable housing options nearby? Can companies afford to subsidize living expenses which in the cities and business districts are much higher?
It is the mandate of the government to provide basic public services such as navigable roads and working public transportation. The task of commerce is to create jobs, stimulate the economy and make the country halfway prosperous. When the government falls short, can the private sector compensate for its shortcomings or is the solution for us to simply adjust?
Weaker human connections
Because of my constant fear of being helplessly stuck in the gridlock, much of the social scene has eluded me. Truth be told, I evade it as much as I can. I say no to dinners. I downgraded my coffee catch-ups to email. And as already mentioned, I am no longer a beneficiary of the unique wisdom that comes from working with a team, which had been a source of refuge for me when times got tough. I still count many of my former colleagues as good friends.
Furthermore, those dinners and coffee and meetings are becoming few and far between. People who value their time and health are making the same choices as I am. They too do not want to be stuck in useless traffic. They too do not want to waste their time. Now I wonder how this choice to be more withdrawn will impact our society in the long run. Are people still forming new connections or is this forced distancing becoming the norm?
What about people with families? What happens when the breadwinner wakes up earlier than everyone else and comes home when everyone is asleep? What is the cost of being away from their spouses and their children?
What kind of future are we raising?
The way forward
I believe that there is a real opportunity to turn this thing around as long as job creation is steady, nevermind that the dysfunction of government is a fixed cost.
While I sanctimoniously reminisced about the benefits of teamwork, this should not be confused with that relic of the industrial revolution called office work.
Let us think about the financial and environmental costs of having a physical office. The employer pays for rent, equipment, and utilities, while the employee takes on both the visible and invisible costs of commuting to work.
Now think about the people who work in a physical office every day. Do they get a lot of work done, or are they hostages to calls, meetings, and cubicle neighbor interruptions? Is anyone even capable of deep substantive work when there is noise?
I am not.
Frankly, the only silver lining of office work is the water cooler chat because that is the only time I get to really know the people I work with.
That said, the future of work is remote, whether you like it or not.
Despite critics’ claims that working remotely will cause people to stray and fall short on their productivity, there is strong evidence that suggests the contrary according to this article from Fast Company:
Recent research from Gallup, for instance, notes that those workers who spend about three to four days of the week working offsite are substantially more engaged in their jobs than traditional counterparts who are stuck behind desks all day. The logic behind this productivity boost is actually quite easy to understand; by giving workers more control over their personal lives and permitting them to schedule their work-life balance accordingly, companies are making them happier and more fulfilled as they enable Average Joes to become workplace superstars.
Another concern is trust, that antiquated thinking that employers need to keep their eye on their staff every second of every day. Well then if you cannot trust your team, perhaps you should not have hired them in the first place.
While I am an advocate of full trust and autonomy of hired professionals, and the freedom to work anywhere given proven output, what I find that works for me is a healthy work-home balance. Working solely from home can be utterly lonely, and the need to interact with other humans will always be there.
Adjust the work hours
As a writer who needs quiet and concentration, that cubicle scenario was a terrorizing reality for a few years. I needed my earphones to ward off distraction and imply “do not disturb” without offending anyone.
Yet most jobs require some reading, thinking and writing, even CEOs who have assistants they can delegate first drafts to. Bill Gates has think weeks which have led to tremendous productivity and prosperity for both him and his company.
So how do you get into the thinking zone even if you are not a billionaire?
The trick is to split your week into strategic segments. Here’s how I do it:
I use Mondays for administrative work, doing expense reports, drafting invoices and scheduling meetings for the week. No meetings.
Tuesdays are for thinking, reading, and writing.
Wednesday I spend the whole day at an office 20km from where I stay. All the meetings and job interviews that require my presence are scheduled on that day.
Thursdays are for reading and writing in the morning, meetings in the afternoon and band rehearsals at night.
Fridays are for reading and writing in the morning, work in the afternoon and gigs at night.
Saturdays and Sundays are for reading and Netflix.
The one-way commute to work and band gigs is 1.5 hrs. So in a week, I would spend only a total of 9 hours on the road. That is a marked improvement from my life as an office employee spending 3–4 hours on the road every day.
My point is, the 8–5 grind does not work for everyone. It is wasteful if applied across the board without regard to the strengths and skills of each worker. That schedule seems relevant only in factories with assembly lines. Furthermore, nowhere in our Labor Code does it say that everyone must start work at 8 AM and finish at 5 PM. It just requires every employee to render eight (8) full hours of service. Some companies do 7 AM to 4 PM, or the more popular 9 AM to 6 PM. But does every employee need to stick to the same schedule that gave birth to the rush hour?
Think about it. In an advertising agency, you have copywriters, designers, finance officers and HR officers. The copywriters and designers may not have to come as early as the finance officers and HR officers, in the same way that the latter need not stay up as late as the former. I know of creative agencies that permit such an arrangement.
But maybe we can take it to the next level. What if administrative staff, especially those who live far, report for work at say 6 AM and then leave at 3 PM? They probably leave for work around that time anyway. But the time they get off is also critical because leaving at 3 PM means an escape from the dreaded rush hour. That employee will be doing himself and the rest of us a favor by staying away from busy highways from 5 PM to 8 PM. But there should be more organizations that implement this, which entails a shift to a more flexible work schedule sanctioned by company policy.
We are now in a world full of tech companies and successful startups leveraging the power of the Internet and making remote work possible. There is a real market for their usefulness. I use Google Drive, Dropbox, Trello, Zoom, Evernote, among many others. Even my iPhone is chock-full of features that allow me to work. They are worth taking advantage of, especially in a chaotic milieu where governments fall short and the cost of real estate in the big cities continues to rise. I do not foresee significant improvements happening there anytime soon, but the available tools for traffic evasion exist and are in fact effective.
The time to experiment is now before we kill ourselves, not by working ourselves to death, but by subjecting ourselves to the unnecessary commute. It is not the way I plan to die, and neither should you.