Why do we bother going to work? Good question.

CommutingWhile the UK Government continues to explore new ways of getting people back to work more quickly following (or even during) illness, there are a number of counterpart questions that they continue to fastidiously ignore, one of which is ‘why bother?’. We might all ask ourselves that from time to time, whether petulantly or as a pressure-relieving alternative to ramming a co-worker’s head through a window or a laptop in a dumpster. But there are also reasons to raise the question coldly, rationally and with full awareness of all the facts, not least when it comes to assessing the increasing cost of going to work in the first place. Put simply, for many people it makes little or no financial sense to go to work.

New research from Santander claims that the average full time employee in the UK now forks out around an eighth of their annual salary on simply having a job. Each spends £2,681 a year on costs including childcare, commuting, clothing and their own phones and other technology. And while average salaries in the UK have risen only 1.4 percent in the past year, the cost of having a job have increased by around 10 percent. And anybody expecting this disparity to be rectified by pay rises in the near future can forget about it, according to a survey today form the CIPD.

The largest cost of having a job is travel, with an average of £785 per year, although averages can of course hide the extremes. The cost of commuting in London for example is now so prohibitive (and the journeys so frequently uncomfortable) that an increasing number of people yearn to escape the costly shackles of TfL one way or another, as we reported last November.

For those who drive, the costs are proportionately higher than on public transport across the UK, each spending an average of £955 a year on travel including £835 on fuel alone, so presumably the survey excludes the other costs of car ownership.

The survey also reports that for the one in five full time employees who need childcare, the cost is an average of £3,656 a year. Which is presumably why a recent survey from Mumsnet found that around two-thirds of 2,000 working and non-working mothers with children under the age of ten claim the cost of childcare discourages them from working more.

Again, the average childcare costs reported in the Santander survey conceal the extreme cases. Which is why in its 2013 Childcare Costs Survey, The National Childcare Trust reported that ‘a parent buying 50 hours of childcare per week for a child under two would face an average annual bill of around £11,000 per year.’

Giving the increasing disparity between the financial rewards of going to work and the cost of doing so, it’s little wonder that there is more clamour for flexible working and other arrangements that allow it to make economic sense.

A new survey from the Office for National Statistics has also revealed the consequences of the daily commute on our happiness and wellbeing. When compared with people who work from home, commuters are on average less happy and satisfied with their lives, see less value in what they do and experience higher levels of anxiety.  “The results suggest that other factors such as higher income or better housing may not fully compensate the individual commuter for the negative effects associated with travelling to work,” the report claims.

Yet, even assuming that an employer grants a request for flexible working, there are costs to be borne there too. As a new report from Symmetra shows, there is often an unconscious bias against flexible working employees within organisations.  So while Governments legislate to make flexible working more common and employees continue to yearn for it, they also have to contend with cultures that unwittingly make a number of assumptions about flexible workers. The three most common of these according to Symmetra are: that full-time workers are materially more assertive and self-promoting than flexible workers; that flexible workers are considerably less ambitious than full-timers; and that flexible workers are less committed than full-timers to developing others.

So while flexible working might help to alleviate the financial pressures of going to work, there are often likely to be other costs in terms of income, working relationships and career progressions for anybody taking advantage of the practice.

This may change over time, but it will require a shift in working culture and management attitudes to make it happen. In the meantime, a large number of UK workers might continue to ask themselves ‘why bother?’ for very good reasons.