Americans Battle Commuter Hell

"The whole work/life balance is really about what's most important to you -- do you have a life? And what do you value? Is it time with family or a spouse, or hobbies, or something else?" said New York-based career counselor Ruth Shapiro. "It's important to look at the whole personality of a person and their value system along with their skills and experience level."

Some counselors suggest that people like Cook, whose work options may be limited, should explore giving up perks like vacation days in return for the chance to work more flexible hours. Karsh said he often suggests clients offer to give up a week of vacation in exchange for working at home one day per week or shifting office hours to avoid rush hour traffic. Not all businesses are open to such suggestions, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

"It really depends on the company. It's best to get there, work for six months and establish yourself as a valuable contributor, and then negotiate for a more flexible schedule," Karsh said.

Flexible Hours Not a Fix-All

Jeanne Hillock, a 42-year-old software analyst, has been commuting from her Edgewater, Md., home into Washington, D.C., for years. After the birth of 20-month-old Arielle, she cut down her hours and now takes either Monday or Friday off every week.

She uses the extra hours at home to spend time with her daughter and to take care of household chores like laundry. She even manages the occasional home-cooked meal.

But the Hillocks still struggle with work-week commuting. Both Hillock and her husband, Kevin, leave home before 7 a.m. and average an hour drive each day into Washington. Kevin drops Arielle off at daycare, and Jeanne picks her up.

"I'd rather her spend an hour in the car with us than 10 hours at daycare," Jeanne said.

The plan to avoid hefty commutes is particularly difficult for workers who can't afford to live in the large cities where they work. Many bear lengthy commutes from suburban neighborhoods so they can afford a home or apartment.

"We talk about moving all the time, but we couldn't afford to move into D.C. because the housing market is so crazy," Hillock said.

Some Can Handle It, Some Can't

Even for established professionals, the lure of bigger paychecks and the chance to advance are usually the dominant factors in career decisions. JobBound's Karsh notes that before making a final decision on a new position far from home, a job seeker should evaluate whether his or her personality and lifestyle is suitable to a long commute.

"I really think there are two types of people -- some people can grin and bear it, and some really can't," Karsh said.

The key, counselors say, is to go into the situation with open eyes. People should work hard to determine how big a factor a long commute might be. While some people use their time in the car or on a bus or train to unwind or plan their day, the strain of limited personal time coupled with the often stressful commuter traffic is not always a good idea.

"You have to be happy in your work and everything involved in the job. That includes the work itself, the people, the commute time -- all of it is important. If there's one component that makes you miserable, no matter what that component is, it can really become a big problem," Karsh said.

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