Study shows emotional toll for families of highly mobile workers

A new study investigates the emotional impact on families of highly mobile workers.

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The emotional impact on partners of highly mobile workers is considerable, including the constant making and breaking of routines and an impact on their own working lives, according to a new study.

The three-year study, carried out by human geographers David Bissell, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, and Andrew Gorman-Murray, Professor at Western Sydney University, looked at the families of highly mobile workers in Australia. While previous research has investigated the impact on mobile workers themselves, the effect on the families of mobile workers remained under researched, until now.

The study, published today in the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) journal Transactions, involves 60 families of highly mobile workers. All reported feelings of disorientation due to the transient life of one member of their household. Through interviews, the everyday challenges faced by ‘left behind’ partners came to light – from the constant making and breaking of routines, to a sense of unfamiliarity and distance when the mobile worker returns home.

The report says the effects of mobile work on families are highly gendered; all but one of the partners interviewed were women. These women face the challenge of keeping their households afloat in the periodic absence of their partner.

In one example, a participant revealed that the family dog no longer recognises her husband, and that he returns from working away as a “different person”, unrecognisable to his parents.

The working lives of partners is also affected. Each of the 18 partners among the 60 participants in the study talked about the different ways that their work decisions have been tempered by their mobile worker partner.  For instance, one woman spoke at length about how she had left her paid employment so that she could be totally ‘present’ with her mobile worker husband during his one week back at home. The work decisions of others were tempered by having to shoulder the bulk of other domestic responsibilities, such as childcare pick-ups and drop-offs.

The research recommends that governments globally pay more careful consideration to policies regarding mobile workers and the ethical implications such work provokes. Offering counselling to families and partners could be one option, say the researchers, and employers could consider limiting the number of days workers spend away from home.

Associate Professor Bissell said: “In challenging economic times, mobile work for one partner is sometimes the only option which allows families to remain living in their community, rather than uprooting to somewhere else. However, the intense emotional burdens that are shouldered by the families involved can end up pushing relationships to their limit.”

The issue of mobile work is one that affects many countries, with the highest rates of mobile work being in North America and Europe.

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