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Mobile Work

Opportunities and risks of geographically- and time-flexible work

Spatial and temporal mobility potentially affects all employees, implies different working time models and forms of mobility and is associated with various opportunities and risks for employees. The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) has prepared an overview of the risks of exposure to various forms of spatial mobility and provides recommendations for the design of mobile work.

several people sitting at their computers © Uwe Völkner, Fotoagentur FOX

Over the last few years, the digitalisation of the working world has led to the fact that flexible forms of work are gaining in importance, and are increasingly moving into the focus of socio-political discussions. Temporal and spatial flexibility lead to an increase in "mobile work" and contribute to the dissolution of boundaries between work and private life.

Opportunities and risks of mobility

Previous research shows that flexible working forms can facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life and improve the motivation and performance of employees. On the other hand, there is also the risk of increased workload, higher work intensity and interrupted recovery phases with possible health implications.

While flexible working hours have been under scrutiny for a long time, research on the effects of mobility on health is still at an early stage. With its overview, BAuA has documented the current state of knowledge and derives initial recommendations for the development of healthy mobility.

Forms of mobility

Mobility forms can be differentiated into occupationally linked and work-associated forms:

  • Work-associated mobility takes place before and after the work properly speaking, and it serves to coordinate professional and non-professional requirements (commuting, relocation). The duration, frequency, rhythm and framework conditions of work-associated mobility are generally not determined by the company and can therefore only be modified partly by company measures.
  • Work-conditioned mobility results from the mobility requirements of the work itself and can be distinguished according to whether it is caused by task completion at changing or recurring locations (business travel, on-site work, posting) or whether the movement itself is a central task element (transport- and transportation tasks). The duration, frequency, rhythm and general conditions of work-conditioned mobility are determined by the company and can therefore also be changed by company measures.

Health consequences and influencing factors

Commuting, posting, business travel

Depending on the form of mobility, there are specific requirements and strains with different consequences for psychosocial health. The increased traffic-associated stress during daily commuting is associated with numerous psychosomatic complaints. In case of weekly commuting, the separation from the family is associated with feelings of uprooting and loneliness, let alone increased separation risks. In the case of posting, the relatives traveling with the worker are in part more affected by the consequences of the posting than the posted persons themselves. In particular, in case of on-site work, but also on business trips, traffic-associated and psychosocial burdens collide and can be mainly due to high working intensity and combine to pose multiple health risks.

Mobility intensity and other factors

In addition to the personal, professional and private conditions, the mobility intensity is also relevant for health, which can be determined by means of the travel time, the distances to be covered and the frequency of travel. Throughout all forms of mobility, control aspects, in particular the predictability and planning of mobility, are identified as health-protecting resources. In addition to traffic-associated stresses such as congestion, delays or confinement in public transport, the important mobility-relevant stresses are high working intensity and time pressure (at work, but for certain forms of mobility, also at weekends at home) as well as private and/or professional conflicts.

The issue of time sovereignty is of paramount importance for all forms of mobility, with very different problems and requirements arising in each type of mobility. The issue of labour intensification is closely linked to this: too much work intensity can restrict or destroy all potentially positive effects of mobility for psychosocial health.

Problem dissolution of boundaries

The dissolution of boundaries of stresses proves a common stress-associated issue of all forms of mobility. For example, time pressure is no longer confined to working time and workplace, but also in private life and in the "mobility zones" between work and the family. A high working intensity leads to time pressure at home, as a result family problems are exacerbated, the quality of the relationship is deteriorating, the stress spiral threatens to escalate. Such escalations induced by the dissolution of boundaries are not new, but they are given additional dynamic since the mobility steals additional time.

Design recommendations

As a matter of principle, it is at the design level that the framework conditions for mobile working and living forms are to be designed in such a way that mobility can be carried out as freely as possible and without detriment to health, while respecting the social contact and the attachment capability of mobile workers, both professionally and personally.

There are significant differences in the design of work-associated and work-conditioned mobility forms:

  • In the former case, the mobility takes place before and after regular working hours, and thus falls primarily within the sphere of responsibility of individuals and societal policy institutions.
  • In the case of work-conditioned mobility, the design of the mobility conditions clearly falls within the area of responsibility of the company and points to a basic problem of work-policy design: Regulations can quickly be perceived as restrictive regulations and interventions in personal autonomy. At the same time, there are numerous stresses and overloads of multimobiles, which must be responded structurally.

Regulations must therefore address ambivalences and create framework conditions in which the greatest possible autonomy of the parties concerned is guaranteed. Central approaches are to create the greatest possible predictability, influenceability and controllability through participation in the design of the concrete mobility conditions and in the granting of decision-making and time-margins.

Individual, company and societal coordination

Operational and individual mobility conditions must be coordinated in order to enable employees to be healthy and mobile at different stages of their lives. On the individual level, the mobility competence must be developed as a function of the respective forms of mobility. At the company level, comprehensive mobility management can create structures and conditions that support mobile work forms. At the societal level, legal and political decisions must be taken with regard to the further development of information and communication technologies, traffic conditions, and, above all, the redesign of the limits between work time and non-work time. It is also necessary to establish protective mechanisms which prohibit precarious, unprotected and illegitimate forms of occupational mobility.

Further research needs

In summary, it can be seen that any form of mobility can have different effects on the health of the persons concerned and their relatives. Even in the case of heterogeneous findings, it can be stated that spatial mobility is an important influencing factor for the health of working persons, which can have a positive and a negative impact through very different mechanisms. However, an isolated consideration of the effects of mobility on health without taking into account the specific living and working conditions is hardly possible and also not very useful.

Combining human needs and mobility as well as possible

Future research needs to find answers to the question of how basic human needs for attachment, proximity and trust can be realised as well as possible under conditions of mobility. The advancing digitisation can certainly be used in the sense of support, but its possibilities and limits still have to be explored.

  • How much physical presence is required in operational and private settings?
  • What are the possibilities and limitations of virtual communication and leadership?
  • To what extent can new digital instruments replace physical presence and face-to-face contact?
  • For which operational and social conditions is there still a "compulsory attendance"?

Future research must continue to examine how time sovereignty can be designed so that mobile workers can actually use the benefits of mobility as a health resource.