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Mobile Work

Opportunities and risks of location- 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 a gaining in importance of flexible forms of work, which 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 a the risk of increased workload, higher work intensity and interrupted recovery phases with possible health implications.

While flexible working hours have been under scrutinyinvestigated 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

Forms of mobility can be divided into work-associated and on-the-job mobility:

  • Work-associated mobility takes place before and after work, and serves to coordinate professional and non-professional requirements (commuting, relocation). The duration, frequency, rhythm and general conditions of work-associated mobility are generally not determined by the company and can therefore only be modified partly by corporate actions.
  • Occupational 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 movement itself is a central task element (transport- and transportation tasks). The duration, frequency, rhythm and general conditions of occupational mobility are determined by the company and can therefore be changed by corporate actions.

Health consequences and influencing factors

Commuting, secondment, 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, as well as increased separation risks. In the case of secondment, the relatives travelling with employees are in part more affected by the consequences of the secondment than the persons themselves. In particular, in case of on-site work, but also on business trips, traffic-associated and psychosocial burdens coincide and may pose multiple health risks, mainly due to high working intensity and work density.

Mobility intensity and other factors

In addition to the personal, professional and private conditions, the intensity of mobility is also relevant for health and can be determined by means of travel time, distances to be covered and frequency of travel. Throughout all forms of mobility, control aspects, in particular predictability and planning are identified as health-protecting resources. Apart from traffic-associated stresses such as congestion, delays or confinement in public transport, 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 from 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.

The dissolution of boundaries – a problem

The dissolution of boundaries between different kinds 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 occurs in private life and in the "mobility zones" between work and the family. A high working intensity leads to time pressure at home, thus exacerbating family problems, deteriorating the quality of relationships, provoking the stress spiral to escalate. Such escalations induced by the dissolution of boundaries are not new, but they gain additional dynamic since mobility consumes additional time.

Design recommendations

At the design level, the priority, in principle, is to create conditions for mobile working and living forms 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 occupational mobility forms:

  • When it is work-associated, 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 occupational mobility, the design of mobility conditions clearly falls into the responsibility of the company and points to a basic problem of work-policy design: regulations can quickly be perceived as restrictive interventions in personal autonomy. At the same time, there are numerous stresses and overloads affecting multi-mobile persons, which must be responded to structurally.

Regulations must therefore address ambivalences and create conditions under 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 as well as 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, 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 made 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 need for research

In summary, it can be seen that every 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 be subject to positive and negative impacts 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 does not make much sense.

Combining human needs and mobility as best 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 a supporting sense, but its possibilities and limitations still need to be explored.

  • How much physical presence is required in workplace 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.