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.
Nearly all of the 60 participants 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 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, shining a light on how emotional labour is required to sustain distanced connections.
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 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, 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. The highest rates of mobile work are in North America and Europe, and in Australia the number of mobile workers increased by 37% between 2006 and 2011. They now comprise over 2% of the Australian workforce.
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