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Work/Life Imbalance Impacts the Psyches of Mobile Workers
Social media offer opportunities to connect; dark side of mobile work remains

By SHRM Online staff  12/12/2011

Flexible scheduling and telecommuting lead to higher job satisfaction. At the same time, mobile and remote workers lose out on informal and unplanned corridor conversations, which provide valuable information-sharing opportunities for workers to develop shared understandings with their colleagues, according to The Well-Being of the Mobile Workforce, a research report from the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield in England.

The research analyzed more than 5,600 responses from remote and mobile employees at 1,100 enterprises worldwide, from surveys fielded in August 2011 and November 2011.

“Overcoming the challenges of the dark side of mobility is essential for well-being and satisfaction in life and work," said Carolyn Axtell, a leading academic at the Institute of Work Psychology and author of the paper. "People should be careful to mentally detach from work and create strong work/home boundaries, while their employers should find ways to enhance employee control, provide support and reduce the expectations on them to work long hours.”

On the positive side, mobile technologies and connectivity give employees more flexibility and control over work schedules and enable them to use dead time more efficiently, the report found. One-third of mobile employees are able to set their schedule and work when and where they want. Scheduling freedom leads to higher job satisfaction and lower intentions to leave the organization.

But mobile and remote workers lose out on informal workplace interactions. Social media sites like Facebook might fill this gap for remote and mobile workers by offering a needed "virtual water cooler," according to the report.

Attached to Technology—and Paying a Personal Price

Many remote workers are working excessive hours—47 percent of remote employees work five to 10 extra hours a week, and 26 percent work 15 to 20 extra hours. The report found that extra time on the job can lead to serious repercussions, such as:

Worse work/life balance and well-being. Employees working excessive hours are more likely to report difficulty in balancing work and personal commitments. They are more likely to feel stressed as a result of increased flexibility regarding when and where they work.

Pressure from others. 32 percent of those working 15 to 20 extra hours a week said they connected to technology during vacation because it was expected by management and co-workers. Such organizational pressure is likely to reduce the amount of control mobile workers feel they have over work, and research shows consistently that low control is related to higher stress.

Worse sleep and recovery. Mobile workers who work an extra 20 hours a week because of flexible work schedules are more likely to work in the middle of the night when they cannot sleep. According to the paper, this suggests that those working extra hours are getting poor quality sleep and are not allowing themselves sufficient recovery time.

Reduced performance gains. While those working long hours still felt that they were being highly productive and efficient, according to the report, if actual objective performance was measured, there might be a leveling off in performance gains or possibly a drop in performance over time. Research on extended shifts has found decreased reaction times and reduced grammatical reasoning along with increased fatigue and errors after extended periods of working long shifts.

“Technology is transforming the working lives of employees and causing major disruption to traditional notions of job satisfaction, productivity and work/life balance," commented Barbara Nelson, chief technology officer at iPass, a provider of workforce mobility technology and the firm that commissioned and published the report. "Despite several benefits related to mobile work, there are costs and challenges associated with the ability to be contacted anytime or anywhere,” she added, noting that the hurdle facing employees and organizations is "to overcome the challenges and make the most out of flexible, mobile work.”

Related Articles:

Experts: Flexible Workplaces Should Rely on Social Media, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, December 2011

Telecommuters Working Longer Hours, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, September 2011

Companies More Open to Remote Work Arrangements, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, September 2011

24-Hour Shift: Mobile Employees Work Around the Clock, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, August 2011

Survey: Telecommuters Are Happier and Healthier, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, July 2011

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SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page 

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