How Work-related Travel Can Impact Families

Neis, Dr. Barbara.Headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Nov 21, 2022

Commuting to work may be a basic reality for millions of Canadians, but prolonged travel to get to and from a place of employment is steadily and increasingly the norm for bringing with it a wide range of logistical considerations impacting family life.

“There’s many, many different kinds of workers who are dealing with complex extended mobilities for work,” says Dr. Barbara Neis, pre-eminent Canadian sociologist, who is leading national research on the topic. “There really hadn’t been a comprehensive study on that. It became a national study, operating in seven provinces, with many co-investigators of many, across many universities, of international collaborators as well, and partners like the Vanier Institute of the Family.”

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a leading Canadian sociologist. She is a distinguished university professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, a researcher and a member of the Order of Canada. Dr. Barbara Neis is also a mother of two and a grandmother. She is an author as well. She’s one of the editors of a new book called families mobility and work published in the fall of 2022. Dr. Neis joins us today from St. John’s, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for the invitation Lianne, it’s lovely to be here.
So families mobility, and work is the name of the book, it is a culmination of more than a decade’s worth of research. What was the catalyst that led to the creation of this book?
Well, the book is the product of something we call the on the move Partnership, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council more than 10 years ago. And the catalyst for that project was initially work we were doing in rural Newfoundland and fishing communities, where we discovered that in many of the communities, a lot of the adults were missing, particularly in the men. And we were trying to work with communities around helping them rebuild their economies after the collapse of the the cardstocks. And we realized that we had very little information on who was a way where they were, it was very hard to get statistical information, and lots of rumors and suggestions about what was going on, and how it was affecting those communities and the families in the communities. But there really wasn’t any research on that. So that’s that was the beginning. But then, as we developed the project, and started to look more broadly at extended mobility for work, or complex mobility for work, we realized that it’s not just fly in, fly out or drive in drive out. Workers who are affected by this, there’s many, many different kinds of workers who are dealing with complex extended mobilities, for work. And there really hadn’t been a comprehensive study on that. So it became a national study, operating in seven provinces, with many co investigators of many across many universities, of international collaborators as well, and partners like the Vanier Institute for the family and so. And in the process of that, we started looking not just people who were, again, travelling long distances for work, but they might not be going very far. But they had complex extended mobility such as homecare workers, for example, who might have to take public transit, we’d get up in the morning, we’d take their child to school, and then we’d go to their first home where they would work. And then they would have downtime. And they’d hang out and Tim Hortons, and so on. And then they would go to their second placement and those placements would change. And they might be away from home for say, 15 or 16 hours or 10 hours or 12. But paid for only five or six of those hours are truck drivers or seafarers or there’s so many people, construction workers in Canada for whom mobility is a kind of core central part of what they are grappling with as they try to combine finding work and completing that work. And, you know, family life at home.
Speaking of that family life, I am curious as to what struck you most as you sort of looked at conducted and then compiled this research, as it relates specifically to your findings around Families and Work mobility?
So, I mean, I think, you know, it’s interesting, because early on, we did a paper I was just looking at that this morning, Chrissy Vinson and I did a review paper that looked at basically, the potential relationship between work scheduling, and parenting, particularly child educational achievement. And, you know, what we saw in that literature was that a whole range of things might impact child educational achievement, that are also linked to work and mobility. So for example, just physical presence. So child’s educational achievements might be stronger if the parents are involved in their education, but of the parents They’re not physically available to be involved. That’s a potential threat to that relationship and to their success. And similarly, if they’re not available, or they’re stressed out, or you’ve got what we call fragile synchronicities, so the work scheduling, and the child scheduling just don’t mesh particularly well, then and, and that stressful, and so when there may be also issues with effective availability, so the emotional availability of a parent and potential, so we just had a started there. But I think, you know, I think that when you start to look at all these different relationships, different kinds of mobility and the consequences, there are a whole bunch of things that come with not just the time bind that comes from, say, a two hour commute in Toronto, where you are in Newfoundland, where you lived in St. John’s and had a two hour drive out to a construction worksite. But also the spatial issue of just not being in the same place. Too often, we assume that people get up in the morning, and they go a short distance to work. And it’s always the same workplace, there’s only one workplace and there’s stability there. And all of our thinking around children and parenting and all of these things takes that for granted. But there’s a huge proportion of the population for which that’s just not the case. precarious employment is so widespread now, particularly in places like Ontario, but elsewhere as well. So you don’t know where you’re going to be going to go to work. So you can’t move close to your workplace, because maybe it’s not in the same place anymore. Or it’s only a short term, or you’re doing three jobs, and it’s taking you in different directions. So there are all these things that we really need to think about in terms of how they might impact families.
Along those lines, as you note, there are so many aspects to what impacts family life today, over and beyond what you’ve you know, your area of study. But I’m curious, what do you see as some of the opportunities here, you’ve outlined some of the impacts, but what are the challenges? But what are some of the opportunities that we should be paying attention to?
Are you talking about opportunities that come from mobility? Or are you talking about opportunities for intervention? Both? Okay, so opportunities that come from mobility? Well, again, I live in a region of Canada, you know, where we’ve had historically very high unemployment, particularly in rural areas. And so mobility for work has provided an opportunity often for for at least some rural workers to find good sources of income, you think, for example of seafarers, right, so a sea fair, might be away from home for six weeks at a time, it’s a long rotation often, and then they’re home, or they’re working on offshore oil and gas platforms or their, their, you know, or maybe they’re working in Alberta or their truck driving, but the mobility gives them access to income and potentially job security that they couldn’t get if they stayed in their community, that also allows them to stay in their community. That’s the other thing that, you know, we’ve talked to families who moved back from Alberta to say, live in Newfoundland and opted for extended rotations. because it allowed them to live close to family. It gave them the opportunity if you’d like to have the supports that come from, from that, and also to have a particular kind of lifestyle that they preferred, which was rural access to a whole range of activities, and so on and so forth. So there’s no question that there are opportunities in certain kinds of mobility, but we the flip side of that, is that, you know, mobility is costly, increasingly costly, if the employer is managing that, that the costs of that and the arrangements of getting to and fro. If the rotation is reasonable to say two weeks on two weeks off, you can get a lot of downtime with your family and compensate for the other time and you’re away. But if it’s six weeks away, and a week home, right, or all winter or whatever, then we’re into a very different kind of situation. And again, it doesn’t have to be long distances. Stephanie PMTs research in Toronto, with recent immigrants really really highlighted, you know, the challenges that they they the combination of racism and poverty, that meant that they often were living in fairly remote parts of the city that were poorly served by public transit. And they were working in precarious employment. Often in the downtown, they had to get from one place to the other, they’re working family unfriendly hours, say night shift as cleaners or whatever, when the public transit is often also not great. So it’s the opposite. So the opportunities there, I think, or the first opportunity is let’s take mobility seriously. Right? We we can’t assume, you know, the COVID is a classic example of this, right? I think there was a kind of assumption that and the main strategy for controlling COVID was to tell people to go home and stay home. The only way we could do that was if other people went to work. Right. And then all of a sudden, you know, there’s a discovery well, that you’ve got, again, poorly paid off, and immigrant workers relying on public transit, you know, who have to, and they’re poorly served by public transit, but they we need them, we need them to go to work. And then they’re going into work environments that where they’re not well protected. And then you have issues of outbreaks and poorly served communities in terms of COVID supports. So it’s, it’s COVID. In a way, in Newfoundland, we discovered in a sense that we had 1000s of interprovincial rotational workers, then we had a problem because we didn’t want people to come into the province to control COVID. And so then how do you manage them, they have to still go to work. They’re essential workers, that work has to be non truckers, it’d be another good example. How do we manage them coming and going, and the public fear and other fears around disease exposure? So the point is, the opportunity is to say, work related mobility is widespread, we’re looking at about 16% of the Canadian labor force is engaged in some kind of extended complex mobility for work. That’s huge. Right? While we’re dealing with labor shortages, while we’re dealing with many issues in the wider economy. So the question then is, you know, what, what, now that we’re paying attention to this, if we’re paying attention, and we did during COVID, I’m not sure we are anymore. Although there is all this discussion around people who want to work from home, right, but again, not everybody can work from home. Let’s be clear, only some people can work from home. So let’s pay attention to the ones who have to be mobile, understand the conditions of mobility, and then start to think what types of policy changes do we need to improve their capacity to both work and parent and have family and community?
It is such a complex topic when you spell it out that way. But I want to go back a bit before getting into the policy piece of it. The 2021 census data in Canada show that multi generational households are the fastest growing census family household type in this country in recent decades, multi generational households, of course, pertain to households with three or more generations, what has been the greatest impact of this trend? As has been noted in your research?
Well, I think I’m assuming what they’re what you’re talking about is the sections where we talk about grandparenting. Yes, yeah. So that’s work that’s been done mostly out of Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton by Christina Marie and her team. And she’s working with community organizations, where basically grandparents, who have ended up raising their grandchildren and caring for them have begun to mobilize and to try to deal with all of the challenges that they experience and the length there to mobility is that again, if we have essentially family unfriendly and worker unfriendly policies related to work scheduling, encompassing also work mobility, that pushes puts stresses and strains on families, right. And so, you know, part of the on the move project documented some of these real issues with mental health issues in for example, in workcamps, the isolation of women were living in rural areas whose partners are absence, but who may not feel that they can actually publicly engage in their community without triggering gossip and and so on and so forth. Right. So you have on all of these tensions, and you have mobile, children who, you know, there are issues potentially with drugs and so on, you’re moving from one environment to another, and then you’re coming back again. And you may be coming back with drug related addictions and so on. So when you put all this together, one of the things that you can end up with is parents who basically don’t have the capacity in a sense to raise their own children, and, or who are gone for work, and they’re there in order for them to go, the parents, the grandparents have to take over, but then may have to keep taking over and ultimately take responsibility. So it’s how that responsibility for grandparents can create opportunities for them, to be close to those grandchildren, to, you know, to grow up with them to have them nearby, as opposed to say far away. But also some of the challenges for them, and they can be in terms of legal recognition of their, their, their responsibility, state support of their responsibility for those children, the ability to mean to be elderly and have the type of life they thought they might have, when they retired, as opposed to the life that they end up with. So this is a complex field. And there’s some very interesting and important work, I think, happening around this in in Prince Edward Island and some other places.
Is there anything in particular with respect to what you just described as it relates to grandparents, in many cases, being responsible for raising their grandchildren on their own independently? That, you know, that surprised you? In terms of the findings of that research?
Well, again, that’s not my research. Right. So I’m, you know, Christina is one of the co authors of this book. And I know Nora Spinks has been working on with her as well on this. But I guess from my point of view, the it is the the it was, I noticed that recently, in a CBC story, there was another case where they were talking about this was an indigenous grandparent who was talking about, well, you know, if, you know, if I’m taking care of a child under one situation, I’m entitled to this kind of state support. If they are foster children, if I’m a foster parent, and I’m taking care of a child, I get far more support. And then if I actually adopt them, I don’t get hardly any state support. Right. So there’s all of it’s like the the, and this is what I know, I was communicating with Christina this morning about that case. And she said, this is the type of issue that the grandparents movement in Prince Edward Island is really trying to address, you know, that if, if we, if there’s an expectation and a desire, on their part, to take responsibility, where the parents cannot do that, and this may be work related mobility, it could be any number of things, then then what types of programming and supports do we need to have in place to make that work for the grandparent, the grandchildren, and ultimately for the parents as well.
So along those lines, what kind of policy changes do you believe need to be looked at, first of all, in the short term, and why is that?
Well, I think, again, from a policy point of view, we have to look at, and I don’t think we’ve done enough of this, we have to think about precarious employment, there’s more and more employment is precarious. We don’t have job security. And we also, you know, the housing market, in some parts of the country is really out of control, particularly for lower income earners. Right. So we’ve we’ve got this real dilemma, and in a sense, everybody’s losing, right, you people. Yeah, we’ve got labor shortages. On the one hand, you know, we’ve got people who are struggling, to, in a sense, spatially match their access to work, and their ability to live and to have a place where they can have a family and so on and so forth. Alright, so the question is, how can we fix these things? And I think, you know, some of the responsibility goes to employers but also to government in terms of employment standards, the what, what are we doing, in a sense to, to require employers to be accommodating to meet the needs and work scheduling to accommodate the needs of families, including, there’s the challenges of mobility, right? because, again, you’re away from your family, not simply, you know, let’s say you’re offered a four hour shift here and a two hour shift there and three hours if they’re and you’re trying to patch all this together. And, you know, the hours are our family unfriendly, and so on what there’s so much I think, that we need to talk about there. And I think the same is true for say, fly in fly out workers. There’s a chapter in the book where Cara arnaldur, Nora speaks, tried to serve a fly and fly out companies, right, who are bringing in and out workers from, from long distances, and about the, what they do in their policies and practices in their companies to accommodate the needs of those workers from a family point of view. And there was very little, right. So and most of what’s offered is basically, you know, an employee assistance program, which is essentially when things go wrong, right? Well, you know, when your marriage starts to fall apart, or you’ve got a problem with your children, or whatever, you know, then you can go to a counselor, you can do this, but there’s not, there’s very little indication that there is any sense on the part of employers that, that in scheduling, they need to proactively anticipate potential consequences and try to accommodate the complex needs of families and migration and so on, in their work scheduling. And it’s it’s not not saying it doesn’t happen. But you know, I can remember I was on a plane talking to a rotational worker, who, you know, who was flying to Alberta, and he had a spouse at home, who was unwell, she had a chronic health problem, he was the red seal tradesperson. And, you know, he was talking about his work scheduling and how his employer had overnight decided to change the work schedule, so that it went from, I think two weeks on two weeks off, or three on three off to one on one off, which is impossible. If you live in Newfoundland, two days, out of that one week, are going to be spent and travel if you’re lucky. And these days, that we’ll be very lucky, given her transport, and he basically, because he was a red seal, tradesperson and highly valued that day, he changed jobs. But there are so many workers who don’t have that option.
It’s such an interesting area of research, I have to say. And you talked about COVID-19, of the global pandemic. And I wonder, what has been the impact of this global pandemic, on this topic of families and work related mobility, in terms of has it exacerbated the situation? Has it elevated the importance of having this, you know, societal dialogue on this topic, in a way that you think is positive?
Well, when the when COVID-19 started, we pretty immediately started thinking, well, we have to start monitoring this and monitoring its impact on the mobile workers that we’ve been studying now for almost a decade. You know, and it was really, really striking. And again, it went right across the board from your urban, again, worker who is a employed at, you know, in a big warehouse in, in some part of Toronto, and has to get there by public transit, and all of the complexities around potential exposures at home, in in the community potential exposures on the road, potential exposures, in the workplace for them and right across the board. Right. And so it just raised all kinds of issues, I think. And, you know, I, you know, so that you, you know, if you have to quarantine for two weeks at home, before you’re allowed to see your family and go out in the community. If you come back into Newfoundland, which was the situation, right for some of these rotational workers and you’re on a, you know, two weeks on two weeks off rotation is no point going home. Like, and, you know, let’s say you have a bit longer, you still have this incredibly poignant situation where someone is living in a tent, or in, you know, their garage. They’ve been away, they want to be with their families, and they can’t be with them and they weren’t allowed to go out in the community and that was and so on and so forth. Right. So that’s, that’s just one one example, seafarers. You know, seafarers people were during the cruise ship industry worked, who worked on on ships, they, they were stuck on those ships, but they couldn’t get off those ships. And they were at high risk of infection, particularly on cruise ships. I mean, you had some of the worst outbreaks there. But they could end up at sea for months and months at a time, because there was no, nobody to relieve them. You know, their contracts were extended, it was too complex, too expensive to move them around. So there’s that. I mean, those are just two examples. Plus your your urban worker. So I think that we, what COVID did. I mean, it was just if it made us realize, or it made us realize, if you if they didn’t go to work, you know, if they’re seafarers didn’t they weren’t seafarers, there was nothing. You know, there were products, right? If there weren’t delivery people who brought your packages, because you wanted to stay home. And were expected to stay home if they if they weren’t there, and they weren’t going from place to place to place and putting themselves at risk taxi drivers and so on. Then, how, how can we even function, they’re so crucial, ultimately, so crucial. And yet, so many of them, their lives are so invisible. They’re poorly paid, they’re poorly, you know, they lack a job security. And there was really not a lot there in terms of protection for them temporary foreign workers, another perfect example, that we touch on in the book, but that we’ve looked at more closely in the larger project. Right, very, very heavily impacted by COVID, both in terms of employment, just getting here. But then when they were here, in terms of outbreaks, and all of what happened was not a surprise, in terms of the potentials to the researchers who had been working with those temporary foreign workers. They knew the housing conditions, they knew the work conditions. And basically, it was just, you know, that’s what put them at risk.
Dr. Neis, what would you like readers of families mobility and work to take away from this book?
Well, well, again, let’s say the first thing I would say is, let’s just stop operating with models that people get up in the morning, take care of their kids, get them off to school, and then you know, walk down the street or drive down the street or take the, you know, the bus or bike and go to their place of work and the place of work is fixed. And, and you know, the mobility isn’t a problem, right? It’s a challenge. It’s not the same challenge for everyone. When people when we hear that people who got to work from home, during COVID, don’t want to go back to the office. I think we have to say, you know, what does this tell us? But we have to not stop there. Right? We then we have to say, well, but what about all of you know, so what is so attractive about being able to work from home because there are lots of downsides. We know that in terms of working from home, particularly I think for for women often. So but there are lots of people for whom that’s always going to be impossible, your plumbers, all of the people, we need to keep this system going or a lot of them, it’s just not going to be feasible. So then we have to say, well, if they have to be mobile, and we don’t like mobility, we don’t want to be mobile, then we have to say okay, so what do we need to do? I think as a society, to make this work, and to make sure that it works effectively. And that’s everything, I think from employer policies through labor standards, through public health requirements through housing issues. It’s right across the board, transportation and so on. And we just have to be more aware that there was a an excellent review that was done by using silver as part of on the move that looked at work, family, literature, you know, and the focus in that on time bind. But once again, that literature for the most part has focused on a narrow, tight range of occupations, and it has not taken mobility into account. Right. The assumption is it’s not a problem. But what and the reason why we get away with that, I think, is partly because somebody is quietly doing the work of trying to make this work, right. We call it fragile synchronicities. Somebody’s got to make Take the all the different patterns of work and school and so on and travel between them and family lives of all of these different people in this household, somebody’s got to make it come together. And somehow or other, you know, keep it going, you know, and it’s, it’s the families themselves. I think often the women, the grandparents, whoever’s available, are stepping up to make that work. But it can be very, very, very challenging. And I think we, we haven’t done enough to identify how challenging that is and to identify ways to, to help mediate that and to support them, because it’s not going away. Right. Maybe will go away for some people, but I don’t think it’s going away for a lot of others.
Dr. Barbara Neis leading Canadian sociologist, distinguished university sociology professor at the University of Memorial University in Newfoundland, and editor of families mobility and work. We so appreciate your time and your perspective today. Thank you. Thank you.

Dr. Neis, a distinguished university professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and a member of the Order of Canada, is one of the co-authors of a book published in the Fall of 2022, called, Families, Mobility and Work, that looks at the research findings, including parenting.

“The potential relationship between work scheduling, and parenting, particularly child educational achievement,” Dr. Neis told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “What we saw in that literature was that a whole range of things might impact child educational achievement, that are also linked to work and mobility. For example, just physical presence. A child’s educational achievements might be stronger if the parents are involved in their education, but what if the parents are not physically available to be involved. That’s a potential threat to that relationship and to their success,” she says.

The book is part of a larger project called, On the Move Partnership, which began being funded more than a decade ago by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

During that time, a confluence of factors — both trending and unprecedented — have further impacted the research. These include: the changing nature of many jobs, the COVID-19 global pandemic, and the future of work, among others.

“Too often, we assume that people get up in the morning and they go a short distance to work, and it’s always the same workplace, there’s only one workplace and there’s stability there,” continues Dr. Neis. “And all of our thinking around children and parenting and all of these things takes that for granted. But there’s a huge proportion of the population for which that’s just not the case. Precarious employment is so widespread now, particularly in places like Ontario, but elsewhere as well. So you don’t know where you’re going to be going to go to work,” she says.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Barbara Neis also discusses:  Book cover.Families Mobility and Work

  • The impact of work-related mobility on grandparents
  • Factors contributing to increased mobility required for work
  • 2018 Census results
  • Future trends
  • Why policy changes are required in the short term

Related links: (Families, Mobility & Work)



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