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Bye 9-to-5, hi mental health struggles: the effect of the gig economy

The gig economy offers both freedom and uncertainty (Getty)

The way we work is changing and it’s not only because of the pandemic. There are a lot of options available to us these days. Too many, in fact. One such alternative is the gig economy. 

 Essentially, the gig economy means that workers are paid for ‘gigs’ which are short-term, temporary jobs, often referred to as freelance work, as opposed to permanent employment.

Gig economy workers could already be in full-time or part-time employment though, taking on gig work to top up their income and make ends meet. Or, they could be self-employed, filling their day-to-day lives with enough freelance hours to make a living. 

Long gone are the days of simply working nine-to-five.

For some, this fundamental shift in the way we work offers flexibility and freedom to carry out work job-to-job. For others, it brings insecurity, no promise of contractual work and lack of holiday and sick pay.

According to research by the University of Hertfordshire, between 2016 and 2019, the UK gig economy workforce doubled with one in 10 working adults using gig economy platforms in 2019.

But whether it’s moonlighting as a YouTuber or Amazon seller as a side hustle or working full-time juggling a variety of jobs like delivering food for Uber Eats or Deliveroo, how do we know the right time to turn off our ‘work mode’ and boot up our ‘life mode’?

And what is this precarious and ever-changing way of working doing to our mental health?

Research findings from a 2016 study commissioned by the charity, Help Musicians UK, looked into the potential links between the gig economy and mental health.

Looking at over 2,200 musicians working in the gig economy in the UK, 68.5% self-reported depression and 71% anxiety.

Some of the key issues which arose in the study pointed at worries about financial stability, job insecurity, and the requirement to have an online presence and network which exposed individuals to relentless opinion and criticism.

Whilst the phrase gig economy originated from the music industry, the rise of the internet and technological innovations has created a whole new world of opportunity for the way we work and seemingly endless opportunities to fill our home life with more and more work.

But is this tech-enabled gig economy causing burnout because we just don’t know when to stop? Or does it allow us to embrace freedom from traditional corporate roles?

Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, has been taking a look at the social, organizational, and policy implications of the shift towards the online gig economy.

Dr Alex Wood, who has been working on the study, says the gig economy can have both positive and negative consequences on our mental health.

‘We find that one of the things workers like most about this work is the sense of being their own boss as they don’t have to deal with a manager on a day-to-day basis.’ Alex tells Metro.co.uk.

Dr. Alex Wood has been studying the effects of the gig economy (Alex Wood)

‘This autonomy from traditional management is a real positive for many workers but that comes with the stress caused by the algorithmic control of their work by platforms; knowing that if they don’t work hard they’ll get a bad rating and lose your ability to make a living.’

‘This algorithmic control comes with its own risks for mental health as workers work hard for long hours without taking many breaks which can cause burnout.’

Michael Daly, associate professor in Psychology/Behavioural Science at Maynooth University, says the research he and his team have carried out on underemployment and psychological distress has shown a notable increase ‘when a discrepancy emerges between the amount of hours they would like to work and the hours offered by their employer.’

‘Workers also want job and income security, benefits such as health insurance, and opportunities for promotion and career development that tend to be underrepresented in gig economy jobs.’

But what do the people who actually exist in this new way of working think about it?

Phillip Smith, a freelance editor, is fully immersed in the gig economy and says finding the right work-life balance is tough. 

‘There was a period at the start where I was building contacts where you would be repeatedly hitting refresh on your emails begging for replies, that was tough.’

As a freelance editor, Phill Smith is immersed in the gig economy (Phill Smith)

Phill says carving out time for exercise has massively counterbalanced the negativity overworking has caused his mental health.

‘I’ve had a few crazy weeks where I’ve landed too much work and realised I had to pull back. I found that I have to rota in downtime during the week. I have a home studio so I can and have worked every hour of the day so forcing myself to go for a run or do yoga is essential.’

Working full time in the gig economy is one thing, buy what about having a ‘side hustle’ alongside a full-time job?

Amy Harris works as a full-time retail manager but launched her own craft store on Etsy during the Covid pandemic.

‘Having been on furlough for so long it was something that definitely worried me if I would be able to keep it up once back,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

Amy says the opportunity to work on something she’s passionate about brought positivity to her life.

‘It really helped me with my mental health when I wasn’t working and gave me a sense of purpose everyday. I’ve always regretted not pursuing what I studied at university and creating this little business has almost lifted a bit of that guilt and given me a creative outlet.’

Amy Harris said the gig economy allowed her to pursue something she’s passionate about (Amy Harris)

So, what is the future like for the gig economy?

Dr Wood says this way of working has seen and will continue to see growth through the pandemic and beyond.

‘I think the gig economy will emerge from the pandemic even bigger than before with local gig work boosted by the growth of food and retail delivery and remote gig economy boosted by companies looking for more remote workers who can be engaged and controlled without needing to bring them on to the companies’ premises.’

‘Companies are also going to be hesitant to invest in permanent employees in these uncertain times.’

What’s clear is that as the gig economy asserts itself in a post-Covid world, the mental health of workers involved shouldn’t fall by the kerbside as a result.

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