No working holiday: The mental health impact of the gig economy

We explore the repercussions of hurtling between plum projects and unpaid bills

Working at your own convenience often translates into feeling pressured to stay plugged in, with no clear delineation between work hours and personal time. Getty 
Working at your own convenience often translates into feeling pressured to stay plugged in, with no clear delineation between work hours and personal time. Getty 

Sarah J, 30, is a freelance graphic ­designer from Dubai, who works 10-hour days, six, sometimes all seven, days a week. For anyone ­putting in so many hours, it would be fair to assume that they were thriving, possibly at the top of their fields, raking in the big bucks. That might be true for some people, but reality couldn’t be more different for Sarah. Until last year, she had a steady job in a digital marketing agency. Then her former employer decided to farm out most of the company’s design work to freelancers to eliminate the overheads associated with full-time employees – a common enough practice in the evolving work landscape termed the gig economy.

What is the gig economy?

Gerald Friedman, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written extensively on the rise of the gig economy the world over. He describes it as a system that shifts the risk of economic downturns from businesses to workers. “When the economy is good and there is a lot of demand for jobs, gig workers benefit with relatively high wages, and companies suffer because they have to pay higher wages and scramble for workers. But when the economy slows and there is less demand, gig workers suffer and the companies save because they don’t have to carry extra workers,” he tells The National.

It’s a bleak time, then, for people like Sarah. A round of layoffs left her desperately looking for a job, but to no avail. Left with no option, Sarah was forced to become a freelancer herself, always on the lookout for new and better-paying gigs. On some occasions, when she’s been unable to land a job for weeks on end, she has resorted to putting her one-­bedroom apartment on Airbnb, while sleeping on a friend’s couch for a few days. Money is always tight after paying rent and other essential bills, which is why Sarah – who ­suffers from general anxiety ­disorder (Gad) – has been able to afford therapy only twice in the past eight months, which in turn has caused her condition to exacerbate.

Grace Bandola, 29, has had better luck. She has lived in the UAE for eight years and just could not shake off the feeling of restriction she had when she was an employee. Despite being the head architect at her ­former firm, she had to pass all of her ideas through her managers first. And she could not help but think she was capable of doing more ­without their input. “I thought I would be able to express myself better,” ­explains ­Bandola, who went on to set up her own company, ­Atelier35, from the business centre at GlassQube in Abu Dhabi, two years ago.

Benefits of working gigs

The gig economy touts shiny perks such as flexibility – in the context of time, being your own boss and the freedom to choose only those ­projects that intellectually excite you. Gig economies can also greatly ­benefit workers with pre-existing medical conditions, and women who give up their careers to take care of children and sick members of the family, by allowing them to work in places that are not bound by traditional structures. Furthermore, workplaces and cultures are being revolutionised by technology, and many young, ­experimental professionals are reluctant to be tied down by one job or to one vocation – ­preferring instead to work with a diverse set of people across industries. It’s not unusual for offices to have a small group of full-time workers, some part-time workers and many independent contractors (or gig workers).

While these benefits are real, ­tangible and important, the conversation about gig economies often overlooks one crucial consideration: it mostly benefits those who have already been set up for success, while undermining the livelihoods of those who most need the security of a ­regular income. It’s easy for white-collar workers with ­specialised skills, higher educations, ­inheritances or nest eggs created at previous high-paying jobs to ­command remunerations in line with their experience or abilities. But it leaves the middle tier of workers, those who are neither exceptional nor terrible at what they do, and those who simply find themselves out of luck, out in the cold.

Other ardent fans of the shift-to-gig culture or part-time work ­arrangements are those who have a steady primary source of income – ­either a job in addition to smaller side gigs that supplement their income, or a partner who is the principal breadwinner of the house. They can pick up gigs when convenient to roundup or supplement an already comfortable income.

Abi Cooke, a freelance business transformation specialist who moved to Dubai from the United Kingdom last year, loves the ­flexibility to take a few weeks or even months off to spend time with her children whenever she feels like it. But she admits this is a luxury she can afford only because her family has the financial ­security of her husband’s full-time job. “I’m in a very fortunate position. My ­family is not dependent on my earnings, but my work does generate income and challenges me, which I would miss if I wasn’t working,” she says.

Financial flip side

But what about people like Sarah, who need full-time jobs and the security that comes with them? Such arrangements leave them deep in the throes of financial and mental ­despair, due to cut-throat competition and clients’ willingness to replace an employee as soon as they find a cheaper alternative, without any fear of wrongful termination lawsuits since gig jobs are based on short-term contracts. “I think more than half of my time goes in pitching, following up and sending reminders to clients to pay up after the job is done,” says Sarah. “Or I’m doing free ‘samples’, ‘tests’ and ‘demos’ demanded by ­clients before they sign you on. I’m getting paid for only half of the time that I’m actually working. It’s exhausting.”

Dr Sarah Rasmi, a psychologist and the founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, says that financial stress can create a vicious cycle. “Many times, people overestimate their earning potential in a gig economy, or don’t take into account the state of the economy. If you don’t have a ­realistic idea about how much you might earn, it can cause great stress when you fall short of your own ­­expectations, ­leading to worry, then ­procrastination, and finally an inability to land more gigs, which leads to greater worry.” In a 2005 US study of 34,000 people’s medical data, researchers found a strong ­correlation between poor ­socioeconomic ­conditions and risk of mental illnesses, with the two feeding off of and strengthening each other’s hold.

Always switched on

Apart from the looming question of the anxiety and stress caused by the financial fluctuations and uncertainty that are inbuilt features of the gig economy, there are other unsettling concerns. Not knowing when or where their next pay cheque might come from often results in gig workers feeling like they can’t say no to clients and putting up with unreasonable requests. A voice artist from Dubai, who prefers to stay anonymous, says she has a client who won’t let a single minute of studio time go to waste. On three occasions, she has allowed herself to be coaxed into voicing a bit part for a project she was not contracted or credited for. “Not to mention the odd hours they expect us to show up at, whenever they can get the studio for cheap. I hate it, but go along with it because I get regular work.”

Feelings of isolation

And then there is the matter of isolation and blurring of boundaries. Working at your own convenience in reality often translates into feeling the pressure to stay plugged in, with no clear delineation between work hours and personal time. It also means limited interaction with the outside world or other professionals from your own field, which can be a lonely working experience.

If you don’t have a ­realistic idea about how much you might earn, it can cause great stress when you fall short of your own expectations

Dr Sarah Rasmi

According to the 71-year-long ­ongoing Harvard Study of Adult ­Development, the number-one predictor of human well-being is the quality of relationships that a person enjoys. It is linked to longer lifespans, and physical and mental well-being. On average, people spend 90,000 hours, or a third of their lives, at work. Naturally, then, some of their most significant relationships are formed there. But gig economies, characterised by fleeting associations and limited interactions, leave little room for such bonds.

As a recent phenomenon, it’s difficult to pinpoint what the long-term effects of such a work culture will be on people and their mental well-­being. Will it lead to a more satisfied world population, which has few but far more enriching relationships? Or is it setting up the adventurous young workers of today to turn into lonely and stress-ridden middle-aged grown-ups of tomorrow?

Published: June 30, 2019 07:00 AM


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