By Adi Gaskell
The gig economy is one of the more polarizing trends in modern working life, with some regarding gig work as de-humanizing and unstable work that undermines many of the labor market reforms won over the past century, whereas others regard gig work as liberalizing and freeing us from jobs we hate to pursue our passions.
A new study from researchers at INSEAD seems to fall more into the latter camp, as it argues that self-employed workers in the U.K. have better mental health than their salaried peers, with gig workers found to drink less, have higher confidence levels and generally exhibit less signs of stress.
“We find a strong and positive effect of these types of employment on mental health, consistent across a variety of specifications,” the authors explain.
These gains are most prominent in women, older workers and those in possession of a university education, but even among younger and less skilled men, there is still a mental health premium to be had from gig work.
The Importance of Autonomy
In a world in which Uber drivers commonly complain about the control exerted on them by the algorithms that decide where and when they work, the INSEAD paper comes to the surprising conclusion that drivers, and their peers from platforms such as Deliveroo and Lyft, nonetheless enjoy considerable autonomy over the way they work, and this translates into higher scores on a range of mental health measures.
Indeed, when comparing workers of various types against the mental health metric of GHQ, those in gig work seemed to score 33% higher than their peers in permanent work. Indeed, this score even seemed to grow if the worker was in temporary employment, with half of those surveyed citing independence and flexibility as key aspects of the work.
The findings mirror those from a study published last year by Villanova University. The research compared job satisfaction levels from a series of surveys involving Americans from a range of occupations and employment statuses that were conducted by the University of Chicago over the last decade.
Happy and Contented
The surveys spoke to a wide range of workers. For instance, they spoke to full-time employees, contractors and self-employed workers with control over their work schedules, and contract workers who lacked this control. The sample also included people of varying degrees of seniority, from management to blue-collar workers.
The results revealed that control and autonomy was key. When gig workers had control over their schedules, and indeed which tasks they undertook, they were much more satisfied than their peers in full-time work, even though they had none of the security and benefits those workers enjoy.
This bump in satisfaction was up to 8% for men and 8.5% for women, with the largest gains among people working in non-professional roles. Suffice to say, there was no such boost in satisfaction for those who weren’t fortunate enough to enjoy any control over their work. Indeed, people in those roles were generally 4.5% less satisfied than their peers in full-time salaried roles.
The gig workplace is nothing if not complex however, so these two studies don’t represent the full picture. For instance, a recent study from Oxford University adds a degree of nuance to the story. It suggests that the relatively poor working conditions associated with online gig work can affect our well-being.
The study looks specifically at digital gig work that allows people to work internationally, whether in software development, online translation or a range of other disciplines. The paper suggests that there are currently around 70 million people registered across a range of online work platforms.
The research finds that whilst the flexibility and autonomy of such work is largely very appealing to workers, there are consequences that aren’t always evident from the start.
“Our findings demonstrate evidence that the autonomy of working in the gig economy often comes at the price of long, irregular and anti-social hours, which can lead to sleep deprivation and exhaustion,” the authors say.
This is especially so when working outside of your local timezone, which is often the case when buyers are from high-income Western countries. The competitive nature of gig work can also be stressful, with workers striving for the highest ratings to ensure a regular flow of work.
This can have different consequences at different stages of our life. For instance, work from Prudential found that the autonomy and flexibility of gig work was indeed popular, but mainly among Millennials who were perhaps not beholden by the responsibilities of children or mortgages.
It found that those in the Gen-X and Baby Boomer generations had a rather different take on affairs however, as they would often move into gig work after a redundancy, and with a number of significant financial commitments were less effusive about the flexibility afforded by gig work at a time in life where stability was more important. Indeed, 63% of Gen-X gig workers reported having financial difficulties.
If nothing else, these various studies are perhaps a timely reminder that the gig economy is, if nothing else, difficult to characterize, and attempts to refer to it as a homogeneous blob by policy makers, researchers and commentators alike is perhaps not particularly helpful. Nonetheless, as gig workers grow in prominence, the number of studies attempting to better understand those who work in it is to be welcomed, as it’s only by doing so that policy makers can adapt the welfare systems that emerged in a very different time and age to the modern world of work.