Working in the gig economy can destroy your mental health

Broken

The gig economy's flawed model wrecks workers' mental health

27th November 2017

The gig economy is as integrated into our lives as our daily commute.

While we sift through Uber, Deliveroo and other pay-as-you-go services from the convenience of our phone, it can be easy to dismiss the reality for the workers that live behind the screen.

While workers may appreciate the flexibility of the work that they take up, like the name “gig” suggests, it can be fast-paced, unstable, and in a matter of hours, can be gone.

As soaring rent prices, inflation, lacklustre wage increases and an incredibly competitive job market pits workers against each other, the gig economy puts a workers’ needs in desolate conflict: how do they negotiate the need to earn a living in such an environment that has a devastating impact on their mental health?

Shifts

Camilla*, who suffers with an anxiety disorder and depression, stayed in a zero-hours contract job as a bartender in Leeds for a year.

When her shifts were halved without any notice period, she became overwhelmed by her mental health issues.

“I remember having a panic attack at work and then the week after I only had half as many shifts, and it continued like that. There was no support system or backup, you just had to tough it out or you wouldn’t have any money that month. It was dehumanizing and really terrible for my anxiety,” she says.

She says she couldn’t continue working zero hour contracts because of her mental health issues, and it was one of the reasons she started working as a freelance translator.

“As a freelancer, I struggle with deadlines and the constant fear of receiving a bad review, which affects my anxiety, but at least I can choose not to work when I’m having a “bad day” [high anxiety levels or depressive patterns]. This is obviously far from ideal and I’m aware that in a way I am just avoiding triggers by working from home, but I am far happier than when I had to deal with people’s inability to understand that mental health diseases are as real as any physical illness,” she adds.

“Sub-human”

According to Full Fact, there are just over a million people working in the gig economy, but that estimate could fall short.

As this type of employment lacks regulation, it’s hard to track those registered in the system.

All in all, five million people are employed as freelancers, and some of them may consider themselves to be part of this category.

And though many may consider gig economy work as unskilled labour, as Tim’s* situation proves, this exploitative pattern of work is also becoming the status quo in graduate employment.

It was incredibly tough and challenging maintaining a sense of self-worth when the climate is so unstable and dominated by factors outside of your control

After he graduated with an MA in journalism, Tim wanted to expand his portfolio as a freelance journalist but found that companies could treat him as “sub-human”, which affected his self-worth.

As a wheelchair user, Tim was left to deal with confidence issues on top of managing the difficulties he faced with his disability.

“It was incredibly tough and challenging maintaining a sense of self-worth when the climate is so unstable and dominated by factors outside of your control,” says Tim.

“Without a contract and legal backing, you can be let go of at the drop of a hat without explanation or due process. Sometimes this can feel personal, (and undeniably is), based on favouritism. Fortunately, I experienced this very rarely.

“I also found it very hard how freelancers are treated almost as sub-human by many organisations, in that the simple rules of courtesy and interaction are often forgotten. There are shifts offered and dropped last minute without warning, and emails ignored until you are of use,” he adds.

“People who see their job as unstable and not giving them much security, can feel anxious and this anxiety can drip feed over time until it overwhelms,” says Geraldine Joaquim, a therapist who specialises in managing mental health at work.

Stress also tends to ‘spotlight’ the issue, meaning we can’t focus on anything else, just the thing that is causing the stress, which exacerbates the problem

“If the rewards of the job are not greater than the stress it causes (i.e. rate of pay, job satisfaction, allowing time to do other things), eventually the worker can get to a point where they can’t cope, they might suffer a panic attack, go into depression, have physical symptoms like high blood pressure, all of which would be detrimental to their overall wellbeing and health.”

“Stress also tends to ‘spotlight’ the issue, meaning we can’t focus on anything else, just the thing that is causing the stress, which exacerbates the problem,” she adds.

But for many, simply turning to a mental health professional to seek help isn’t that simple.

Appointments to see a therapist tend to fall between standard working hours, and with services grossly underfunded, waiting lists for an appointment can be long.

deliveroo
Deliveroo staff (Image: Taylor Herring)

Presently, mental health care accounts for about 12% of NHS spending yet mental ill health represents about 23% of need. About 57% of Clinical Commissioning Groups planned to spend less of their total funding on mental health this year compared to 2015/16. And as society moves forward with tackling the stigma of mental health, sufferers can often feel isolated and struggle to find the hours to resolve their issues when they are pushed to the brink.

“I got to the point where I collapsed with exhaustion,” says bartender Georgia.

“I was working an internship on a 9-5 basis, and then I’d have half an hour to walk to my job and then I’d finish at midnight. I’d work all weekend, and didn’t have a day off for three months,” she says.

“Now I couldn’t just turn to my parents for money. Not as many people can as you think. And my parents don’t really understand my mental health issues either. They’d think I was exaggerating, or just overworked. It was only when I was given anti-depressants that they started to realise just how bad it had got,” she adds.

Economic and social issue

As Andrew* — who worked as a Deliveroo driver on top of his regular 8.30 – 6.30, five days a week role as an academic — is keen to point out, the thriving gig economy is both an economic and social issue.

While the work and pensions select committee and the business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) committee have proposed draft legislation to close loopholes that allow “irresponsible companies to underpay workers”, workers are striking to speed up the change.

“The gig economy isn’t just an economic problem, it’s a social problem. The only way to resolve it is by changing the way society works. And for me, the only way to do that is through organising,” Andrew says.

Dealing with a diagnosis of depression on top of chasing deliveries, Andrew became increasingly angry as he saw his wages plummet to £4 an hour, sometimes unable to make enough sales to top up his wage.

Deliveroo says its employees earn an average of £9.50 an hour, and that “84% of our riders are happy or very happy working with us, and we receive 10,000 rider applications every week”.

And when he was knocked off his bike, and his phone was smashed, he decided he wanted to take action.

“In Brighton, we had collective organisation. We involved a union branch, we went on strike,” he said.

And while the gig economy harbours isolation, self-doubt and anxiety, it became clear the recognising a common cause helped Andrew to start to piece his life back together again.

“All of us were grinning at each other like lunatics. On the back of a shit job, we’d all started working together. It was incredibly empowering to have a strike, with the Deliveroo drivers riding around the city. It was like this atomised job had turned into something together, where we were winning.”

*Names have been changed

27th November 2017