According to the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), there are currently 5 million people in the UK working in the gig economy, which equates to about 15% of all of the full-time and part-time workers in the United Kingdom.
Gig economy workers are defined as workers who are paid for each individual ‘gig’ (e.g. food delivery, rideshare, or parcel drop-off) that they complete. This differentiates them from freelance workers or typical employees who get paid by the hour, day, or on a salary.
Some of the most well-known companies that are part of the gig economy in the UK are Uber, Deliveroo, Just Eat, Amazon, DPD, and Ocado.
Through the pandemic that swept the world into various lockdowns for the last year, the amount of people working in the gig economy has soared. For example, Just Eat saw courier applications increase by 80% in March 2020 alone. Many of those employed as gig workers were classed as key workers throughout the pandemic, being relied upon to deliver food and parcels, and to provide transport to us all.
But what impact does the gig economy have on the mental health of those involved?
Gig working allows people to work around their existing lifestyle and schedule. It can be ideal for students, part-time workers, or stay-at-home parents who want to supplement the household income.
Where many students used to rely on waitressing and bartending jobs to sustain them through their studies, they are now more able to choose their own schedules. They no longer need to work in the bar every Friday night – instead, they can enjoy their Friday night with friends and work other days, evenings, or weekends of their choosing.
It can also be a good way for those with certain mental health conditions or disabilities to enter the workforce on their own terms. Those with mental health conditions tend to face higher rates of unemployment and can end up earning less than their counterparts each year.
According to a report from the financial firm Prudential, gig work was most common among Millennials (born roughly between 1981 and 1996) but is becoming increasingly more common with Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) and the Gen X (1965-1980) age ranges, who tend to be forced into the gig economy after losing their full-time jobs.
Gig workers are classed as self-employed contractors, rather than employees, and so companies do not have the same duties of care to their couriers or users as they do to their traditional employees. However, this could start to change since the February 19th Supreme Court battle with Uber.
In the meantime, gig work has been described as “Darwinian survival of the fittest” by Steven Power (the global president of Deputy). The gig economy doesn’t offer the basic benefits that a more typical employee would receive, such as sick pay, annual leave, maternity pay, and so on.
Essentially, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.
This might have encouraged gig workers to continue delivering food and offering transport whilst knowingly infected with the Coronavirus – however this is simply speculation.
Gig workers were putting themselves in high-risk situations through the pandemic, exposing themselves to many customers and users in order to earn a living, increasing their risk of contracting Covid-19, and their ability to infect others.
Aside from the coronavirus, the gig economy might generally be overpromising on earnings in their recruitment drives, as earnings can often depend on the number of jobs completed, surge pricing (i.e., with Uber), and the luck (or foresight) to be in the right place at the right time (i.e., a busy city centre on a Friday night as opposed to a suburb in the middle of the afternoon).
Underemployment, which is defined as working less than 30 hours per week (when the aim is to work 30 hours per week), has been linked to increased stress levels and has been likened to the impact of unemployment on one’s mental health. In essence, not being able to work as many hours as you would like to has the same impact as not being able to secure work at all.
If you are supplementing your income, working less than 30 hours a week is probably not a stressor, but if your gig work is your only source of income, and you have a mortgage to pay and/or family to support, your stress levels are likely to increase.
Furthermore, gig workers have reported that it is almost impossible to prioritise your mental health, or even your sleep when you are solely relying on gig work to sustain yourself. Workers report checking their phones in the middle of the night to see if there is a payment surge in operation. They have also reported that the most profitable shifts are often also the most chaotic and busy shifts, leaving many to feel as if they have no choice but to put work before their mental health.
Living in this constant high state of stress can lead to increases in hormones such as cortisol which, in turn, can have physical impacts on the body such as increased blood pressure and inflamed digestive systems.
From the evidence thus far, it appears that whether the gig economy has a positive or negative impact on your mental health is often down to your personality and circumstances.
Those that find working in an office or traditional company causes increased anxiety and stress might find the experience of working for themselves quite freeing and liberating.
Whereas those that enjoy structure and routine might find the flexibility of the gig economy increases their anxiety levels and harms their mental health.
If you do choose, or need, to work in the gig economy, it will be important that you protect your mental health through the use of strong boundaries, self-discipline, planned time off, and a good support system.
If you’d like professional therapeutic support then get in touch with us by calling 020 8673 4545 or emailing [email protected] We have appointments available at our centres in Clapham and Tooting, seven days a week.