Freelancers pushed to breaking-point by long hours and low pay

14 April 2020 5 min. read
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The majority of UK freelancers are enduring excessive stress, according to a new study. The research found that gig economy workers were much more worried about long and inflexible working hours, low pay and inflexible working than their permanent counterparts.

According to analysis of figures from the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), the UK’s gig economy is booming. It currently contains a labour pool of more than 5 million people (about 15% of the labour force), having spiked from 3.3 million (12% of the labour force) in 2001. This includes a burgeoning freelance segment, consisting of an estimated 41% of all such workers, according to the IPSE, with a collective economic output “comparable to that of the entire motor sales industry.”

Numerous studies have suggested independent workers enjoy higher pay, better work-life balance, and improved career satisfaction. While those extolling the virtues of going solo often point to these factors, however, recent months have seen a range of reports suggesting the gig economy is not the land of milk and honey it is often made out to be.

What is the greatest cause of excessive stress

The latest of these – this time from contractor payroll and accountancy firm Dolan Contractor Group – has found that a large portion of freelancers feel overworked and underpaid. The firm’s ‘Stress in the Workplace’ study gathered responses from employees and contractors of 140 companies across the UK. Respondents were asked about the causes of what was deemed ‘excessive stress at work’, how they combat stress to maintain good mental health and what their employers do to support them through stress – with some alarming results for both gig and permanent worker.

When we asked respondents if they have been affected by excessive stress the results showed that over four in every five permanent employees have had to deal with excessive stress caused by work – but an even worse 19 in 20 freelancers said the same. Of this, 46% of freelancers said that the stress they endured came from long work hours – 9% more than permanent employees – and 31% said low pay and an inability to build financial savings was the source of their anxiety. Comparatively, 27% of full-time staff said the same.

One of the most commonly cited motives for shifting into freelance work is the sense of “being your own boss,” and subsequently dictating your own work schedule. This is said by many proponents of the gig economy to allow for a better work-life balance, making for happier and more productive workers in the process. Conversely, however, Dolan’s research suggests that gig workers have a more rigid schedule than their salaried counterparts. Only 20% of permanent employees told Dolan that inflexible work hours are causing them excessive stress, compared to 36% of independents.

How have you or would you combat excessive stress

At the same time, going it alone brings with it a host of new problems which seem to be weighing especially heavily on many freelancers. Nearly one-third of contractors said red-tape and government changes like those to IR35 were causing them excessive stress – something which permanent staff did not report. As a result, a far higher 17% of permanent staff said they had never been affected by excessive stress – compared to a meagre 4% of freelancers.

Meanwhile, the isolation encountered by many freelancers is likely exacerbating the situation for members of the gig economy. Without a manager or colleagues to turn to, 17% of contractors “leave it and hope it gets better,” while only 6% of permanent workers said the same – suggesting the internal support networks of a company are more likely to encourage them to take a proactive approach to tackling mental health issues. At the same time, this has a much worse impact on freelancers’ finances likely worsening their stress, with a third taking unpaid time off to recoup, compared to 0% of permanent staff.

Commenting on the findings, Lauren Monks, Group Operations Director at Dolan Contractor Group, stated, “Stress is prevalent in all areas of work and across all industries regardless of the way you work – as a traditional employee or via your own limited company or umbrella employment, though contractors and freelancers are rarely mentioned in the conversation for stress in the workplace and mental wellbeing.”