According to Wood, “the most obvious impact is sleep deprivation,” which reinforces the vicious cycle of little rest and long hours. “People would be more productive if they didn’t have these long hours. But the way the businesses are set up means that people cannot maximise that productivity because they have to be working late at night to meet a deadline.” Freelance platforms have been under fire for glorifying such unhealthy lifestyles, with good reason.
His study does not show how many of these ‘gig’ workers actually work for very long hours, and he clarifies that things are usually a lot better for freelancers in Europe, the UK and the US, who have more specialised skills and a lot more bargaining power. Still, in the Global South, there are signs that this cycle of overwork is becoming ingrained. More than half of the workers interviewed by Wood and his team said that they had to work at very high speed, 60% worked to tight deadlines, and 22% experienced physical pain as a result of their work.
Always ‘on call’
The era when work ended as people left the office is long gone. Checking and answering messages from work seems unavoidable – and even desirable for some people, as they feel it allows them to outperform competitors, or to spend more time with family without losing track of their jobs. As put by a 2006 academic paper from Ian Towers, a researcher from SRH Hochschule in Berlin, mobile technology “increases expectations: managers and colleagues alike expect staff to be almost always available to do work”.
But being ‘on call’ is not the same as being off work, and the way our body reacts to both situations is very different. A 2016 study found that the cortisol levels (the hormone that regulates the ‘fight or flight’ reaction and plays a role in raising stress levels) of people ‘on call’ rise faster in the mornings than those of people who are not required to be available, even if they don’t end up working that day.
This hormone usually has its peak concentration when we wake up, and it decreases on the rest of the day. But scientists believe everyday stress factors tamper with its cycle in several ways: it rises faster when you expect a stressful day (researchers believe this may be the case here), its levels remain high if you are chronically stressed, and it does not rise if you are going through a ‘burnout syndrome’ – something usually preceded by a chronic stress period.
As a result, people also find it more difficult “mentally detaching work from non-work” when they are ‘on call’, as well as choosing to do the activities that they really want – a trait researchers call ‘control’. In other words: workers don’t feel like the time they are ‘on call’ is really their own, and their stress levels rise accordingly. Hence, researchers conclude that days where availability is demanded “cannot be considered leisure time, because recovery – a crucial function of leisure time – is restricted under such circumstances”.
What to do?
Working for days at a time is not smart, even if you are Elon Musk. The news of his unhealthy work routine has not been well received by investors, and Tesla’s stock fell 8.8% shortly after the NYT interview, amid suspicions of Musk’s poor mental health. Take it as a sobering tale: if you can avoid working for days at a time, just do it, as it has no positive effects on your health, your well-being, or your productivity. Even if you think you are an exception, most likely you are not.
The big problem is for the most vulnerable freelancers, who don’t seem to have a chance to stop the cycle of overworking and diminishing productivity. The underlying problem, as Wood says, is that “clients are able to damage future earnings for workers”, while freelancers have little bargaining power.
It is unlikely that these platforms move to change this, especially when this business model allows them to move billions of dollars each year. Meanwhile, if you happen to hire a freelancer online, it might be better to give your ‘hired hand’ some extra time: they might not only do a better work, but their life could be a lot better as a result.
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