Why Freelancers Are So Depressed

It's not just February. The work-home blur, social isolation, money woes, and heightened personal risk all mean being a freelancer can be dangerous for your mental health.

When Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz created a health plan for independent workers, a top concern of her members was access to mental health care. "You work with coal miners and you learn everything there is about black lung," Horowitz told the Village Voice last week. "You work with freelancers and you learn about depression."

Is it true that those of us who make our own hours (I’m one of them these days) are more prone to the blues? It’s a depressing thought.
Job satisfaction or dissatisfaction has been shown for decades to have a strong impact on mental and physical health. National polls on the topic show the self-employed are least likely to report themselves as "thriving," at 14 percent—compared to 22 percent for the unemployed!
Here are five ways working alone can contribute to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

1. Who’s the boss?
Psychologists identify two major dimensions of job stress: the sheer demands of the job and autonomy or control. A job that has high demands and long hours—say, CEO—can still be very satisfying because of the ability to make decisions and control one’s time.

Autonomy is a major draw of freelancing: the ability to make your own hours, make your own decisions, and balance work with family. Yet according to several studies, "Overall, self-employment was found to be associated with relatively few mental health benefits," as a 2004 Australian study put it. Men in the study had no health benefit, while self-employed women actually had worse health than women with more traditional jobs. A second, American focusing on women from 2002 found that whether you were self-employed or not had no direct influence on mental health, and self-employment didn’t even benefit work-family balance for most women.

How can this be? Well, maybe autonomy is less important than other factors that negatively affect freelancers. Or it could be the definition of autonomy is slippery. A lot of people choose self-employment only to find themselves at the mercy of clients and customers rather than bosses, with overlapping rather than coordinated deadlines and a feast-or-famine rhythm.

2. The work/home blur.
In one study of Dutch self-employed workers, the sheer number of hours worked didn’t cause negative effects. But another dimension of what the researchers termed "workaholism" was the inability to separate work and home. People who couldn’t stop thinking about work or checking their email at the dinner table reported more aches and pains, more exhaustion, and felt that they were doing a worse job. When you work from home, obviously, it’s especially difficult to leave your work at work.

3. Money problems.
Most contract, freelance, and other nontraditional employees earn less than other workers at the same level of education and skill, even when hours worked is taken into account. Only a small percentage are able to out-earn their friends with "regular" jobs. Polls show a strong negative relationship between lower and fluctuating income and mental health even when other factors are controlled for.

4. Social isolation.
A lack of strong relationships is an acute risk factor for major depression and addiction. At a minimum, going into an office every day requires you to shower, get dressed, and at least nod to a couple of people. Freelancers are in danger of having less sustaining human contact.

5. Higher risk.
How scared are you of losing your job or not being able to pay rent next month? In 2010, researchers in Barcelona, Spain, introduced the Employment Precariousness Scale to measure the psychological impact of job uncertainty.

Job insecurity haunts salaried workers too, of course, but freelancers face larger fluctuations in their income and levels of busy- or not-busyness over the day, the week, and the year. And by definition they have less access to the health, retirement, and insurance benefits that may help traditionally employed folks sleep a little better at night.

Are you a freelancer? Do you find it motivating or depressing? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Jrmllvr]

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