ORGANIZING FOR BENEFITS AND PROTECTIONS WOULD IMPROVE THE MENTAL HEALTH OF INDY WORKERS
In last week’s New York Magazine article “I Love the Freelance Life, But It’s Taking a Toll on My Mental Health,” author Cinnamon Janzer describes her experience of the mental turmoil brought on by her work as a freelancer:
“My work as a freelance writer had been s-l-o-w. Days without much work bled into weeks, and somewhere along the way the catastrophizing, negative thoughts began to creep in. This is what failure is, I thought. I was convinced that I’d burn through my little savings in no time and end up broke, not even able to do basic things like feed the dog or pay the bills. Even though, up until that point, things had been consistent and — dare I say — even moderately prosperous for me, I was sure that any success I’d had was sheer luck, and that my luck had run out.”
In fact, Janzer cites a German study that found “poor subjective health was reported by 37 percent of the German freelancers who participated.” Moreover, the researchers “‘found a more specific pattern of health problems in freelancers: chronic strain and a reduced ability to relax,’ as a result of long working hours in conjunction with an unpredictable workload.” Janzen also notes a study of indy workers from Sweden that “identified high job insecurity and financial difficulties as the most common stressors, and tied them to ‘sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, a high prevalence of antidepressant drug use, and ‘presenteeism,’ a term for continuing to work in the face of illness or other factors that warrant a break.'” In other words, Janzer’s experience is not an anomaly.
While Janzer rightly calls for access to counseling for indy workers, her comment that the growing gig economy will mean more people exposed to “the work conditions that beget the mental-health issues that freelancers…experience,” betrays an understanding of present work structures as unchangeable.
Janzer’s own experience, combined with that of other indy workers interviewed in the article and the results of the research studies, reveal that the work conditions proving detrimental to mental health primarily involve job insecurity and thus financial insecurity. Because indy work is contract work, there is no guarantee that when one contract ends another will take its place. Indy workers can go days and even months between gigs while rent/mortgage, bills, health care, groceries, debt, etc., use financial resources regardless of whether one is actively working or not.
Counseling may indeed be one part of a solution to the decrease in mental health among indy workers, but the larger and even more effective solution would be to advance a political and policy agenda that accounts for the changing structure of work in the 21st century. It’s time for new and innovative ideas on ways to bring job and financial security to indy workers.
For example, one such idea seeks to make traditional benefits like health care and retirement savings available to contract workers by having these benefits move with workers as they move from job to job. Such portable benefits are one way of providing security in changed environment.
In a similar marriage of an “older” solution to worker insecurity (i.e., benefits) with the “new” context of work in the 21st century (i.e., making benefits portable), the Aspen Institute suggests looking to current multi-employment plans, such as those used by the Screen Actors Guild, as inspiration for solving the job and financial insecurity that causes anguish for indy workers like Janzen. As the author’s of the report, “Portable Benefits in the 21st Century,” write:
“One additional component of some Multiemployer Plans is the concept of an ‘hour bank,’ which provides for continuous coverage of benefits, despite fluctuating hours. For each hour of employment, the worker “banks” the hourly contribution defined in the bargaining agreement. A worker must meet a certain threshold of hours to become eligible to receive benefits (for example 140 hours per month) and hours worked beyond that threshold are ‘banked’ for future months. Further, an employee can bank hours earned from multiple employers that are members of the same plan. If a worker’s number of hours drops below the threshold in future months, due to a job ending, weather, or other factors, hours will be deducted from the bank to maintain eligibility. This arrangement is particularly relevant in industries with short-term projects, multiple employers, and seasonal working conditions, such as the construction industry, as the hour bank can fill gaps in employment.”
Of course, access to health care benefits for indy workers would also mean access to mental health counseling, and the above is certainly not to deny the need for such access. On the other hand, personal therapy is not the sum of the solution to mental health issues caused by the current structuring of indy work and the benefits and protections afforded to workers. In the end, it is only by coming together and organizing for better working conditions that workers in the past have achieved a semblance of job, financial, and mental health security. There’s every reason to believe that the same is true for workers in the gig economy now, and in the future.