Precarious “gigs” are a perfect storm for occupational health
Psychologist Dr Joanna Wilde, a member of the board of directors of the Council for Work and Health, on the toxic combination of stress and occupational health risks in the “gig economy”.
The “gig economy” covers many different arrangements, but the key fact underpinning the use of this term is that there are growing numbers of people working on limited term projects and placements and in what used to be described as a piece arrangement
Sometimes this shift in employment structure is described as a growth in entrepreneurial activity in the UK, but this is misleading: there is evidence that the majority would prefer to be in more conventional employment arrangements.
Linked to this idea of the gig economy has been a growing awareness of zero hours contracts and the possible dangers associated with these.
To understand the most serious impacts on occupational health from these, we need to move from considering the idea of a “gig” structure alone to what happens when such short term work intersects with different pay levels.
Some workers may be content with the flexibility that zero hours contracts bring. For example, independent IT contractors or locum GPs, paid many hundreds of pounds a day, may find the work-life balance that such an arrangement affords offsets any long term concerns they may have about income.
“The damage caused by bad work needs attention at structural and policy levels, with a clear focus on the obligations to workers and those too ill to work in a fair society.”
However, when such arrangements intersect with low pay they create what the British Psychological Society has described as “precarious work” and there is clear evidence that this is hazardous to health.
The potential consequences of precarious work are increased likelihood of physical ill health, damaged mental health, lack of access to occupational health support and the inability to afford any form of health insurance that could cover being unable to work.
Precarious work activates many psychosocial hazards, all of which are documented by the HSE as cause for concern and requiring risk management by a responsible employer:
1. The work is low control as there is no certainty of work from one ‘gig’ to the next.
2. The work is low support because working relationships are not consistent.
3. The work is also high demand as they regularly pay under the minimum wage (as per the Uber judgement) so requiring people to work too many hours merely to get by and feed their families.
When considering physical health and safety risks, long hours alone are of concern because of the impact of fatigue on concentration and safety. Long hours combined with the lack of support create substantial barriers to wellbeing through inhibiting the amount of time that any worker has to spend on positive health behaviours such as talking with friends and colleagues, eating well, time with family, moderation in drinking and exercise.
These psychosocial hazards also cause stress. In addition to the mental health problems associated with stress, 20 years of in depth research evidence makes it quite clear that work-related stress also causes an increased incidence of infectious diseases, cancer and heart disease.
We have a crisis around occupational health for those workers subject to precarious work which is not limited to the dangers inherent in these working structures. Those in such precarious work also have inhibited access to services that could remedy the occupational health damage done.
While those at the high pay end of the gig economy can afford and access personal health insurance, critical illness cover and private occupational health provision, this is not the case for workers treated as quasi “self-employed” and paid well below the minimum wage, due to the lack of protected rights.
“Despite the claims to the contrary, and with the best will in the world, such problems from bad work cannot be fixed at an individual level with six sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy offered at a job centre.”
This combination of low pay, compromised rights, bad work and a lack of access to meaningful occupational health support means we currently have a toxic combination in this low pay gig economy which is the perfect storm.
Precarious work will cause people to fall ill and then potentially into long term sickness absence and disability, with all the associated costs to our health care provision, damaged families and weakened communities – a phenomenon that is currently being described as the “disability employment gap”.
The damage caused by bad work needs attention at structural and policy levels, with a clear focus on the obligations to workers and those too ill to work in a fair society.
Despite the claims to the contrary, and with the best will in the world, such problems from bad work cannot be fixed at an individual level with six sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy offered at a job centre.
Psychological health at work is a key priority of The British Psychological Society. The society is currently working on a new report, led by director of policy Kathryn Scott to bring together all the psychosocial evidence relevant to make essential recommendations about improving the world of work for all.
Dr Joanne Wilde is on the board of the Council for Work and Health, which works to protect and support the health of the working age population and makes representations to government and employers on how to secure this
She is also chair of the British Psychology Society’s work and health policy group. Her career as a chartered work psychologist focused on organisational effectiveness and workplace wellbeing has been in large global organisations.