Everything from unrealistic expectations to healthcare can exacerbate depression and anxiety.

Here’s How the Stress of the Gig Economy Can Affect Your Mental Health
Everything from unrealistic expectations to healthcare.

When Harry Campbell first started working as a rideshare driver in 2014, he was intrigued by the benefits that companies like Uber and Lyft always tout: flexible hours and extra money. But Campbell, who now runs Rideshare Guy, a destination for advice and insight for gig workers, admits that what he found was a lot more than pocket change.

“It’s very taxing, both mentally and physically,” he explains. “It can be isolating. There’s a tendency to always be looking at your phone, always checking the map. The more driving you do, the more stressful it is.”

The ability to work whenever you want and earn money at your own rate has been the bedrock of the gig economy, a loosely defined kind of contract work that typically means workers operate as independent contractors, providing services through apps.

These traits also promise to offer relief from the mental health pitfalls of a regular job: no cubicles, no early morning meetings, and no impossible deadlines. Gig workers can pick up shifts around their existing schedules while alleviating some financial strain.

However, where some workers see flexibility, others see a lack of structure that can exacerbate issues like anxiety and depression. The precarious nature of gig economy earnings can increase feelings of stress and added pressure that traditional labor doesn’t have. All of which means this promising new free market system can also be extremely damaging for its workers’ mental health.

With burnout on the rise, more folks are considering the lure of gig economy work. In fact, a 2018 Gallup poll found that around 36 percent of all workers in the United States have some sort of alternative arrangement, whether that’s a freelance job, an Etsy shop, or a gig job through an app like TaskRabbit, Instacart, Amazon Fresh, or Uber.

Many people use gig work for extra cash or supplemental income. But for 29 percent of workers, reported Gallup, the alternative arrangement is their primary income.

For Sarah Anne Lloyd, who works as the editor for Curbed Seattle — a stable, unionized, part-time job — gig work has helped round out her income.

“For the past two years, I’ve had a part-time job and have relied more heavily on gigs. Some of those are freelance writing — more my chosen career — but I also contract with a cat-sitting company,” she says. She also spent some time as a Postmates driver and notes that she recently finished her certification as a yoga instructor, which she describes as “gig work more often than not.”

For people with mental health conditions, gig work offers an alternative approach to the workforce

For those living with certain mental health conditions, gig work also offers an alternative entrance into the workforce. Surveys of national data indicate that these individuals face higher rates of unemployment and tend to earn much less per year.

But working is also a critical component of mental health, says Dr. Yavar Moghimi, chief psychiatric medical officer for AmeriHealth Caritas.

“It’s a big, big way that people find meaning in their life. It keeps them interacting with people on a regular basis. It’s a major social outlet, talking to co-workers or having that conversation with customers.”

Moghimi says that for many individuals living with mental health issues, the normal job search process can be difficult. The gig economy can, instead, offer another avenue, especially if it avoids the traditional pitfalls of an unhealthy work environment, like poor communication and management practices or unclear tasks and organizational objectives.

In theory, the gig economy could avoid these strains, as app-based gigs make it clear where workers are supposed to be and when. In practice, though, the structures of gig work — like a lack of managerial support or community and punitive rating systems — present numerous additional risk factors.

One of the most damaging aspects of the gig economy is the feeling that workers can never really earn as much as they’re promised. Numerous reports have found that most Uber and Lyft drivers earn less than promised. One report from Earnest found that 45 percent of Uber drivers earn less than $100 per month. This is, in large part, due to unrealistic expectations of gig workers, which can lead to huge mental strain.

Lloyd found this to be true when she was driving for Postmates, a food delivery service.

“One time I was driving for Postmates in North Seattle, and I got an assignment to deliver from a Taco Time just barely within my call range to someone just barely inside a lower payment tier. The whole ordeal took me almost an hour — between getting to the Taco Time, waiting for the order to be ready, and getting to the front door — and the client didn’t tip, so I made $4 from the whole ordeal,” she explains.

“Basically, I made $4 an hour, less than a third of Seattle’s minimum wage.”

Poverty is, on its own, a mental illness risk factor. Stress over money and debt can lead to increased anxiety symptoms and even exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. Living in a constant high level of stress creates a flood of hormones like cortisol, which can lead to physical reactions, including high blood pressure and digestive inflammation.

“When you’re operating under that [poverty] mindset, it becomes very hard to prioritize other needs,” Moghimi says. “Everything else kind of gets dropped for the pursuit of whatever the next bar is.”

It can also make it next to impossible to take care of your mental health. Because for all of the talk about flexibility, working in an on-demand industry like food delivery or ridesharing means that some shifts — usually the hardest, most hectic ones — are just worth more.

“Drivers have to plan shifts around the times and places with the most demand to actually make the kind of money that’s estimated in those recruiting ads,” Lloyd says, who saw it in her own work and as someone who uses apps. “More than once I’ve gotten a Lyft driver that lives an hour or two away from the city and braves the long commute in the early morning to make more money, or has to drive back in the wee hours.”

Campbell, too, says that the fear of not earning enough, or not maximizing your earning hours, is what keeps drivers chained to their phone. He says drivers that “chase the surge” will often be “picking up their phones all night” to see if there’s even a little bit more money to be made. If they don’t, it could be the difference between putting gas in the car for the next shift or making rent. The stakes, in that way, are high. And that can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.

Moghimi says that when gig work is purely supplemental — on top of disability pay or in addition to a spouse’s income, for example — it can be positive. But for those who are relying on their gig work full time to pay the bills, it can exacerbate existing issues. Campbell agrees, stating that even though he’s made a career out of driving for rideshare companies, it’s “not a sustainable, long-term” job.

Gig workers are, as Lyft and Uber will tell you, small business owners. They take on many of the same challenges, like figuring out complicated taxes and insurance issues and paying the federal self-employment tax, which adds up to a total of 15.3 percent. They have to calculate their mileage and be diligent with their spending. They may even have to pay local business taxes, which can cancel out any additional earnings.

Unfortunately, they often miss out on the built-in benefits of regular jobs and other flexible work, like freelancing independently or working remotely.

“Being able to work from home has vastly improved my mental health,” Lloyd says. “But it’s the freelance work, not the more traditional gig work, that lets me stay at home.” The gig work, she explains, is what keeps her chained to an app, driving across town, hoping for good ratings.

You’re doing everything you can to keep your rating, but you’re seeing other drivers getting deactivated for things they can’t control.

Unlike other flexible work, gig work relies on customer service and pleasing the user. Both Uber and Lyft require drivers to maintain a rating of 4.6 stars, says Campbell. This means most riders have to give a perfect score, and drivers can be deactivated if riders don’t rate them highly enough.

“You’re doing everything you can to keep your rating, but you’re seeing other drivers getting deactivated left and right for things they can’t control,” says Chris Palmer, who delivered for DoorDash, another food delivery system. As an example, he says, “If the food isn’t prepared right, we get a bad rating.”

While some companies offer healthcare options, it’s often still unaffordable

One of the longest-standing benefits of traditional work has been access to healthcare. To catch up, apps like Uber and Lyft have worked to make it accessible. Uber has partnered with Stride, a platform that helps people find an insurance provider. But those healthcare plans are often still not affordable; without employee subsidies, healthcare costs continue to skyrocket for gig workers.

“I pay for my own healthcare, and one of the reasons I gig and freelance is because I need to pay for my care,” says Lloyd, who sees a therapist and uses medication. “Since I started buying an exchange plan [healthcare offered through the state] two years ago, my premium has gone up more than $170 per month.”

Access to affordable insurance is one barrier to receiving mental healthcare, but it’s certainly not the only one. Many Americans who live with mental illness are insured but still unable to get into a functional treatment program. In fact, while an estimated 5.3 million Americans live with acute mental illness and have no insurance at all, nearly five times that number are insured but aren’t in treatment.

There are a variety of reasons why an insured person might not be in treatment. Shortages of professionals, including therapists and counselors, put mental healthcare out of reach for folks with unpredictable schedules and no paid time off.

People often have to make several contacts with psychiatric offices and can expect to wait, on average, just under a month to get in for their first appointment. Once they’re in, those appointments might feel rushed, and there’s no way to meet with several providers to find the best fit.

The American Psychological Association advises that the optimal number of treatments is up to 30 appointments in a six-month span, or weekly appointments for 12 to 16 weeks. As many as 20 percent of patients, they say, drop out prematurely. Other research has found 50 percent drop out by the third session.

Typical job benefits, like sick days, subsidized healthcare, and reliable income can all be massively beneficial to those who are living with mental illness. Palmer, who says he was “not well” while he was delivering for DoorDash, says that transitioning into a more traditional job has been a game changer.

“Stability has been key,” he explains.

That describes perhaps the biggest challenge the gig economy poses to the mental health of its workers. Though companies promise flexibility, there are added stressors that go along with gig work, which can be compounded by the ways that contract work fails to support the people who do it.

“The gig economy takes advantage of laws designed for freelancing and small business-building,” Lloyd says. “They treat working for yourself like working for somebody else.”

That disconnect results in unpredictable wages, particularly as more and more alternatives flood the market. Companies like Instacart have used the contractor model to avoid paying federal or state minimum wages, using customer tips as part of the wage algorithm. This meant that when a customer “tipped” their delivery person, they were actually just paying them for their service while the app took a cut.

When labor activists with Working Washington, who Palmer now volunteers with, complained about the practice, Instacart changed its payment structure twice in a matter of weeks.

When the wages are unsteady and highly motivated by the whims of customers, there’s a precarious balance. The daily stress of managing expenses like gas, mileage, and customer service, as well as the added difficulty of affording and finding mental healthcare, can leave some gig workers feeling more fried than they would in a 9-to-5.

That said, the contract model can be a massive relief for some workers, especially those who have lived with a long-term mental illness. The ability to set their own hours, coupled with part-time work that might enable them to also receive disability or other assistance, is unique in a labor market that’s traditionally been unwelcoming for folks needing accommodations.

If the companies that make up the behemoth gig economy can continue to listen to workers and meet their needs — whether it’s grace around star ratings, assistance with healthcare costs, or ensuring a living base wage — it may continue to add value. Without some serious safety nets, though, the gig economy will continue to be a solution for some but a potential mental health risk for many.

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer. Her work has previously appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, Salon, New York Daily News, Bitch Magazine, Fast Company, and The Establishment. She lives in Seattle with her small dog.