Despite flexibility, gig work proves harmful to workers

August 28, 2022

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Despite flexibility, gig work proves harmful to workers

Insecure income associated with nontraditional employment known as “gig work” has a negative impact on the overall health and well-being of U.S. workers, according to new research published in Social Science & Medicine.

Gig work includes employment where people are paid by the piece of completed work, by the hour, or by the day, rather than a traditional employer-employee relationship. Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Handy are examples of gig companies, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Using data from the 2008-2019 IPUMS Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, researchers found that insecure income from gig work contributed to poor health outcomes among the national workforce, including a sicker workforce, higher unreimbursed healthcare costs, and greater costs to the consumer.

What the researchers say: “The longer-term economic burden will ultimately be passed onto the U.S. consumer as we see increases in worker shortages, increases in prices from gig companies, and increases in unreimbursed health care utilization,” said the lead author. “It is reasonable to project that the U.S. taxpayer will pay more for uninsured chronic morbidity care of uninsured U.S. workers who are paid an insecure income.”

The study’s key findings include:

  • Insecure income earners reported a 50% increase in poor overall health and psychological distress compared to salary earners.
  • The poor health effects of piece work were somewhat eased on workers when accounting for socioeconomic factors, but the trend of increased health risks remained constant, especially for women, those with less than a college degree, financially poorer workers, and non-white-collar workers.
  • Black and Hispanic workers earning insecure income were more likely to report poor health than their white counterparts.
  • Higher rates of hourly pay reduced, but did not remove, the correlation between insecure income and workers’ health.

The research comes at a time when gig companies are pushing to classify workers as independent contractors, rather than employees, in state courts and legislatures in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the U.S. and the world.

While the paper utilized pre-COVID-19 data, the researchers say their findings suggest that COVID-era gig workers will likely see an even greater increase in poor overall health and psychological distress.

So, what? Part of the problem with gig work, which the researchers behind this study didn’t mention, is that gig work necessitates separation from a work “tribe”. That means that casual workers have less emotional and physical support. This has been shown over numerous studies to be detrimental to the functioning of the immune system and therefore leads to greater physical and mental ill health.

Working from home, even if the employee has a stable job, can have the same effect.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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