When the pandemic hit in early 2020, many of us increasingly turned to gig workers to have meals, groceries and other household necessities delivered to our doorsteps.
The increased demand for these services during this period meant that online labor platforms were an alternative source of income for at least some of the workers who had been laid off as part of the resulting economic shutdowns. For other workers looking to reduce their exposure to the virus, online crowdwork platforms offered remote job opportunities that could be performed from the safety of their home.
During a period of unprecedent upheaval, risk and uncertainty, then, the gig economy provided some much-needed flexibility and convenience to many consumers and workers. These purported benefits remain core to platform firms’ marketing strategies as they seek to expand in a future post-pandemic economy.
Contrasting views of platform work
There is an emerging consensus, however, that this convenience and flexibility comes with a price—one that is overwhelmingly borne by the workers providing these services. Increasing numbers of organized protests led by platform workers in recent years have shone a light on the substandard and exploitive working conditions associated with this growing form of employment.
The workers behind these protests challenge a narrative from platform firms that portrays gig workers as entrepreneurs seeking to escape the rigid constraints of wage work. This narrative suggests that the on-demand labor model that is enabled by platform technology empowers workers so that they are free to choose when they work and for how long. Earning opportunities are flexible and endless, constrained only by an individual’s will to work.
In contrast to this entrepreneurial vision of the gig economy, others argue that platform workers’ day-to-day experiences more closely resemble those of precarious wage workers. Reports of low wages, unpredictable work schedules and pervasive job insecurity are common across a range of workers engaged in location-based and remote online platform work.
Dependent platform workers struggle with poorer mental health
As sociologists of work stress, we were interested in looking for evidence supporting either of these opposing views of the gig economy by examining platform workers’ mental health. If the entrepreneurial view is accurate, we would expect to find better mental health among platform workers, given the robust relationship between job control and reduced work stress. Conversely, if platform work resembles a form of precarious wage work, we should observe poorer mental health among platform workers.
As it turned out, the answer to our question was more complicated. Our recently published research reveals that the relationship between platform work engagement and mental health may be contingent on the extent of a worker’s attachment to the gig economy.
Analyzing two representative samples of Canadian workers in 2020 and 2021, we found that workers who considered platform work as their main employment reported greater psychological distress compared to traditional wage workers. In contrast, the mental health of those using platform work as a secondary income—the largest group of platform workers—was not discernably different from those working outside of the gig economy.
Our findings support recent research that cautions against treating platform workers as a single, homogenous group. Workers are drawn to online labor platforms for a variety of reasons—for flexibility, additional income, necessity and even fun. Each of these reasons implies a different degree of dependency that should be consequential for how workers experience platform work. Those using platform work to supplement their primary income may feel more independence and freedom than those reliant on this work and who are under more pressure to accept job requests.
Financial strain, and not psychosocial work conditions, explains platform workers’ poorer health
Guided by existing theories of work stress, we predicted that these divergent experiences should signal varying exposure to psychosocial job demands and job resources for dependent versus supplemental earners, resulting in worse mental health outcomes for the former group. Interestingly, however, we found that psychosocial work conditions, including autonomy and schedule control, explained little of dependent platform workers’ poorer mental health. Instead, dependent platform workers’ higher financial strain—a particularly deleterious role stressor—accounted for approximately fifty percent of their mental health disadvantage.
Dependent platform workers not only struggled with more financial problems; they also experienced these issues as more distressing. Our findings therefore show no support for the view that platform work represents either a solution to mitigating financial hardship or as a buffer that reduces its impact as a stressor. Instead, this type of work actually exacerbated the mental health consequences of hardship for the dependent earners that we studied.
Unfair pay in the gig economy
Our findings resonate with a core complaint of gig workers that they are denied access to fair pay. The issue of pay fairness is one that some governments, including the Ontario provincial government in Canada, have recently sought to address by requiring minimum wage legislation to cover gig workers. Yet these laws typically only apply to the time that gig workers are engaged in an assignment. When workers’ unpaid time spent waiting for assignments is factored in, their actual hourly wages are likely to be considerably less.
And while workers technically are free to work as many hours as they desire, many struggle to earn a living wage without resorting to working evenings and weekends—leading to family-unfriendly work schedules that are a far cry from the “flexibility” narrative espoused by platform firms.
In a post-pandemic economy, we may see the popularity of online labor platforms continue to grow as they attract more consumers and workers craving flexibility and convenience. However, our findings add to a growing body of research that suggests that, in its current form, the on-demand labor model offered by platform firms is largely incompatible with the needs of those that rely on this work for their primary, full-time employment.
Paul Glavin and Scott Schieman. “Dependency and hardship in the gig economy: The mental health consequences of platform work” in Socius 2022.
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