Higher workloads can make freelance workers happier

December 11, 2015

As the hours of freelance or portfolio workers fluctuate, so does their well-being, finds a new study published in the SAGE journal Human Relations.

The study surveyed 45 freelance workers over a period of 6 months. With each participant completing an identical survey each week for 6 months, the researchers found that freelance workers are calmer and more enthusiastic when their hours are higher than their normal pattern of working. However, when the demands they face become increasingly difficult, their anxiety levels increase and they may even become depressed. As the researchers, Stephen Wood of the University of Leicester, and George Michaelides of Birkbeck, University of London, note:

"Increased demands adversely affect people's work-life balance; in particular work interferes with fulfilling family and other non-work commitments or pursuits."

This is so even when workers' increased workload generates enthusiasm as this is at the expense of their lives outside of work. The research shows that, regardless of whether wellbeing improves or diminishes as workload increases in either size or complexity, work-life balance suffers the same; it is the worker's wellbeing that is affected differently. And this, the researchers explain, is key:

"Demands generate what has long been called stress-based work-family/non-work interference but hours generate a largely unrecognized phenomenon, enthusiasm-based work-family/non-work interference."

However, there also some counterveiling force, as long hours can make freelance workers calmer, which has the opposite effect: it decreases work-family/non-work interference.

The enthusiasm-based theory may be limited to people whose opportunities for work and income fluctuate and zero-hour workers might be the extreme of this. The long hours needed to fulfil tasks may be seen as a challenge and not a hindrance as conflicting demands may be.

Yet the study shows that freelance workers are in other respects subject to the same pressures as other workers. Conflicting demands, which constrain and hinder people fulfilling their potential and smoothly completing tasks, adversely affect their and well-being. In addition, when they have control over, and variety in their work they are happier, which is also true for most workers.

The article 'Challenge and hindrance stressors and wellbeing-based work-nonwork interference: A diary study of portfolio workers', by Stephen Wood and George Michaelides, will be free to access for a limited time and can be read here.

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