Are independent workers more or less prone to mental illness?

Have you ever felt depressed or anxious? Symptoms of depression may include low mood, poor energy levels, feelings of guilt and poor ‘self-worth’. Anxiety symptoms may be a result of prolonged stress and include feelings of worry, fear, agitation, panic attacks,  inability to concentrate and disturbed sleep patterns.

Most people experience some period of anxiety or depression in their lives, but when these symptoms become more persistent and severe they may have debilitating or even catastrophic effects. In the UK between 15-20% of the adult population [depending on the region] will have these illnesses at any one time.

Are independent workers, as opposed to those who work through an employment contract, more prone to stress, anxiety and depression? Research presents us with a mixed picture. Those independent workers who experience higher levels of income volatility and a limited scope of available job roles appear to have a higher association of a range of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. This group of independent workers are often low paid ‘gig workers’ who have become independent workers ‘reluctantly’ rather than by choice.

At the other end of the scale are independent workers who are ‘free agents’ who have mainly sought independent working by choice and enjoy a high level of decision authority and control over their work. This group reports of higher level of job satisfaction and well-being, using subjective assessment of their lives, compared to people working through an employment contact.

Control over ‘work-life’ balance clearly has an influence on independent workers well-being and mental health, however most independent workers are exposed to some degree of income volatility, isolation and absence of a ‘safety net’ of benefits that employed workers enjoy. These factors may impact people’s mood and state of well being irrespective of their background.

How to reduce mental health risk for independent workers

In our book ‘Flex or Fail’ we outlined a ‘five point tool-kit’ for people thinking about transitioning from employed to independent working. Part of this tool-kit contained strategies for reducing risk to wellbeing and mental health that included:

  • Reducing income volatility by developing a diversified portfolio of income streams that mitigates the risk of unexpected loss of a client or workstream;
  • Combating the risk of isolated working that may precipitate loneliness and depression, through building online and offline networks, especially with individuals who live close to you and are following similar paths;
  • Ring-fencing ‘protective time’ and space on a daily basis to manage your individual wellbeing including: physical exercise, mental reflection such as meditation or other therapeutic recreational activities such as music.

Underpinning these strategies is mindfulness of your own mental state. We all have an awareness of ‘how we are feeling today’ both physically and psychologically. If there is a decline over a period of time, this should be a trigger for a ‘mindful person’ to reflect on and take action, which may include a consultation with a medical professional.

Policy makers are also crucial in addressing risks that independent workers are exposed to. Examples of policy innovation from leading countries such as the Netherlands include:

  • Improving access to training. As off Jan. 1 2020, each Dutch citizen will have access to a personal training budget which can be used for skills development and lifelong learning. This enables independent workers to gain access to a wider range of job roles and higher pay rates.
  • Expanding access to benefits such as pensions and sick pay for independent workers that will provide a level of protection and security.
  • Supporting the development of co-working spaces that independent workers can gain easy access to in order to develop networks and engage with others, thus alleviating isolation.

How will technology and automation impact wellbeing?

In our book we describe how advances in technology and automation are impacting jobs and pay. Currently in the US, around 35% of workers are ‘independent’ rather than working through an employment contract, but by 2030 this will have risen to at least 50%. Independent working may thus become the ‘norm’ in developed economies making wellbeing of the workforce a key priority for organisations and individuals to address.

Technologies such as AI will displace around 15-20% of the existing workforce, affecting those most whose jobs involve repetitive manual and administrative tasks in the short term. By 2030 technology will impact work activities of around 60% of the workforce, but not necessarily displace their jobs. New jobs will also be created as a consequence of automation. The result of this transformation will be a slimmer employed workforce, but a rising demand for independent workers with relevant skills.

Those independent skilled and professional workers will enjoy greater certainty of income, but only while their skills are up to date and remain insulated from the threat of automation. These factors will have a direct effect on the wellbeing and mental health of the independent workforce.

New online tools and technologies are emerging that can support effective mental health interventions such as online cognitive behavioural therapies. Online networks also increasingly offer support, engagement and information for independent workers. Diagnostic tools too are being made available directly to individuals who can track their mental health and wellbeing state over time.

Automation may however have a more sinister impact at the lower paid end of the independent worker market who lack control over their work and the skills to demand higher pay. Automated systems will increasingly select, direct and control workers activities through platforms. Imagine being invited to bid for a paid task by an anonymous robot dialler, having to compete to get the work through a reverse auction selected by lowest price, monitored remotely through CCTV and your smartphone app as you undertake the task which may seem incomprehensible to you [such as going to a certain address and taking a photograph at a particular time].

Your work will be verified remotely and once approved, payment made through cryptocurrency to your online account. You will have no contact with humans during this process, which will happen on a daily basis. Welcome to the world of the ‘day worker’! If you live alone or are socially isolated, such circumstances may well lead to depression and mental illness over time.

We cannot hold back the march of progress, and innovation will provide very many benefits for individuals and societies. The impact of this on the mental health of individual workers is only just being understood. We don’t believe that independent working will drive you mad, and indeed for many it will improve wellbeing, but for individuals and organisations, making wise decisions early on may prevent the incidence of mental health problems from rising even further.

Please contact us at if you wish to be amongst a core group of innovative companies that are pioneers in the Flex Movement.

RTA Consulting would be happy to provide consultancy support for your organisation on these topics, speak at your events or engage with you to expand the conversation.

by Dr Tony Felton, Robby Mol, Professor Arturo Bris