A growing number of Australians are abandoning traditional nine-to-five employment in favour of working independently or on-demand.
This type of work – whether freelancing, consulting or signing up for the likes of Uber or Deliveroo – can offer autonomy and flexibility. But it can also result in isolation and stress.
Insecurity about where your next pay cheque will come from, taking on risk as an independent worker and the never-ending string of emails can become too much for some.
That’s when burnout comes into the picture. While this mental health issue is not new, the emergence of the gig economy might be creating a different type of burnout.
What is burnout?
“In essence, burnout is when people are undertaking emotionally depleting activities and spending weeks or, at times, months working hard and fast within the ‘over-stimulation zone’,” Rachel Clements, director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, said.
Burnout might stem from work-related stress. It can also manifest in social situations away from work.
According to the National Health and Safety Commission, work-related stress is responsible for the majority of absenteeism.
Some of the signs of burnout include poor memory and concentration, fatigue and feeling like you are “running on empty”.
“It may impact on moods in terms of becoming frustrated, discontent and disgruntled as well as experiencing low moods,” Ms Clements said.
Concerns for gig workers
In a 2017 paper published by the American College of Occupational and Environment Medicine, researchers warned that the rise of independent contractors might lead to a decrease in health protections, including insurance and workers’ compensation.
“Addressing the occupational safety and health needs of the growing gig sector is crucial to safeguarding worker protections both now and in the future,” the authors wrote.
In Australia, work-related psychological harm is the second most common reason for workers’ compensation claims, after manual handling. One of the leading causes is stress.
Black Dog Institute founder and psychiatrist Professor Gordon Parker said the “precarious working conditions” created by the gig economy and the 24/7 nature of technology might be contributing to modern-day burnout.
“Yet there’s currently no way for health professionals to make a complete burnout diagnosis, given the variability in the way patients describe their symptoms,” he said.
In May, Professor Parker and his research team recruited participants for Australia’s first burnout study. It is hoped the study will lead to new diagnostic tools to accurately assess and measure the condition.
Burnout has different effects
The experience of gig work can have different effects on individuals. While job insecurity is largely considered a major downside to casual or on-demand work, others might thrive on the constant challenge of seeking new or ongoing jobs.
“It’s important to differentiate between people who use contracts through choice, versus those who feel like contract work is their only option,” Rachel Grieve, a psychology lecturer at the University of Tasmania wrote in The Conversation.
Other factors include a person’s age and if they are worried about funding their retirement. Personality and attitude toward work-related stress are other important factors. For example, a risk-taker might not feel stressed about where their next pay cheque is coming from.
If you work alone or don’t have a human resources manager, seek help or support in other ways. Stay connected with friends and other gig workers who understand the ups and downs of your job.
Other ways to avoid burnout and stress include eating well and making time for exercise.
Often, the lack of routine from casual work can create an imbalance between work and leisure time. So, don’t forget to take work breaks, especially if you work irregular hours.
Prioritise your workload and complete the most difficult tasks first. Talk to loved ones about your work problems, instead of taking out your stress on them. Finally, don’t be afraid to seek advice from a counsellor or psychologist.