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The freedom of a freelancer?

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Recent research suggests that high peaks of working hours make freelance workers happy but interfere more with their work-life balance, challenging the idea of a better work-life balance for this type of worker.

The idea of better work–life balance and wellbeing of freelance workers is put into perspective by a new study showing that the wellbeing and work-life balance of freelance or portfolio workers, such as copy editors, web designers, coaches, translators and personal trainers, fluctuate as the number of working hours do.

The recent research by Stephen Wood, Professor of management at the University of Leicester and George Michaelides, lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London shows that freelance workers are both calmer and more enthusiastic when their hours are higher than their normal pattern of work. The demands of the work adversely affect people’s work-life balance, in particular work interferes with fulfilling family and other non-work commitments or pursuits. But so does the enthusiasm generated by longer hours. Long hours thus create a largely unrecognised phenomenon that the researchers called ‘enthusiasm-based work-life interference’.

However, according to the study – involving 45 freelance workers who completed an identical survey every week during six months – freelance workers are subject to some of the same pressures as other workers, and in particular the way in which conflicting demands adversely affect both their work-life balance and wellbeing. In addition, when they have control over and variety in their work they are happier, which is also true for most workers.

In an interview with Safety Management explaining the results of the study, Professor Wood commented: “The freelancer’s enthusiasm for work may be at the expense of reducing non-work activities, since people may not readily leave tasks uncompleted to be finished another time. Or they put so much into their work that they have little or no energy to enjoy leisure or fully participate in family life. Also, as with other workers, freelance workers’ work-life balance is adversely affected when the demands freelance workers face are difficult – for example, when they experience conflicting or difficult requirements their anxiety increases and they may even become depressed.

“This is a key finding in our research. Demands generate what has long been called stress-based work-life interference but hours generate a largely unrecognised phenomenon, enthusiasm-based work-life interference. The calmness associated with long hours has the opposite effect, it decreases the interference between work and non-work activities.”

How are these results different from the experience of full time workers?
“The difference is likely to be in enthusiasm-based interference, as the enthusiasm-based interference may be limited to people whose opportunities for work and income associated with it fluctuate. For example, people on piecework or commission may appreciate more hours and zero-hour workers might be the extreme of this. The long hours needed to fulfil tasks may be seen as challenge and not a hindrance as conflicting demands may be.”

What was the research’s sample?
“On average, the participants had been self-employed for 11 years, they were previously employed by organisations for around 18 years. Of the participants, 66% reported that they chose to be self employed, 6% became self employed through necessity and 28% through a mixture of choice and necessity. The majority (89%) of participants in the study reported that they would not prefer permanent employment in an organisation.
“We interviewed some of our sample and we can say that the search for a better work-life balance was cited as an important influence in the decision of some interviewees to begin working freelance. So, to have a greater discretion over how and when works was an important motivation for choosing to work in this manner. However, while many were realising this enhanced balance, others felt that they were naive in assuming a superior balance would result from ‘going portfolio’. An additional often-cited reason for continuing freelance work was to be free of organisational politics.

“In the interviews they said that taking time out for non-work activities was often difficult, upsetting the work-life balance. Spending time with family and friends, and finding the time to go on holiday or take exercise were reported as being difficult to schedule because the activities involved
unpaid hours.

“One interviewee said: In practice it is very difficult to get a balance right and it is very easy for work to take over and I know that it is not a good thing but it happens.

“In our research those who were better able to manage uncertainty and exert control over their working life reported the larger benefits to work-life balance.”

How do work demands constrain people fulfilling their potential?
Hindrance stressors like conflicting demands constrain potential fulfilment and adversely affects work-life balance and wellbeing. Working long hours is in contrast a challenge stressor that may improve wellbeing but the increased enthusiasm it generates may have negative consequences for work-life interference, while the increased calmness may have positive consequences for work-life interference.

How can it be interpreted?
“The original portrayal of the portfolio worker by Charles Handy in 1995 is a Utopian conflict-free model because, in practice, transient fluctuations in work demands are likely to occur and have spill-over effects on non-work
and wellbeing.

“The main policy implication of this research is to reinforce the importance of manageable work demands for both wellbeing and work-life interference, while showing that we must guard against assuming long working hours have nothing but bad consequences. For portfolio workers the implication  is that when appraising their work they should be more concerned with the nature of the demands, and how they might cope with them, than with their workload, though they should not let their ‘enthusiasm run away with them’ if they are concerned about work–life interference.

The significant positive effects of job control on wellbeing, and also of having supportive relationship with family and client that we found, suggests that portfolio workers should appraise their capacity to control how and when they work and to ensure they have good supportive relationships. Those contemplating moving into portfolio work would be well advised to think in terms of the difference between hindrance and challenge demands and the extent to which they will be able to minimise the former.

Can the results extend beyond portfolio workers?
“Potentially these results extend beyond portfolio workers, and therefore this research adds an important element to the evidence base for designing interventions in the work-life balance area.

“The implication is that when contemplating these initiatives and designing training courses managers should focus more on the various
ways in which work demands can affect work-life interference than
they have perhaps in the past.

“More specifically, managers should firstly attend to hindrance stressors and secondly investigate in depth the impact of challenge stressors, and particularly the potentially diverse ways in which work demands are affecting the well-being and work-life balance of their staff.

They should not rely on the positive effects of challenge stressors cancelling out the negative effects of hindrance stressors but instead managers should focus on ensuring the demands placed on employees are fully clarified or do not involve avoidable conflicts.“

The research will be published later this year in the journal Human Relations.

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