Trapped by a Flexible Schedule: The Pain and Price of Freelance Work

A flexible schedule is one of the main advantages of freelance work. But don’t rejoice in your freedom just yet: self-employment often disrupts the balance between life and work and takes up more time than traditional office work. HSE University researchers Denis Strebkov and Andrey Shevchuk investigated the downsides of independent work.

Disadvantages of the Benefits

The advantages of self-employment are well-known: you can work from home, control your workload, choose your clients, and save your resources for your own personal interests. However, in reality, this autonomy presents a paradox: ‘independent’ work limits a person more than it might seem.

‘Freelancers often work at times when others are relaxing: in the evening, at night, on holidays, and on weekends. This disrupts one’s work-life balance and negatively affects one’s health, personal well-being, and social life,’ say the authors of the study (link in Russian).

Why the non-standard times?

  • Economic need. Uncertainty about future earnings, a desire to secure a suitable income and establish a safety net.
  • New jobs or projects are procured online. The remote job market operates around the clock, so you need to check job postings and inquiries regularly.
  • Work is project-based and cyclical. The workload is uneven (tasks can pile up before deadlines), several projects may need to be fulfilled simultaneously, client activity fluctuates seasonally.
  • Client dependence. It is necessary to build relations with your clients — to be constantly in touch, to meet with them, and to solve additional and urgent tasks.
  • Projects are combined with other activities. Freelance work gets shifted to the evening, night, or weekend if one works an additional job, studies, or is in charge of housekeeping.

Turning to the Masses

The prevalence of non-standard schedules and their impact on personal well-being was evaluated in accordance with the results of two mass polls:

Freelancer Census — an online survey conducted on the remote work market platform (From December 2018 — February 2019, more than 4,200 Russian-speaking self-employed individuals from almost 40 countries participated in the survey.) The final sample was 2,400 people.

RLMS-HSE (Russian Monitoring of the Economic Situation and Public Health of the Higher School of Economics). Researchers collected data from the fall of 2017 on 12,400 people, about 5,700 of which have paid work.

A large sample size is important in this case. There is a lot of research on freelance work, but studies are usually based on observations and interviews, and quantitative estimates are clearly lacking.

Employed vs. Self-Employed

The standard work week in Russia is 40 hours. Freelancers generally both work more and less than the norm. About a third of freelancers work no more than 35 hours a week; about half work over 45 hours a week–and this latter group includes 27% of those surveyed who work 60 hours a week or more.

When the researchers compared these numbers to those of Russian workers who are not self-employed, they found significant differences.

Duration of working time
(freelancers vs. the working population of Russia, %)

A third (33%) of freelancers reported working almost all weekends and holidays, while another 44% said that they do this several times a month.

17% always work nights. 24% work late a few days a week.

For the general working population of Russia, it is uncommon to spend traditionally non-work hours on work-related activities:

  • 65% never work in the evening or at night (among freelancers, this number is 10%);
  • 34% never work on weekends and holidays (versus 2% of freelancers);
  • 22% have worked both of the aforementioned kinds of schedules simultaneously (versus 64% of freelancers).

Nighttime Balance

Almost half (45%) of freelancers are generally satisfied with their work-life balance (i.e., the ratio of time spent on one and the other). However, nonstandard work schedules diminish workers’ satisfaction.

This happens if:

  • There is an increase in an individual’s weekend work obligations — especially if this occurs often (at least several times a month);
  • An individual has to work at night at least several times a month, or worse, several times a week.

The next level of extreme work occurs when one’s ‘workdays’ are almost every night. But here the researchers came upon some unexpected results: those who consistently worked nights were almost just as satisfied with their work-life balance as those who generally do not work nights at all.

The likely causes for this are different biorhythms (‘early birds’ versus ‘night owls’) and different views on work-life balance. ‘Regular systematic work at night can be part of one’s lifestyle. And if work is a joy, then time is spent on it is not against one’s will and is not an aggravating factor,’ explain the researchers.

Who Suffers More

The prevalence of non-standard schedules does not depend on most socio-demographic characteristics: all other things being equal, women work just as much as men, and there are no significant differences in place of residence, marital status, education, etc.

But the efforts they expend to maintain balance are not equal. Those who are least satisfied are those who:

  • combine freelance work with full-time employment;
  • are dissatisfied with their work and income;
  • have children.

Children are a part of traditional values. It is necessary to devote time to one’s child and/or spouse or partner, regardless of how busy one is. Work-life imbalances are felt more acutely against this background. Therefore, non-standard working hours primarily decrease the well-being of women, parents, and family-oriented people.

Work-life balance satisfaction gradually decreases with age and with an increase in working time, but this dependence is non-linear:

  • Youth optimism diminishes: the peak of ‘disappointment’ occurs at about 38 years old, and then the situation improves again;
  • The more hours worked, the worse one’s satisfaction is. However, after 87 hours a week, satisfaction picks up again. The reason, obviously, is the same as that in the case of those who prefer working nights.

‘Self-employment proves to be very time-consuming. When opting for autonomy, freelancers fall into the trap of “self-exploitation and self-sale” rather than traditional “exploitation”,’ the researchers conclude. Therefore, they urge individuals to assess flexible employment in a balanced manner and to consider both its advantages and disadvantages.

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