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Are you trapped by a flexible schedule?

Being able to work flexibly is a much sought-after working schedule. But there are also pitfalls, writes Dr Bob Murray.

A flexible schedule is one of the main advantages of freelance work, or working from home. 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. A team of researchers investigated the downsides of independent work.

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, this autonomy presents a paradox: “independent” work limits a person more than it might seem.

What the researchers say: “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 wellbeing and social life,” the authors said.

Uncertainty about future earnings and a desire to secure a suitable income and establish a safety net drives freelancers to work more than salaried employees, the researchers found.

New jobs or projects are now mostly found online. The remote job market operates around the clock, so you need to check job postings and inquiries regularly. It’s also project-based and cyclical. The workload is uneven (tasks can pile up before deadlines), several projects may need to be fulfilled simultaneously, and client activity fluctuates seasonally.

Client dependence means that 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 often combined with other activities and freelance work gets shifted to the evening, night, or weekend.

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

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

The standard work week overall is 40 hours. Freelancers generally work both 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 27 percent of those surveyed worked 60 hours a week or more.

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

• A third (33 percent) of freelancers reported working almost all weekends and holidays, while another 44 percent said that they do this several times a month.
• Seventeen percent always work nights. Twenty-four percent work late a few days a week.

Almost half (45 percent) of freelancers are generally satisfied with their work-life balance. However, nonstandard work schedules diminish workers’ satisfaction.

The researchers looked at those who worked evenings and nights, and here the researchers came upon some unexpected results: those who consistently worked nights were just as satisfied with their work-life balance as those who didn’t work any nights.

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 enjoyable, then time is spent on it is not an aggravating factor,” explained the researchers.

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

Those who are least satisfied are those who:

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

Non-standard working hours primarily decrease the wellbeing of parents.

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.

Interestingly, the researchers found that: “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 concluded.

So, what? Sometimes research on one subject – in this case, self-employment – casts interesting light on facets of human science. In terms of human design specs – broadly my specialty – we are simply not designed to either live or work alone. Fundamentally, we are social animals who derive our sense of wellbeing and safety from being surrounded by a nexus of supportive relationships.

The workplace is a tribe within which a person can find value, support and purpose. All of these are needed for a sense of self-worth, status (which to a human equals safety) and learning.

You can only be self-employed (or work remotely) successfully if you have a strong external tribe around you who can give you the support and other things that a regular workplace provides.

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