Gig Work Can Offer Lessons for Remote Workers

The shift to remote work has employees and managers facing new workplace challenges, and one of them is working in isolation, according to a story that appeared on CBS Moneywatch. Because of that, the report suggests much can be learned from the experiences of gig workers – anyone working independently on a “gig-to-gig” basis, such as Uber drivers.

CBS turned to a team of management professors at Indiana University, the University of North Carolina at GreensboroMcMaster University and the University of Michigan. The team’s research on gig work, as well as that of others studying the gig economy, identifies challenges of working in isolation and offers some practical advice on how to address them.

Gig work comes with some upsides, like being one’s own boss or setting one’s own schedule. However, the isolation typical of gig work can also take an emotional toll, the researchers found. Gig workers often feel lonely and anxious because they lack easy access to relationships or membership in an organization.

In preliminary research done for her dissertation, Brittany Lambert – a member of the team of researchers –found this anxiety can rise to clinically significant levels. In this research, 47 gig workers in highly skilled professions provided a total of 1,287 responses to daily surveys about their work experiences and mental health. Initial findings revealed that on average, they experienced heightened levels of anxiety for more than half of the 10-day study.

The researchers indicated that some degree of worrying is healthy, however, higher levels of persistent anxiety can be disruptive. As workers drain their resources and energy to manage the chronic anxiety stemming from their working conditions and the daily demands of their job, they may be more likely to burn out.

Additionally, research into the isolation of gig work has shown that working this way has implications for professional development. Gig workers can often lack access to social resources that help traditional workers do their jobs and advance their careers, like feedback, new ideas, knowledge and even emotional support.

While these obstacles may still be fresh to new remote employees, many gig workers have learned to flourish in the face of these challenges. In fact, Lambert’s dissertation suggests the autonomy in gig work – working by yourself and choosing how, when and where to work – may be anxiety-provoking and anxiety-reducing.

According to the researchers, one way to break the isolation of working alone is to craft a support system.

Emerging research on gig workers’ social lives suggests it is possible to build a thriving social community even when work does not come with built-in relationships. Instead, gig workers must be proactive and resourceful in pursuing and deepening these connections.

For instance, more gig work communities are popping up in various cities, facilitated by online forums, writers associations and co-working spaces. These groups can provide a sense of belonging to a larger community.

Another way gig workers creatively cultivate relationships is by routinely working in the same public place — a “third place” like a coffee shop. Research findings suggest that gig workers fare better when they proactively seek out and foster the meaningful relationships shown to support thriving and managing difficult emotions, like anxiety, at work.

The researchers defined rumination as a repetitive pattern of negative thinking in which people fixate on their problems and shortcomings rather than remembering achievements or thinking up potential solutions. They report that when isolated workers feel lonely and anxious, they are more likely to ruminate. Breaking this cycle of unhelpful thinking can reduce anxiety and increase engagement at work.

The next time you notice feeling down, anxious or stuck ruminating, here is a simple exercise created by clinical psychologist Natasha Hansen of Indiana University to shift those feelings and thoughts. Pause and ask yourself these four questions, writing down your responses and reflecting on each one as you go:

  • What was I just thinking?
  • Is that thought true – what is the evidence for the thought, and is there any evidence against the thought?
  • Is that thought helpful – does it move me in the direction of the things that are important to me?
  • Is there something else I could tell myself that would be both more true and more effective in moving me in the direction of my goals?

Take another minute to reflect on what you wrote down in Step 4. How does it make you feel? What does it prompt you to do in comparison with the thought you wrote down in Step 1?

Doing this sort of exercise regularly can help isolated workers manage their mental health. Much in the same way that athletes build muscle memory when they train, the more workers of all kinds practice catching and shifting unhelpful thought patterns, the more habitual and effective thinking becomes.

The researchers believe that by understanding where gig workers struggle and what they do to manage these challenges can help remote workers navigate their isolation when working alone.