I Ditched The 9 To 5 And It's Not As Glamorous As It Sounds

There is a downside to the gig economy.

The life of a digital nomad looks highly desirable when viewed via a flattering filter on Instagram. Who doesn’t wish they were working poolside in some exotic locale rather than in a boring cubicle in their bland open-plan office?

But there is a dark side to digital nomadism and the gig economy: job and income insecurity, little downtime and the inevitable stress this kind of lifestyle engenders.

In 2016, my family and I fled Sydney’s high property prices and congested roads and moved two hours up the road. The relaxed, beachy lifestyle suited us perfectly, but the move had implications for my career. With a baby and a toddler, I didn’t want to work full-time, but in regional areas, part-time jobs in media are rare. Freelancing was my only option, so I found myself joining the gig economy -- a little-studied subset of the labour market that covers everything from delivery drivers to doctors.

This type of self-employment has its advantages -- I love working from home, and, of course, the odd café. I set my own hours, which makes juggling daycare pickups easy.

But, like many gig economy workers, I find that the line between work and home is increasingly blurred.

I often work weekends when I’ve got a deadline and most evenings I return to my computer after the kids are in bed. On a family holiday to Fiji earlier this year, I spent several hours a day at work on my computer.

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On the one hand, I was lucky that my job has the flexibility to allow me to work from anywhere -- tropical paradises included. On the other, it would have been nicer for my kids (and me) if didn’t have to bring my laptop with us on holiday.

Mixing business and pleasure isn't as glamorous as it looks. (Image: Getty)

Back at home, I have no carer’s leave to fall back on if they get sick (which they do, often). And for me to take a sick day, I’d have to be half dead. When I was admitted to hospital for a day procedure this year, I was shooting off work emails in my hospital gown.

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If one or more of the magazines and websites that I write for went out of business -- not an improbability in today’s media landscape -- my income could halve overnight.

To take time off, I have to be half dead. (Image: Getty)

It's no surprise that stress and burnout are problems for many gig economy workers.

“Job insecurity is associated with emotional exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease. But with the gig economy, this sort of insecurity is part and parcel of the job,” Rachel Grieve, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Tasmania, writes at The Conversation.

Like many people who work in the gig economy, especially parents and carers, I value the flexibility, but in the rush to embrace new labour models -- whether ride-sharing or consultancy -- we should be careful to think about what we’re giving up. In many cases, the gig economy is used to circumvent industrial relations regulations that make sure we have lunch breaks and annual leave.

I was employed by one organisation for 12 months as a contingent worker, which is just like a permanent employee without the benefits. Employers like this type of arrangement because it allows them to cut wage costs quickly if necessary, but the downside is lower employee engagement (because they could lose their job at any moment).

Working in the gig economy has its share of pitfalls. (Image: Getty)

But I don’t see why this needs to be an either/or equation. Why can’t we have both: the flexibility to allow us to meet our commitments away from work AND the security of employee entitlements? Many employers have been slow to embrace flexibility, but there is increasing evidence that there are financial benefits for organisations that offer flexible policies to employees.

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A report commissioned by the Victorian State Government examined three organisations -- Mercy Health, Wannon Water and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning -- and found that flexible workplace policies saved them $23 million, $150,000 and $31 million respectively per annum.

Flexible working is actually more beneficial for workers and employers. (Image: Getty)

It’s also an excellent tool for finding and keeping talented employees. A 2016 FlexJobs survey found that work-life balance and flexibility were the top two priorities for job-seeking millennials -- more important than salary, which came in third.

I totally relate to this -- in our busy world, it’s important to carve out time for the things that we care about. Flexibility means acknowledging that life is about more than work -- it’s about caring for loved ones, pursuing passions, and staying healthy. We need to make sure that the way we work, whether it’s via the gig economy or a permanent nine-to-five job, allows us to live a fulfilling life outside of paid employment.