Health and wellbeing in the workplace has been an important area of study in medical sociology and social epidemiology. Those knowledges centre on the complexity of workplace health, that health and wellbeing are the outcome of a myriad of social and relational processes that exceed standard explanations that reify ‘stress’ or the usual suspects of risk behaviours.
The world of work is however changing. The various impulses inhered in the catch-all term of neoliberalism are creating new relationships and textures of the workplace. Neoliberalism here is understood not just as a form of free-market reductionism but as a diverse re-ordering of society. As Dardot and Laval note in their work neoliberalism operates on workplace subjectivities where every niche of the social is opened up to entrepreneurialism. Instead of workers, social actors are recast as risk taking go-getters whose success, or otherwise, is entirely dependent on their own activity.
How might sociology study the new forms of labour that are beginning to populate (though perhaps not to the extent in the popular imaginary) the increasingly fluid and unbounded workplace of the early 21st century?
Emerging as a new formation of worker in this phase of neoliberal capitalism, the gig-economy worker exemplifies a new set of workplace relationships. Job security, regular or minimum wage, maternity and paternity rights, holiday pay and sick pay are gone. The order of the working day (and night) can be one of irregular work with no fixed hours or guaranteed level of income. Workers can also be required to provide the tools of their trade too, paying out for cars or the bicycles that they use as part of their job. We now have the situation where the world’s largest taxi firms does not own any vehicles and the world’s largest hotelier owns no hotels.
The legitimating ideology for workers in companies such as Uber and Deliveroo is that they are not employees. Rather, they are self-motivated heroic micro-entrepreneurs free to carve out their own narrative and make their own destiny. That justification is proving increasingly dubious. Multiple court cases in Britain and in the USA have brought into the open the reality of what working in the gig-economy can be like. Workers report of being exploited, bullied and lacking sufficient control over what they do. In some cases, as was reported by couriers working for Hermes, gig-economy workers are denied time off for compassionate leave or to attend hospital. A recent report on the gig-economy by the CIPD in Britain presented more nuanced findings. They found that the numbers of workers who relied solely on the gig-economy for their income was comparatively low, with less than 10% in their survey saying that gig-work accounted for more than 75% of their annual income. Many were also satisfied with the work they did. The CIPD do however warn that there were areas of concern in relation to control, regulation and rights that needed urgent attention so as to prevent the balance tipping more in the favour of the employers.
Sociologically, the gig-economy represents, as Mark Carrigan has noted, a new -if not radical – form of ‘disembedding’. Taken from Giddens, disembedding speaks to a supersession of the local by the global. In this case, local taxis and delivery systems organised and directed by algorithms and mobile technologies developed, stored and owned somewhere else. It is also another turn of the neo-liberal screw that seeks to reorder the workplace. As Sennett and Boltanski and Chiapello have argued, the workplace is increasingly structured by a secure highly-paid elite core surrounded by a mass of workers whose flexibility is defined by the employer rather than their own needs or desires.
But what of workers’ health and wellbeing in the gig economy? Do the unstable working conditions lead to unstable health and wellbeing? A sort of ‘gig-health’ where the conditions of work only allow for random moments where the conditions for a good life are available one delivery at a time. Research is currently scant when it comes to the health and wellbeing of gig-economy workers. The extant sociological and social epidemiological literature on health and work is clear on health and wellbeing in more conventional workplace settings. Insecurity, loss of control, low autonomy, poor rewards and intense effort all contribute to poor health and wellbeing. Reading through, for example, the trove of material and findings of the Whitehall II studies it can be found time and time again that a range of psycho-social factors related to workplace organisation and structure impact on health more than the traditionally held risk factors of diet, exercise and smoking. I would also add that I have found ‘meaning’ is important too. Not in the sense that work is about reaching some deep esoteric discovery, but that a coherent narrative should exist in the working day, rather than the fragmented target-driven performance-merry ground that marks most contemporary workplaces.
The loss of what were once accepted as basic workers’ rights also poses public health challenges. Denial of sick pay or maternity/ paternity leave has implications for individual and family life. In effect, the absence of such rights acts a disciplinary mechanism that enforces a radical work ethic that erases the health and wellbeing of the embodied worker as being of concern and negates the emotional lifeworld of the worker. Everything is subsumed into a normative structure where work is all.
If we were to write down a checklist of the above negative processes then on first inspection gig-work ticks all the boxes. British MP Frank Fields report from 2016 does provide some partial glimpses into health and wellbeing issues – albeit from a non-sociological perspective. The voices in the report speak of draconian workplace regimes where any non-compliance with any instruction, however reasonable, could result in the loss of work. In old Marxian coinage, this is alienation. The product and the process of labour stand above the worker depleting their embodied labour power.
So what could be done to improve health and wellbeing in the gig-economy? As I have argued elsewhere making any form of work healthier requires more than just a superficial gloss of stress-management techniques or individuating responsibility onto the worker, with the get out clause that it’s their fault if their health suffers. What is required are deeper more substantial transformations in the structure of work. So, workplace health tip number one becomes diffusing power throughout an organisation. How could that apply to the gig economy?
There is a contradiction inherent within gig-work, as there is with any form of capitalist work. The gig economy promises autonomy. Now, we know that high levels of autonomy can contribute to overall good health and wellbeing. So, a suggestion for ensuring good health in the future will be to ensure real autonomy? A form of digital economic democracy where it truly is an equal platform for everyone. Perhaps, as Nick Fox has advocated for personal health technologies, there could be some form of reverse jacking of the technology allowing the workers greater control? Or channelling Paul Mason begin to use technology for the social good as opposed to further to inequality.
What is needed is, therefore, more research in this area that identifies the specific processes at play. To see how the textures and patterns of working life shape health and wellbeing in the gig economy. This needs to be a sociological exercise. What we are seeing here are deeper changes in social structures that condition the lives of social agents rather than deviant individuals not looking after their health. Any account of promoting better health and wellbeing needs to track and mine those structures, to avoid lapsing into partial explanation.
About the Author: Chris Yuill is a lecturer in sociology in the School of Applied Social Sciences, RGU in Aberdeen. He has published a number of text books both on sociology generally but also on medical sociology. One of which, ‘The Sociology of Health: an Introduction’, published by Sage is now in its fourth edition. In addition to his textbooks, he has published his own research into the relationships between alienation and wellbeing in the workplace. He currently sits on the board of the British Sociological Association.