If you’re still on Facebook, (how I wish I cared more about my personal data) you’ll be well-acquainted with the #inspirational video posts from the “ditch your 9-5 life”-rs. “I make a TONNE of money and get to travel the world while I do it. You can too”, smiles an obnoxiously tanned person from a beach somewhere in Bali. You, scrolling social media at work, on a long commute home, or hungover on Sunday afternoon, jealously watch the entire video and contemplate immediately handing in your notice.
Historically, our working habits have never stood still. But the digital revolution that’s taken place over the last couple of decades has changed the way we work more rapidly than ever before. Many of the knock-on effects are negative: handheld devices mean carrying work with you wherever you go, automation has made many jobs redundant, and required skill-sets are constantly in flux. Yet perhaps the most fundamental change to our working lives, one touted by the smug influencers and enthusiastic job ads as a “perk”, is the opportunity to work from home. And though packaged to us as “freedom” from the shackles of a standard 9-5, (work in your pyjamas! be your own boss! flexible hours!) the intense loneliness, stress and damage that a “digital nomad” lifestyle can involve is all-too-often left out of the picture.
As someone who’s both freelanced and worked from home as part of a company, I know this all too well. The prospect of no office politics, no commute and the freedom to work from my favourite coffee shops was incredibly appealing at first. But after regularly spending long periods of time alone, speaking to almost no-one, the side effects crept in almost imperceptibly. I’d find myself getting irritable and downbeat, clearly needing human company but paradoxically wanting to stay in. As I started working from the desk in my bedroom instead of going out, the line between work and life began to blur, meaning I carried any stress from the “work day” over into my leisure time. With nobody around me, I got distracted easily and guiltily procrastinated on social media, or by cooking long lunches for myself. Slowly, the freedom of working from home began to feel a lot less like freedom.
The statistics tell me I’m not alone. A survey from earlier this year found that 85% of UK adults experience stress regularly, with work and money amongst the top reasons cited as contributing factors. With the number of freelancers in the UK having more than tripled since 2001, it wouldn’t be unfair to make a link. Jonathan Rimmer, who’s been freelancing for almost eight years, believes it’s the insecurity of freelancing that can make it difficult to manage, saying that “the nature of work, the decrease in trade union power and the fact that workers have less control over all aspects of their employment, let alone their lives, has been extremely negative for our generation”. He, similarly, finds the isolation of freelancing difficult, telling me “You can feel quite trapped if you aren't able to quickly chat to someone or get some support from a colleague. Although I don't suffer from depression, I've undergone a CBT course due to severe anxiety and much of that I think stems from the lack of face-to-face interaction. You have no idea how a boss might feel about what you're doing and there's a weird power dynamic that's harder to diffuse when you're not there in person”.
Curiously, this gradual erosion of the office structure and banishment of a face-to-face boss hasn’t been mourned by the wider world. Just think of the drab, grey offices where every character in a film works before their life really begins. The popular culture and social media outlets that rule millennial’s lives have been telling us for years that another kind of work is possible, and many of us have swallowed the pill. But with the loss of office culture comes the loss of a community. Whether you like your colleagues or not, working alongside others provides important social contact in our day-to-day lives; contact increasingly important in a world suffering from crippling loneliness and a crisis of touch.
As Jonathan points out, of course, working freelance often means precarious work, financial stress, and no paid sick leave or holiday. What’s more, ditching standard or contracted working hours often leaves freelancers never really able to switch off. And whilst contracted work for companies usually means support systems for ill health, stress and other problems, the “digital nomad” lifestyle has encroached upon us so fast that we’ve barely had time to catch up. Support usually consists of informal Facebook or Meetup groups, which, whilst fantastic for abetting loneliness, rarely offer much in the way of professional help.
The grass is, of course, always greener on the other side. Freelancers often find themselves wishing for a full-time gig, whilst full-timers dream about ditching it all for the freedom of freelancing. But with the numbers of freelancers, at-home workers and digital nomads rising year on year, behind the risk of giving up full time work is the risk of damaging your mental health; and this should all give us pause for thought.