Professor Leicester University
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Freelancers experience “enthusiasm-based” work–nonwork interference

17th Apr 2015
Professor Leicester University
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When freelance workers face difficult demands, their anxiety increases, their enthusiasm declines and they may become depressed or withdrawn. In this way, work stressors can affect the extent to which work interferes with non-work activities.

My new research, however, reveals that when freelancers work longer hours they are calmer and more enthusiastic. The cost though of this is that they experience more work-to-non-work interference, even though they are calmer and more enthusiastic when their hours are higher than their normal working pattern.

This is because, for example, their enthusiasm stops them from readily leaving tasks uncompleted to be finished another time, or they put so much into their work that they have little or no energy to enjoy leisure or fully participate in family life.

I call this effect enthusiasm-based work–nonwork interference or enthusiasm-based work–family interference, as opposed to the more familiar stress-based work–nonwork interference.

The difference between the effects of work demands and hours worked reflect the fact that high or conflicting work demands may not be readily achievable and reduce feelings of self-efficacy, and in psychological terms are hindrance stressors, while hours worked may assist one’s personal growth and fulfilment, and as such are challenge stressors.

How did I find this out?

The study is based on a diary study involving 45 freelance workers completing an identical survey every week for six months. Many of the questions are the same as those which have been used in studies of employees in organizations.

What are the implications of this research?

The study shows that freelance workers are subject to the same pressures as other workers, and thus conflicting demands, which constrain and hinder people fulfilling their potential and smoothly fulfilling their tasks, adversely affect their work–life balance and well-being. In addition, when they have variety in their work, control over it, and support from co-workers they are happier, which is also true for most workers.

But the enthusiasm-based interference may be more limited to people whose opportunities for work and income associated with it fluctuate. For example, people on piecework or commission may appreciate more hours. Zero-hour workers might be the extreme of this. The long hours needed to fulfil tasks may be seen as a positive challenge and not a hindrance, as conflicting demands may be.

What are the policy implications?

The main policy implication of this research is to reinforce the importance of manageable work demands for both wellbeing and work–nonwork interference, while showing we must guard against assuming long working hours have nothing but bad consequences.

For portfolio workers, the implication is that when appraising their workload they should be more concerned with the nature of the demands, and how they might cope with them, than with their total workload, though they should not let their ‘enthusiasm run away with them’ if they are concerned about work–nonwork interference.

The significant effects of having job control and support from clients or family on well-being that I found also suggests that portfolio workers should appraise their capacity to control how and when they work and to ensure they have available social support.

Those contemplating moving into portfolio work would be well advised to think in terms of the difference between hindrance stressors and challenge stressors, between demands that will involve obstacles and those that allow space for growth and new experiences, and the extent to which they will be able to minimise the former.

Potentially these results extend beyond portfolio workers, and therefore this research adds an important element to the evidence base for designing interventions in the ‘work–life balance’ area.

The implication is that when contemplating these initiatives and designing training courses managers should focus more on the various ways in which work demands can affect work–nonwork interference than they have perhaps in the past. More specifically, managers should firstly attend to hindrance stressors and secondly investigate in depth the impact of challenge stressors, and particularly the potentially diverse ways in which work demands are affecting the wellbeing and work–life balance of their staff.

They should not rely on the positive effects of challenge stressors – that challenges enthuse people - cancelling out the negative effects of hindrance stressors but instead managers should focus on ensuring the demands placed on employees are fully clarified and/or do not involve unavoidable conflicts.

Definition of freelance workers

Freelance workers, portfolio workers or independent contractors are self-employed individuals who do assignments, either in series or in parallel, for a number of different organisations or clients, on a (typically short-term) commercial rather than employment contract basis.

The research is reported in a paper to be published later this year: S. Wood and G. Michaelides, Hindrance and challenge stressors and well-being based work–non-work interference: A diary study of portfolio workers, Human Relations, in press.

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