By Roberta Kwok
When we think about work, we usually picture office employees or factory workers clocking in and out of their jobs. But many people are no longer tethered to an organization. By one estimate, more than a fifth of the American labor force performs work that is not part of a traditional full-time job.
“The shape of work is shifting radically,” says Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM whose research focuses on how people experience and make meaning of their work.
In the past, most research on work identity investigated how people relate to employers. “We tended to conflate work with organizations,” Wrzesniewski says. Even when studies examined independent work, they usually focused on people who were members of occupational communities, such as freelance creative workers.
In a new study recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Wrzesniewski, Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, and Sue Ashford of the University of Michigan delved into the lives of independent workers. The researchers found that independent workers seemed much more sensitive to setbacks than typical employees. But the study participants also felt their work was more meaningful than an office job. “The lows are much lower; the highs are much higher,” Wrzesniewski says.
Read the study: “Agony and Ecstasy in the Gig Economy: Cultivating Holding Environments for Precarious and Personalized Work Identities”
To cope with the stress, the study found, independent workers assemble a range of support structures. But even the most experienced freelancers do not completely shed their anxiety. “The emotions involved in working this way never really resolve themselves,” Wrzesniewski says.
The researchers started by identifying independent workers among their acquaintances and at networking events; each participant also was asked to suggest other independent workers. In the end, the team interviewed 65 people in fields such as writing, art, graphic design, consulting, information technology, and executive coaching. Some had been working this way for only a couple of years, while others had decades of experience.
Wrzesniewski and her colleagues asked the subjects to describe their work lives—for instance, how they define success and what constitutes a good or bad day. The answers revealed that they take their jobs very personally. “You become your work,” one writer said. When an independent worker is feeling unproductive or thinks the work quality on a particular project is subpar, those concerns escalate “pretty quickly to existential questions,” Wrzesniewski says. “This is a referendum on them and their choices.” Because workers are directing their own careers, they feel deeply responsible for anything that goes poorly.
The participants’ language reflected intense emotions, both negative and positive. They often experience great anxiety, but when the work is going well, “they feel so much more alive” than they ever reported feeling in an office job, Wrzesniewski says.
These feelings aren’t limited to those in fields typically viewed as creative—the stereotypical tortured artists. One software engineer said, “It’s really, really emotional work. You are so directly accountable for every single thing that you do that it’s remarkably rewarding, and also very stressful.”
To deal with these pressures, the workers construct what the researchers call a “holding environment” with four consistent components. They build strong connections to their workplaces; for example, one writer had consistently worked in a public library for three decades and called it a “temple of knowledge.” They also establish routines to stay on task, such as dressing in office clothes even when working at home. These places and rituals “seem to bind or constrain them,” enabling them to perform their work, Wrzesniewski says.
Third, the freelancers reach out to people who encourage them. These supporters are not necessarily peers in the same field; they could be friends, family members, or career counselors who help them weather the challenges of independent work. Finally, the researchers concluded, the independent workers rely on a deep sense of purpose, such as contributing to the national culture. These two latter components balance the restraints of their defined workplaces and routines. “People and purpose liberate you within the structure,” Wrzesniewski says.
But these sources of support and motivation do not eliminate doubt or anxiety. Even highly successful freelancers sometimes feel that they can not truly call themselves, say, an “artist” or “writer” if their work is not going well at the moment. “The precariousness of their claim to the identity is profound,” Wrzesniewski says.
While the team’s findings might seem grim, the study also suggested that the continuing challenges in these independent workers’ lives spur fulfilling accomplishments that may not be possible in work done as an employee in an organization. The workers have to enter what one participant called “the abyss” to do their best work. “It’s the tension that becomes the fuel for doing work that feels really vital,” Wrzesniewski says.