Do Temps and Consultants Have “Mental Health Issues”?

ryanthetemptheofficeAccording a new study, workers hired for temporary or contract work face a higher risk of developing mental health problems such as depression.

The study was authored by Amelie Quesnel-Valleehe,  a medical sociologist at Montreal-based McGill Unviersity. The research, quoted in the excellent Workforce Management, raises some interesting issues.

However, I bristled a bit at quotes from Quesnel-Vallee that seem to caution employers against hiring these “unstable” temporary workers.

According to Quesnel-Vallee, “Employers need to be mindful of the fact that obviously they have economic imperatives and there is temptation to go with a more flexible workforce, but the bottom line is that it may not be as obvious as they might predict.” Read her other quotes about the productivity risks of hiring contract and temporary workers.

These quotes annoy me for a few reasons. First, consultants and freelancers face enough challenges without having to overcome employer stereotypes that they are more vulnerable to mental health problems.

Second, this study is based on records collected between 1992 and 2002 and focuses on workers who “don’t expect to be with their current jobs for more than one year.”

The options for free agents were much more limited before 2002. And those who are free agents by choice would be unlikely to use the phrase quoted above. If you’re a contractor by choice, you probably consider your job to be working for yourself. Even if your current assignment is unlikely to last more than a year, your “job” as a contractor will continue.

For me, leaving a steady 9-to5 gig to work for myself has improved my mental health dramatically. I no longer feel depressed on a regular basis. The joys of freedom, flexibility, and control over my own destiny more than compensate for the stresses. I know many others who feel the same way.

I’m not saying that Quesnel-Vallee doesn’t make some great points about the challenges faced by independent workers. She mentions instability, lack of social ties around the water cooler, and lack of health care benefits. These factors can all be stressful (especially that health care thing, but I’ll leave that debate for another blog post).

I just think there’s a big difference between someone who’s a temporary worker by choice and someone who can’t find other work.  Naturally, if you’re forced to take a temporary gig just to pay your bills, you are less likely to be engaged at work and more likely to have other pressures — like worrying about how to put food on the table.

And finally, I think the main argument against hiring flexible workers — that this so-called mental health risk will lead to greater absenteeism and reduced productivity — is unsubstantiated. As a consultant, I am far more likely to work sick, work late nights, and do whatever it takes to deliver for my client. We don’t get paid for sick days, so we are less likely to take them. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s true in my experience.

It would be shortsighted for any employer to shy away from hiring consultants and contractors because of this study.  In fact, here’s another article from Workforce Management about the business case FOR hiring contingent workers.

What do you think?

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