Life as a freelancer shouldn't be so rough

Craning your neck for hours to hit a deadline on a project has really painful results. Here's how to fix solve that problem.

A man sitting, smiling, and looking at his phone while representing the life as a freelancer
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Technology has made it easier than ever to work from outside the office. Or, if you are an entrepreneur or freelancer, from outside your apartment or coffee shop or wherever you've set up camp to power through multi-hour project.

A sweeping new analysis has shown that this style is scientifically bad for your physical health.

Some 57 million people freelanced in 2019, according to an annual report from UpWork and the Freelancer's Union. That's an increase of 4 million people over 5 years (53 million in 2014). Fifty-seven million people accounts for 35 percent of the U.S. workforce. (With so many people freelancing, it's no wonder it's so hard to find table-space at a coffee shop!) But maybe getting mobile with one's work is better for mental and physical health.

Enter that sweeping new analysis.

Researchers at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany reported this week that workers with a high workload experienced more chronic lower back pain than those who had more control over their jobs.

Their analysis of 19,000 data sets across 18 studies was published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.

"These data provide an important basis for the development of prevention programs," continues Dr. Denise Dörfel, postdoc at the Chair of Work and Organizational Psychology. "In view of the increasing burden and high costs of [chronic lower back pain] for individuals, employers and society, this meta-analysis provides important insights for public health and human resource management. A redesign of working conditions could reduce pain-related absenteeism.

"Flexible breaks, more autonomy in scheduling the work, all this reduces the workload," explains the psychologist. "Social support from colleagues and more feedback and recognition from superiors may also help."

The largest hypothetical benefit of being a freelancer or a contract worker is deciding when you want to work and when you don't. But the reality is that you're often working as much as you can to earn enough money to live up to the lifestyle you want, and that means hours of leaning over a computer.

The solution to this problem is increasingly coming in the form of technology that can enable freelancers stay in touch with their teams from anywhere, via their phones.

Instead of endless email threads, text messages, or phone calls, project collaboration apps like Microsoft Teams enable more autonomy. Freelancers and entrepreneurs can enjoy the freedom of the movement the position promises, while collaborating on projects from their phone, wherever they are.

And that might mean they will leave the ranks of the 23 percent of the population that suffers from chronic lower back pain.

Study Abstract
The aim of this review was to synthesize the evidence on the potential relationship between psychosocial work factors from the Areas of Worklife (AW) model (workload, job control, social support, reward, fairness, and values) and chronic low back pain (CLBP; unspecific pain in the lumbar region lasting 3 months or longer).
We conducted a systematic literature search of studies in Medline, PsycINFO, Web of Science, and CINAHL (1987 to 2018). Three authors independently assessed eligibility and quality of studies. In this meta-analysis, we pooled studies’ effect sizes using a random-effects model approach and report sample size weighted mean Odds Ratios (ORs).
Data from 18 studies (N = 19,572) was included in the analyses. We found no studies investigating associations between fairness or values and CLBP. CLBP was significantly positively related to workload (OR = 1.32) and significantly negatively related to overall job control (OR = 0.81), decision authority (OR = 0.72), and two measures of social support (ORs = 0.75 to 0.78), even in prospective studies. Skill discretion and reward did not significantly relate to CLBP. Moderation analyses revealed several variables (e.g., exposure time, mean age and sex) affecting these relationships.
Our results support employees’ workload, job control, and social support as predictors of CLBP. In this line, these work factors should be considered when developing programs to prevent chronic low back pain. Future studies should apply measures of CLBP that are more precise, and investigate the full areas of work life (AW) factors in combination.
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