Why More Freelancers Succumb to Anxiety and Depression Today

Up until today, mental health remains disregarded by the government and the people. No wonder many Filipinos do not admit they are suffering from anxiety or depression. Even among freelancers who work from home, the numbers are alarming.

Working online is the same as being an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in more ways than one. Freelancers earn foreign currency but without leaving their families and homes. For the estimated 10 million OFWs, most would not choose to go if they could have decent local jobs.

Being away from home, most OFWs experience mild to severe loneliness. Furthermore, many have family and relationship issues that cause mental and emotional distress.

Online freelancers do not have to carry the same burden as OFWs – or do they?

Consider some of the perks and benefits of working from home:

    • Live and work anywhere there is a data connection
    • Freedom to choose clients
    • No more long commutes and horrendous traffic
    • Flexible time
    • More than one source of income

Compared to OFWs and traditional employees, online freelancing is a holiday. Sure, there are disadvantages, such as the lack of government benefits. Be that as it may, the advantages far outweigh the cons.

Despite enviable perks, the truth is that the prevalence of mental distress is high. Unknown to many, stress, anxiety, and depression are the dark sides of working from home.

What Is the Mental Health Situation in the Philippines?

Even before the pandemic, mental health has already reached alarming levels. Yet, most Filipinos continue to regard this matter as taboo. One reason is the high level of stigma attached to mental illness (Rivera and Antonio).

The negative perceptions Filipinos attach to mental illness include:

    • Ruined family reputation
    • Social isolation and prejudice
    • Loss of face
    • Sense of shame or being a disgrace
    • Self-blame
    • A sign of personal weakness
    • Failure of character

Consider, too, that Filipinos are Asians who generally deem mental illness as unacceptable. This shame, and more reasons (Martinez et al.), dissuades them from seeking help. Instead of consulting with experts, they would rather rely on family and friends.

Even if intervention becomes an absolute necessity, professional help is not always available. The cost of treatment, for instance, is prohibitive. Plus, most communities lack adequate mental health facilities.

Mental health in the Philippines, unfortunately, is not a priority. A proposed mental healthcare bill, for example, sat in congress for 20 years (Poblacion). Fortunately, Pres. Duterte signed the Philippine Mental Health Law (Republic Act No. 11036, or RA 11036) on 20 Jun. 2018.

Despite the initial optimism, the impact of the new bill remains unknown (Lally et al.). One obstacle is the lack of funding, which hinders:

    • Establishment of mental healthcare facilities in communities outside the main urban areas
    • Training and recruitment of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals

An estimated 3.6 million Filipinos are suffering from mental health disorders (Crisostomo). Over the coming years, one can only hope that the numbers will decrease.

Prevalence of Stress in the Philippines

Before the pandemic, 6 of 10 Filipinos were already experiencing stress. On the whole, the Philippines has the second most stressed population in the world.

Table 1. The Top 10 Most Stressed Out Countries in the World in 2018

Country Percentage
Greece 59%
Philippines 58%
Tanzania 57%
Albania 55%
Iran 55%
Sri Lanka 55%
United States 55%
Uganda 53%
Costa Rica 52%
Rwanda 52%

(“Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report”)

Among millennials globally, 44% admitted feeling anxious or stressed all or most of the time. In the Philippines, the number is much higher at 57% (Cahiles-Magkilat), which is not far off from Gallup’s survey.

Table 2. Filipino Millennials’ Top Stressors in 2020

Concerns Percentage
Family Welfare 65%
Physical Health 54%
Long-term Financial Future 53%
Day-to-day Finances 51%
Job/Career Prospects 47%

(“Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020”)

All the figures above were results of surveys conducted before the pandemic. During these troubled times, stress levels among the Filipinos increased.

Table 3. The Magnitude of Stress Caused by COVID-19 in the Philippines in 2020

Period Great Stress Much Stress A Little Stress No Stress
May 55% 34% 7% 4%
July 51% 35% 10% 4%
September 58% 27% 11% 3%

(“SWS September 17-20, 2020 National Mobile Phone Survey – Report No. 7: Filipinos Stressed by the COVID-19 Crisis Remain High at 86%”)

A little stress is good. But too much and for a prolonged period may lead to anxiety or depression, or both. The SWS survey shows that nearly 9 of 10 Filipinos suffer from much stress and great stress.

Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression in the Philippines

Filipinos are no stranger to anxiety disorders and depression.

Table 4. Percentage of Filipinos Experiencing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in 2018

Stress Anxiety Depression
86.4% 43.5% 22.5%

(Flores et al.)

From these figures, there is only one conclusion. The prevalence of stress correlates to the incidence of anxiety and depression.

Table 5. Psychological Impact of COVID-19 in the Philippines

Symptom Stress Anxiety Depression
Normal 60.2% 61.6% 71.2%
Mild 26.4% 9.6% 11.9%
Moderate 9.5% 17.7% 12.7%
Severe to Extremely Severe 3.9% 11.1% 4.2%

(Tee et al.)

The nature of surveys is that it has limitations. For example, the stress levels in Table 5 are far from the numbers shown in Table 3. At any rate, they do indicate 4 of 10 Filipinos suffer from anxiety, 3 of 10 suffer from depression.

Tee and his team conducted their research (Table 5) from 28 March to 12 April 2020. 60% of Filipinos did not feel stressed despite the initial lockdown because they treated it as a vacation. Accuracy is not critical, as the use of these surveys is to show that mental health is a growing concern.

Table 6. National Center for Mental Health Average Daily Calls

May 2019 to February 2020 April 2020 to July 2020
Average Daily Calls 13 to 15 32 to 37

(“DOH Reports Spikes in Mental Health-Related Calls Due to COVID-19 Crisis”)

The Philippines first imposed a total lockdown during the second half of March 2020. A month after, the pandemic started taking a toll on mental health. From April to July, the National Center for Mental Health reported a record number of calls. These calls, incidentally, also include 1 to 2 suicide-related concerns daily.

Related article: COVID-19: You Need to Know the Risks of Working at Home

What Causes Work from Home Stress, Anxiety, and Depression?

There are many causes of mental distress in work from home arrangements, six of the top reasons are as follows:

    • Job insecurity
    • Loss of sense of control
    • Distractions
    • Lack of boundaries
    • Social isolation and loneliness
    • Sedentary lifestyle

As the pandemic continues, its negative impact on mental health keeps worsening. For anyone who has never worked from home for a period, this notion of WFM-associated stress is unfathomable.

Premier Value Provider (PVP) – an insight, solutions, and training company – surveyed their employees from 5 May to 15, 2020. Of 420 participants – 83% worked at home, 9% worked both at home and on-site, and 8% worked on-site.

Table 7. PVP Internal Survey on Employees Mental Health Working from Home and On-site

Arrangement Stress Anxiety Depression
Work from Home 16% 31% 22%
Combined WFM and WOS 3% 23% 10%
Work On-site 17% 19% 17%

(“Community Quarantine: Its Mental Health Toll on Our Younger Workforce”)

The sample size is tiny and confined within one company. Nonetheless, the results are revealing. For instance, consider the percentage of employees experiencing stress and anxiety. The prevalence rate is higher among those working from home than on-site.

In Singapore, the Mind Science Centre of the National University Health System surveyed mental health resilience.

Table 8. Stress Levels of Working from Home Compared to Frontliners

Work from Home Workers Frontliners
Feeling Stressed Working from Home 61% 53%
Feeling Stressed at Home 51% 32%

(“Mental Health Resilience Survey on COVID-19”)

Not only were there more people feeling stressed working from home than on-site (Table 7). The stress level of people working from home can also be higher than frontliners (Table 8).

1. Job Insecurity

A pervasive thought among some employers is the threat of losing a job motivates a person to work harder. Such belief is also common among clients who hire work-from-home workers. There is an estimated 1 to 2 million online freelancers in the Philippines. If one leaves, tens or hundreds can fill in the role.

One advantage of working online is that opportunities exist beyond borders. Even so, restructuring, downsizing, and other cost-saving measures remain a concern. Moreover, among online freelancers who already have work, losing their livelihood remains a nagging worry.

Related article: How to Turn Losing a Freelance Job into an Opportunity

Job insecurity, in some ways, is a disease that not only results in loss of productivity. It might as well be a contributing factor to the political unrest in the country. One plausible explanation for extremism could be its impact on social identity (Selenko et al.). The constant psychological distress can also change the personality of affected individuals (Wu et al.).

The five personality traits negatively impacted are:

    • Emotional stability
    • Agreeableness
    • Conscientiousness
    • Extraversion
    • Openness

Fear of uncertainty fuels job insecurity. As a result, employees, including online freelancers, lose motivation. Instead of focusing on tasks and goals, their minds get hooked on negative sentiments. Eventually, a high number of freelancers become tense, irritable, anxious, or depressed.

2. Loss of Sense of Control

A low perceived sense of control reduces cognitive performance (Robinson and Lachman). Unfortunately, it is one of the challenges employees face – and much more so by online freelancers.

Distractions. The lack of space makes it impossible to have a physical barrier. As such, chores and activities performed by other household members can be distracting. Breaking the boundaries in a work-from-home arrangement can only add to the frustration.

Family dynamics. Relationships between spouses, partners, and other family members play a significant role. An imperfect marriage or partnership, for example, causes emotional distress. Seeing that person – the cause of stress – while working can make one feel trapped and bound. All these negativities spill over to work, adding to the job-related pressure. Likewise, work stress can also spill over to the home, eroding work-life balance.

Poor time management. Some online freelancers juggle between tasks and chores. As a result, they end up confused or submitting unsatisfactory performance. Failing to deliver on expectations or completing tasks can erode confidence.

Unreasonable expectations. While striving for excellence is laudable and a much-desired trait, it can also be stressful. Under normal circumstances, it is not a problem as long as one can complete each chore or task. Failing to reach the desired outcome, however, leads to frustrations.

Any of the factors cited above, and others more, that cause a low level of control is psychologically distressful (Griffin et al.). Unless there are changes, it may lead to chronic stress, anxiety, or depression.

3. Distractions

An employee switches tasks or gets interrupted every three minutes five seconds (Mark et al.). Once distracted, it takes 23 minutes 15 seconds to get back on track. For knowledge workers, imagine how difficult it is to lose their train of thought. Before getting back to where they left off, another interruption comes.

Compounding this problem is the need to complete tasks. The natural reaction to losing time is to compensate by working faster. As a result, stress level builds up while the quality of work degrades.

At home, managing distractions is even more difficult.

Uncontrollable distractions. An example would be living in a noisy neighborhood – random noises from neighbors talking loudly, dogs barking, or non-stop traffic. Unfortunately, every person working from home has to deal with distractions that they cannot control – and that is frustrating.

Household distractions. Members of the family, especially young children, can interrupt work from time to time. They can also do it indirectly – such as watching TV, listening to music or singing, and being generally noisy. It gets incredibly stressful when some people in the house willfully disregard boundaries. Incidentally, pets belong to this category too.

Work-related distractions. Even in relative silence, messages from colleagues take the mind away from the task at hand. Each interruption makes completing a job difficult. It gets worse when the interruptions include requests for more time-sensitive tasks. As a result, frustration mounts as each interruption stops an online freelancer from completing a job while the workload piles up.

Lack of self-discipline. Unfortunately, most online freelancers are not accountable to anyone. Instead of working, some of them sneak in time to watch movies or check social media messages. They multitask by reading the news, chatting with friends, and doing chores.

4. Lack of Boundaries

For many online freelancers, the line between professional and personal life is a blur. Ideally, employees do not bring personal issues to work. After a stressful day at work, they go could home to their family and relax. Such delineation barely exists in a work-from-home arrangement.

Lack of boundaries at work. Being home-based also means working, even when it is family time. An example would be employers or colleagues sending messages outside working time. Instead of waiting for office hours, most online freelancers feel compelled to reply. As a result, they have to sacrifice personal or family time aside to complete tasks. And to make matters worse, some employers do not appreciate or compensate their remote workers for the extra time.

Lack of boundaries at home. Creating physical, social, and temporal boundaries is easier said than done. Almost all Filipinos live with their families, with an average of five people in a household. Privacy is non-existent compared to western standards. As such, distractions occur here and there, now and then.

5. Social Isolation and Loneliness

For many people, it took only a few weeks to feel the burden of social isolation. Most online freelancers, meanwhile, have been dealing with isolation for months and years.

Table 9. The Biggest Struggles of Working from Home

Struggle 2021 2020 2019
Unplugging After Work 27% 18% 22%
Difficulties with Collaboration and Communication 16% 20% 17%
Loneliness 16% 20% 19%
Distractions at Home 15% 12% 10%

(“2021 State of Remote Work”)

Social isolation is consistently one of the top three concerns of online freelancers. And with social deficit comes loneliness.

15% to 30% of the general population suffers from chronic loneliness (Hawkley and Capitanio). Moreover, being lonely for prolonged periods can lead to cognitive decline and depression. Actual or perceived, it can increase the risk of early mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al.). For one, it affects the immune system, which increases the risk of getting ill (Cole et al.). At any rate, the health risks of social isolation on well-being are comparable to obesity and smoking (Novotney).

Isolated and lonely, what do online freelancers do?

Of course, log in to Facebook and other social media platforms. The Philippines, after all, has among the most Facebook users worldwide. At 95,700,000 – that is equivalent to 84.9% of the population (“Facebook Users in Philippines – September 2021”).

Scrolling through the timeline, commenting, and messaging might be fun and a means to stay connected with family and friends. But, then again, it may also be the cause of or worsen depression.

One research, for instance, found a correlation between depression level and Facebook usage frequency and duration (Pauline and Dy). Some possible reasons for the negative emotions could be envy and social comparison. Staying connected, as it is, may make one feel even more lonely.

6. Loneliness or Hopelessness

Foreigners often describe the Philippines as a nation of happy people. In times of calamities, they still manage to find humor. A portion of the population, though, do feel lonely.

Table 10. Mental Health of Filipino High School Students

Total Male Female
Felt Lonely Almost or All the Time 16.1% 12.4% 19.7%
Felt Worried Almost or All the Time 11.0% 9.4% 12.6%

(“2015 Global School-Based Student Health Survey (GSHS) Country Report”)

The table above also indicates that more females than males tend to feel lonely.

Table 11. Filipino Who Thought They Would Fee Lonely Most of the Time

Likely Unlikely
Global 33% 57%
Philippines 29% 65%

(“Global Predictions for 2020”)

Between 26 Nov. to 6 Dec. 2019, a survey showed more than a third of the population do not think they are or will get lonely. Although the sample size is small, it appears that the rate of loneliness increased.

Table 12. Social and Emotional Loneliness among College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Note Lonely Moderately Lonely Severely Lonely
10% 57% 33%

(“Labrague et al.”)

During the pandemic, the number of moderately and severely lonely Filipinos shot up to 90%. Quarantine helped prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it also increased social and emotional loneliness.

The universal definition of loneliness is solitude or a state of being alone. It is a destructive state of mind, which leaves one feeling empty, alone, and abandoned. There is no single cause, and other factors may worsen the condition – social isolation being one.

Do note that loneliness and solitude are not the same:

    • Lonely people do have the desire to have social connections. Even if they are in the company of others, they still feel an emptiness.
    • Solitude, on the other hand, is a voluntary action of people who choose to stay alone. At any given time, they can have positive social relationships.

Prolonged loneliness can dramatically affect cognitive functions and promote negative behaviors. Lonely people tend to have:

    • Poorer memory retention
    • Higher stress levels
    • Higher risk of substance abuse
    • Higher risk of cardiovascular disease
    • Depression

Loneliness affects people in any profession. In other words, a portion of the people working from home already has this issue.

7. Sedentary Lifestyle

In Asia-Pacific, 67% of employees spend 6 to 9 hours at a desk (“Herbalife’s Nutrition at Work Survey Reveals Majority of Asia-Pacific’s Workforce Lead Largely Sedentary Lifestyles, Putting Them at Risk of Lifestyle Disorders”). Filipinos should not be far behind on the prevalence of insufficient physical activity. As of 2016, 4 in 10 Filipinos live a sedentary lifestyle (Guthold et al.).

Sedentary behavior is a serious threat to long-term health (“Risks of Physical Inactivity”). It is a leading risk factor of non-communicable diseases, including but not limited to:

    • Coronary heart disease
    • Diabetes
    • Hypertension
    • Mental illness
    • Obesity

As it is, several other factors compound the problem of mental distress. The ongoing pandemic, for sure, made conditions worse. For instance, quarantine measures kept many who want to live a more active lifestyle at home. On doing physical activities indoors, there is no debate because it is doable. The question is if online freelancers find the motivation.

Incidentally, online freelancers who were not active in the last two years should be mindful of health protocols. The lack of physical activity ranks third as a risk factor for severe COVID-19, behind advanced age and history of organ transplant (Sallis et al.). Once infected, the chances of dying are higher than people with an active lifestyle.

Anxiety and Depression Is Real for Online Freelancers

The Philippines is a nation of warm and fun-loving people. Beneath the smiles and laughter, though, are endless worries. Although hard to believe, the country ranks second with the most stressed population in the world.

Unfortunately, most people neglect the gravity of mental health distress. Even if one were to seek professional help, it is either prohibitive or unavailable.

At the national level, the government needs to do two things:

    • Educate the people on mental health
    • Build more clinics and hire more professionals

As an individual suffering from mental anguish, accept that it is a problem. Disregard concerns, such as the shame or stigma attached to mental illness. Get educated and seek help.

Follow this link for more info on mental health institutions, including free online therapy and consultations.

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ROBERT LEE

I write articles that people actually read and Google loves.

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