Organisational psychologist and occupational health expert Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE believes the gig economy is breeding a “sense of entitlement” among businesses, as a new study reveals half (49%) of UK freelancers have suffered from work-related anxiety in the past 12 months and 70% have been approached about working for free.

 The study*, conducted by – the creators of a client-approval tool for freelance creatives, revealed:
  • 49% of freelancers have suffered from work-related anxiety this year

  • 75% of those say their anxiety was caused by client conduct, with late payment, unreasonable requests and asking for free work among causes

  • 28% of those aged 18-24 say being asked to work for free was the top cause of anxiety

  • 70% of all freelancers say they’ve been asked to work free* in the last 12 months

  • 5% of freelancers have been ‘ghosted’ by a client, meaning the client cut off all communication without explanation

  • “Some businesses, especially those in glamorous or competitive industries, do suffer with a sense of entitlement” – Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE

Three quarters of freelancers who experienced work-related anxiety in the past 12 months say that client conduct is one of the reasons behind the problem. Women (77%) were marginally more likely to suffer from client induced-anxiety than men (73%).

And 13% of those citing client conduct as a cause of anxiety said being asked to work for free was their top cause of anxiety.

This particular issue was significantly more likely to affect younger freelancers, with more than a quarter (28%) of freelancers aged 18-24 suffering from client-driven anxiety citing it as their top cause of anxiety.

Top causes of client-induced anxiety among freelancers:

Delayed payment of invoice


Non-payment of invoice


Asking for work to be carried out for free or ‘on-spec’


Unreasonable client requests


Unclear feedback


Calling out of office hours


Ignoring calls or email, aka ‘ghosting’


Not providing feedback


One participant in the study, a freelance user-experience designer and photographer from Manchester explained that larger clients take advantage of the enthusiasm some freelancers have for building a portfolio.

“It’s so tempting to consider requests to work on-spec because of the ever-present promise of future work. It feels like saying “no thank you” shuts the door on potential future work.

“The possibility of regretting the decision either way causes anxiety for me whenever it comes up, but I’m saying no to any client that would profit from my free work.”


Occupational health expert, Sir Cary Cooper CBE, professor of organisational psychology & health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, believes being asked to work on-spec represents a no-win situation for freelancers and their mental health.

“I think this is a serious problem. It’s natural for freelancers to look to build relationships with potential clients, and working on-spec is tempting when the client dangles the carrot of future commissions. But it rarely works out the way the freelancer expects and it can lead to a broad lowering of demand for experienced, but comparatively expensive, professionals.”

“Some businesses, especially those in glamorous or competitive industries, do suffer with a sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that having their name on your portfolio is payment enough for a young, inexperienced freelancer.”

The trends revealed in the study suggest that younger freelancers are struggling to balance their need for financial security with the need for building a sustainable client base.

Charlotte Whelan, who co-ordinated the study, believes businesses, as well as freelancers, will suffer if freelancing becomes a race to the bottom.

“Aside from the ethics of requesting free labour, businesses are doing themselves no favours by attempting to get work done on-spec. Our study has shown that this sort of conduct could be driving freelancers away from independent employment and into traditional employment. Bad news for lots of us.

“Our business relies on the talents of freelance developers, designers and copywriters. We know that if they’re go in-house, we’ll suffer from their absence, so we like to pay them with actual money, not intangible offers of ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’. Otherwise they’d be unable to sustain their livelihoods and we wouldn’t have the benefit of their talents.

Top causes of freelancer anxiety (overall)

Lack of guaranteed income


Conduct by current and/or potential clients


Tax/national insurance obligations


Financial hardship due to lower income comparable to full time employment


Lack of routine




About the study:

The above information is part of a wider study into the wellness and state of the UK’s ‘gig economy’. For the next few months, we’ll be sharing the findings from our research.

We conducted a poll of 1009 UK adults who have engaged in freelance work, either part time, full time or on a short-term contract, in the past 5 years.

For the purposes of the study, being asked to work for free was defined as:

Being asked directly by a current client, being approached speculatively or via emails from recruitment agencies and websites targeted at freelancers.

The poll was conducted between the dates of 4/11/2016 and 23/11/2016. At the end of the poll, participants were invited to provide any further information they deemed relevant. This was gathered in a free text field.

About Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE:

Professor Cooper is an American-born British psychologist and one of the world’s leading authorities on health and wellbeing in the workplace. He is currently professor of organisational psychology & health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester and was formerly deputy vice chancellor of University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

**Picture credit -Creative Commons license. By World Economic Forum – originally posted to Flickr as Cary Cooper – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0,