In light of the shootings in Michigan, there was a lot of uproar about whether Uber contractors should go through additional background checks, including but not limited to mental health checks. Uber already employs mental health checks in Mexico and more recently in Malaysia—should they do the same in the United States? What effect would these checks have, and what are some of the root causes of this perceived mental health issue?
Driving in Isolation
One of the biggest differences between being an independent contractor and any other job is the lack of a peer community. As an independent contractor, more often than not, you are a one person army. There is no water cooler to gather around and chat, and no performance reviews to tell you where you went wrong and how you can improve. You cannot complain to colleagues and learn from their experiences. There is no sense of support from your peers.
Uber appears to do its best at ensuring that virtually zero contact takes place between its drivers, and this in turn prevents a democratization of information and the building of any meaningful support network. There is no strength in numbers for these drivers because there is no sense of ownership and no connection with their colleagues. They are stripped from the power to move collectively as a cohesive group, which would be their only leverage to move forward and demand reasonable treatment. How can an individual who has no bargaining rights feel empowered to stand up and fight a behemoth like Uber, especially in an arena where every worker is expendable?
Ryder Pearce, our co-founder and chief community officer, commented on the issue of community for a recent NPR article on the issue:
I think taxi drivers traditionally have had fleets and lots, so at the beginning of the shift, you will go, check in with a dispatcher, hang out, have a coffee with other taxi drivers, and then go out—rather than this completely dispersed Uber network, where you don’t have to go anywhere. You just turn on the app in your car and drive for eight hours and never talk to any other driver.
Social Disconnectedness + Perceived Isolation
One of the largest contributors to the sense of loneliness is this sense of perceived isolation. Uber and Lyft promote their companies as excellent ways to make money for people who are between jobs. They have teaser ad campaigns that offer competitive wages and significant perks for signing up and generating referrals. However, what no one tells new drivers is that the truth is a little different.
To maximize earnings, you need to keep track of all records and understand taxes. Some go out and buy a new car without completely understanding the nuances of ridesharing, which is actually a tough gig; it’s not the joyride it is made out to be. Yes, you do make money and anyone can drive as a stop gap, but what happens when the initial euphoria runs out? Does it make you less likely to switch on your device?
The other side of the perceived isolation coin is the sense of social disconnectedness. You drive alone all day. Sure, you can make small talk with passengers, but for the most part you are left to ruminate. This can take a toll on you without you even knowing it.
Social disconnectedness can be characterized by a lack of contact with others. It is indicated by situational factors, like a small social network, infrequent social interaction, and lack of participation in social activities and groups. Perceived isolation, on the other hand, can be characterized by the subjective experience of a shortfall in one’s social resources such as companionship and support. Feelings of loneliness and not belonging, for example, indicate a perceived inadequacy of the intimacy or companionship of one’s interpersonal relationships compared to the relationships that one would like to have (van Baarsen et al. 2001).
The Effects of Social Isolation on Health
There is a strong correlation between your general health and a lack of social support, and the risks associated with social disconnectedness are more significant the older you get, because you more likely have a family to provide for, and to have gone through more stressful career transitions and illness. Studies have shown that “social isolation is a major risk factor for mortality,” and that across age, gender, ethnicity, education, income, marital status, social support, and perceived stress, high levels of loneliness have been associated with higher levels of depression.
Would mental health checks have stopped Michigan?
There was an immediate question presented all over the media coverage in the aftermath of the recent Michigan Uber driver killer: Would mental health checks have stopped this from happening? While this idea caught the attention of the public through the media’s shameless fear mongering, the truth of the matter is that there is no evidence to suggest that a different or more elaborate background check process, or one which includes a mental health screening, could have caught Jason Dalton before he snapped. The fact that he is now claiming insanity as his defense should not really detract from the point.
Dalton had no criminal record or mental health history whatsoever, and he wasn’t on any medication when he went on his killing spree. So how could a “polite, meek, and mild” (Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief, Jeff Hadley) Uber driver go from being a husband and father who held an associate’s degree in law enforcement, to doing such a senseless act? Could the Uber model of segregation have added to an already vulnerable situation?
Uber already employs mental health checks in addition to traditional background checks in Malaysia and Mexico, although we have limited information about exactly what these tests are and whether they truly prevent any major incidents.
We asked Justin Bernstein, a Ph.D candidate in Philosophy at University of Pennsylvania a couple of questions about his view on the matter.
Q: Does Uber have a moral responsibility to offer some sort of mental background health checks in addition to standard background checks?
I’d need to hear a lot more about this mental health background check to fully assess it, but I worry that a mental health background check is a very inaccurate method for determining whether someone is a danger to others. It would yield false negatives because various people who are dangers to others do not have documented histories of mental health problems. It would yield false positives because the overwhelming majority of individuals with documented mental health problems do not pose dangers to others. If anything, I would worry that the proposed policy would unjustly discriminate against people with documented histories of struggles with mental health. The Americans with Disabilities Act make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of health considerations—including mental health considerations. Moreover, if companies were permitted to deny employment to persons because of their mental health issues, then this would create a perverse incentive for those suffering from mental health issues to not seek treatment.
Q: Has that changed since the Michigan shootings?
Nothing has changed since the Michigan shootings except that it has reminded us of the dangers associated with using a service that allows a stranger to know very specific information about one’s location. But this incident doesn’t seem different in kind from other cases in which a criminal’s job provides them information as to the location of clients, and they take advantage of that information for the purpose of causing harm to those clients.
Can being part of an online community help?
Some have argued that since connections can be made both online and in person, it is important to examine the effect of Social Networking Sites on social connectedness. In a paper examining a study done on Facebook users in Australia, Klinkhoff said:
Researchers sought to determine whether online connectedness could be conceptualized as separate than offline connectedness, and whether the benefits associated with each were similar (Grieve et al., 2013). The findings indicated that connectedness derived from Facebook use was distinct from offline social connectedness. These results suggest that individuals can experience social connectedness differently with online friends than they do with their offline friends. In terms of disconnectedness, however, this construct was constant both online and offline. Also, Facebook social connectedness had a moderate relationship with positive psychological outcomes such as lower depression, lower anxiety, and greater subjective well-being (Grieve et al., 2013). This study provided an important contribution to the SNS literature because its findings suggest that SNS use might provide an alternate and meaningful form of social connection. Thus, for individuals who are unwilling or unable to connect with people in offline settings, SNS may serve as a valuable source of social connection and support (Grieve et al., 2013).
It is not obvious that an online community such as Pulse would have identified red flags and alerted the authorities in time. Just being part of an online community will not dissuade people from carrying out violent acts. However, a supportive community just might dissuade some. In other words, it’s not immediately clear that one of the two of these approaches would be more effective at preventing something like the shooting in Michigan from happening, but feeling alienated from your work and from others is inherently bad. It seems that creating and being part of an online community would be at least as effective at avoiding terrible outcomes as actively looking for red flags, and with the added benefit of avoiding false negatives, false positives, violations of privacy, and discrimination.
Do you have any stories that you would like to share? Email us! SherpaShare was built to help independent contractors maximize their earnings potential by providing them with more accurate analysis, mileage tracking and a real time community network. If you haven’t already, download our Drivers App and start tracking 2016 miles now. Communicate with your local drivers on Pulse and get ahead of the game.