The side hustle – used to describe everything from second jobs to monetising your hobbies – was on the up and up long before COVID shook up our lives. But the pandemic gave it more prominence than ever. Thanks to a range of factors including job insecurity and the rising cost of living, and more free time to invest in hobbies or creating a small business, the side hustle flourished. According to a survey of 2,000 UK workers by online freelancer marketplace Fiverr, 58% of those who are working on a side hustle in some form began doing so after March 2020.
It’s very easy to see the allure of a side hustle: unlike the more grim-sounding and traditional second or third job, 'side hustle' suggests you are a go-getter making the most of your time. You are not taking your skills or your time for granted; you are grafting to get ahead in the capitalist space. It’s particularly geared towards creative endeavours and so conflates doing what you love with being paid for it – something that many millennials and Gen Z were taught to expect from their work but often didn’t find. If the world of work can’t fulfil your creative dreams, the implication goes, then a side hustle encourages you to be your own boss and increase your income.
The problem of course is that the side hustle as a lifestyle choice doesn’t always line up with reality. Despite attempts to codify the 'side-hustle bedroom' as an aesthetic, working for yourself in this way is not aspirational. It blurs the line between work and personal life, the former spilling into your home space. It takes up space, time and money without necessarily offering the promised return on your investment.
Whether you are engaging in a side hustle primarily to support yourself or you are in a (relatively) secure but unhappy position and trying to branch out, working out the costs vs the benefits is vital. For some, the result of that equation is to quit.
Becca, 25, started teaching as a climbing instructor on a zero-hour contract for fun and to make a bit of extra money when saving for her first home. But the time commitment quickly became overwhelming.
"It was weekend work," she tells R29, "so I struggled with working pretty much every single day of the week and not having time off. I also picked up more shifts on my holiday from my main job. I dropped it because I started a new, more demanding job where the hours included one Saturday in five and some evening work and it was all too much."
For some people, the time commitment can be worth it when your side hustle gives you what your job lacks – for a while, at least.
Jenna, 29, was feeling really unfulfilled in her full-time role and liked the idea of increasing her income, especially as where she worked had no progression or bonus structure. She had worked in learning and development for around eight years and "love[s] helping people grow" and so she started looking into teaching English to children online. "I had done some research and found a couple of companies that predominantly catered towards the Chinese market," she says. The hours therefore tended to be early morning, which appealed to Jenna as an early bird. Thanks to working from home, it was a fairly seamless process to start teaching before her nine-to-five job.
Jenna loved seeing the same students each week and watching them develop but her downtime quickly filled up with teaching and preparation, which affected her personal life. "I didn't have much time left for me and had to sacrifice social events. Getting up on a Saturday at 5am was hard!"
When she found a new position that focused on what she loved in learning and development, the negatives outweighed the positives. "For me to find that passion again in my current role outweighed the want and need for that extra income that came from teaching and I wanted to spend my time off truly being 'off' so I could give my role 110%."
Balancing creative or therapeutic fulfilment against the stresses of work and life is something that has to be constantly negotiated.
Claire, 28, who uses she or they pronouns, started charging by the hour to help people with their gardens because they found gardening incredibly rewarding. "I wanted to work on my own terms because I wanted to leave work and travel and needed an earner for when I returned! I had done a year of RHS [Royal Horticultural Society] study alongside a full-time job so I had amassed knowledge." When their main job was causing them frustration from being inside all the time, "having a lot of manual labour or creative work designing planting plans was a good productive outlet."
However their role as an NHS mental health practitioner became increasingly demanding during the pandemic. Claire says: "I realised that the effort involved in doing such different jobs was not worth the money or the therapeutic fun of working in gardens. I am also a perfectionist with gardens and I realised I couldn't work to my standards in both roles. Ultimately the nine-to-five won and I don't regret it."
Thirty-year-old Grace wanted to start a podcast but life had always got in the way, until the lockdowns started. As she was freelancing at the time, she had more flexibility to record and edit, which was vital for speaking with her busy guests. "Even with this flexibility I found it to be pretty tricky to keep up with things," she says. "I was doing around 20 hours per week on writing, recording, editing and planning. I didn’t have any time to look at the monetisation side of things or growing things beyond what came organically." Though she got lucky with some decent press and was even featured on the Apple Podcasts homepage, in the end she wasn’t able to sustain it alongside her work. "Around the same time I came to this decision I took on a full-time role that is very demanding so the idea of maintaining the podcast was definitely not feasible," Grace says. "I mean, maybe it’s not totally impossible but it would mean zero downtime whatsoever. It felt like a choice between the podcast or having any free time for anything else. So I ultimately chose the latter."
The overarching theme is that putting in all that extra work has to be worth it, especially if the source of income is unstable. What defines something as 'worth it' is obviously up to you but if you are able to avoid sacrificing your physical and mental wellbeing for the sake of extra income then it is worth considering. Championing the pursuit of a side hustle at all costs normalises overwork and reflects the fact that precarious employment and working several jobs just to survive is an increasingly common reality. Moreover, it can make you feel like you are letting yourself down or missing out because you are not hustling as hard as you think you should.
"I think when I was younger I felt pressure to be good at many things at once and to be exceeding my own expectations," says Claire. "I have now realised it's okay to just do one job at a time but there was a time I would have been very harsh on myself for that and thought I was missing out." They add: "It's not sustainable to try and maintain all the different work alongside each other and I feel better having left some passions and stresses behind."
Quitting these additional forms of work when you can afford to is not a sign of weakness or lack of ambition but instead a reprioritisation of yourself and your needs.
As Grace puts it: "There is a part of me that feels a bit disappointed in myself as there’s very much a narrative of needing to work really hard on these creative side projects and that being admirable. But I feel like we should admire the decision for people to choose being happy and healthy over having a cool project they’re working on."