here have never before been so many self-employed workers in the UK. There are now almost 4.8 million people working for themselves across the country, in a spectrum of jobs ranging from cycle couriers to architects, according to the Office for National Statistics.
It might seem that, as your own boss, you can manage your own hours, take time out for exercise, meet friends for coffee – all hugely positive for mental health and wellbeing. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Isolation, financial pressures, irregular hours and an inability to switch off can have a real impact when not managed properly, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University. “For self-employed people, it’s a real problem. It can lead to the common mental health disorders – stress, depression and anxiety.”
Claire Crawley went freelance when she was made redundant from a permanent job with the NHS following budget cuts. She and her husband, James, a self-employed electrician, lived in rural Devon and the redundancy coincided with the birth of their second child. Her background is in PR and communications, work she could do remotely, and self-employment seemed to make sense. “If you live in the countryside in Devon, you are looking at a 30-mile commute to pretty much anywhere, there and back, and there were no part-time jobs at all, so freelance was about the only way to go,” says Crawley. “At the time I was really motivated. I thought I would cut down on travel time, work when I was free and take time off when I wasn’t, go to class assemblies, all the other things you can’t do in a job.”
Crawley soon built up a client base but found striking any kind of work-life balance was enormously difficult. She was faced with a very irregular workload and demanding clients. “I would book for the children to go to the child-minder because I knew I had a deadline. Then the client wouldn’t give me the information I needed to do the work in time, so I would pay for the kids to go to the child-minder, pick them up and put them to bed, then work until 2am trying to finish the project to deadline, because I wouldn’t get paid otherwise,” she says.
The financial instability was also extremely stressful. “We felt vulnerable. When you are used to having a regular income coming in, you completely take that for granted, but if you are freelancer and your time is your sole asset, it is really difficult,” she says. One client she had worked with for five years suddenly no longer needed her and she lost a significant chunk of work with little notice. “If you get made redundant, there is a process you go through, but if you have clients you are completely at their mercy.”
Crawley says she feels like “there is some big con”: “We keep on being told we’re being liberated by this, and yet you don’t earn as much as you would do. You’re constantly worried about being sick or injuring yourself in some way that would render you unable to work for a little while.”
Freelance illustrator Emmeline Pidgen has been self-employed since she graduated six years ago and has also found herself at the financial mercy of her clients. She has involved lawyers in a dispute with an overseas publisher who hasn’t paid her for about three years. She, too, has found achieving a balance with work and home life difficult at times, but the isolation of working alone has been the main problem.
“You don’t have group brainstorming sessions, motivating staff talks, even colleagues to talk to about office gossip,” she says. “You have to have a real drive to push through and feel confident with your own direction and ideas, but the loneliness can affect you.”
Isolation is a major problem, says Cooper. “There can be a lack of sociability, even for an IT consultant or a management consultant who works in house or face-to-face with clients,” he says. “You might be seeing people and interacting with others, but you are not part of a company’s culture. You never investing in a longer-term relationship. When you have a permanent job, you usually have a couple of colleagues who you become friends with, who you would see outside of work, but you don’t get that when you are not part of the organisation.”
According to the Health and Safety Executive, among employed staff, stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of working days lost to ill health. Absence due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for around 11.7m work days lost among employees.
If you’re self-employed, taking time off is likely to cost money. Even a regular client is unlikely to have to pay you if you cannot work. James Moss, partner at employment law firm Slate Legal, says: “The self-employed enjoy no statutory employment rights.” Instead of statutory sick pay, self-employed people who become unable to work thought illness or disability need to apply for employment and support allowance (ESA) – one of those benefits earmarked by the chancellor for cuts.
With very little in terms of a financial safety net or emotional support, it’s important for self-employed people to protect their own wellbeing. “We would recommend you build a network of people so that you have some way to access support,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. “Consider working in hubs with other people. Build contacts with other freelancers in your area, professional networks and so on, but also friends and family.”
When work takes over, it may be time to learn to say no. “People don’t think they can turn work down, but once you have experience and you’re settled, and have built up a network, you have to realise that when you are good at something, you can afford to say ‘no’,” says Cooper. “You can say: ‘I’m too busy to take this on’, and they will call you back in the future.”
If things are getting too much, it is important to know when to seek help, he says. “You have to recognise the symptoms, and that isn’t always easy. If you’re having trouble getting up in the morning, if you’re tired even after 10 hours sleep, if you’re feeling low and blue all the time, if you’re hyper-anxious and constantly worrying all the time, if you are usually sociable and you don’t feel like seeing anybody. When people do suffer from anxiety and depression, they should go and get help, and can start by seeing their GP.”
Pidgen has now found an effective working pattern. Her invoicing system includes strong terms and conditions, and she doesn’t hesitate to either charge late fees or turn down work when clients treat her poorly. She has built networking into her routine – including a monthly meeting with other local illustrators – and she attempts to take more time out for herself. “I don’t think I would be as happy in a permanent job, as I am freelancing,” she says.
Crawley, on the other hand, decided self-employment was not for her. She and her family recently moved to her native Manchester, where she has a permanent job. “It’s brilliant. There is a whole training plan, I can bounce ideas off people,” she says. “Giving yourself permission to stop is much easier if you have fulfilled your professional requirements and that is recognised in some way. I’ve booked holiday for half-term and I know I definitely won’t work, and that is the first time that has happened in 10 years.”