The wellbeing of a freelancer

The wellbeing of a freelancer

Nick Walton chats to researcher and freelance journalist Michel Syrett on how working for yourself can affect your wellbeing.

For many, the working day has its usual peaks and troughs. For others, the average day can become a seemingly impossible labyrinth to navigate.

This is particularly true for the one in four people who will at some point in their lives experience mental illness. According to the NHS, almost 50% of long-term absences from work are due to mental health issues – including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Michel Syrett, an established journalist, researcher and Director of The Cairn of Mental Health, lives with bipolar. And he has been one of the few to study the differences between how the self-employed and employees feel about work. Michel argues that to understand the wellbeing of a freelancer, you have to look into four main areas.

Financial security

For a freelancer, fluctuations in workflow and income can mean there isn’t enough to put away into savings, so there is no protective financial support when times are tough. We know from our own research that over a third (37.3%) of freelancers are unable to contribute towards a pension fund. How does this affect an individual’s mind-set?

Michel believes one of the biggest concerns an independent professional will have is not being paid on time. If more businesses were honest on when they can pay, Michel argues it would remove an unnecessary emotional burden: “The issue here is not just that it’s late, it’s that organisations can be very vague and inaccurate about the exact date when you will be paid. Knowing when you are likely to be paid is so important, even if it is late, as it will give you more of a peace of mind that the money is coming. If not, you are placed at a great disadvantage particularly if budgeting is an issue.”

Social support

It’s understandable that some freelancers feel socially isolated in their job. Michel suggests that not every freelancer can find social support in their work environment: “An individual’s social life usually revolves around work and the people they work with. And the support they may need will come from those they work with. So who do freelancers rely on? Their clients? On networking? On other freelancers?”

As a growing number switch to freelancing, organisations need to consider the kind of help they can provide to those who work for themselves. A recent study conducted by Michel revealed that many international management consultancies organise alumni schemes which provide former employees with social and workplace support while they are setting up on their own. One such alumni who previously worked for Bain & Co comments:

“They certainly don’t hold you back. They take the attitude that if you are going to leave, you are going to leave. They take pride in the success of their alumni and in my case, they allowed me to continue to work in the office and to use it as a resource centre – and keep my desk for six months. This was critical for me when I was setting something up and short of capital. And they were keen for me to know that if my enterprise did not work out, my old job with them was still there.”

Mental health

A mental health problem can have a big impact on family life. Research from numerous health foundations suggests that those who suffer from mental health and are traditional employees often have trouble with their family life responsibilities.

IPSE’s own research shows that there are higher levels of job satisfaction in self-employment than in full employment, with one of the main benefits being control over work/life balance. For Michel, being self-employed is the better way for him to manage his own mental health: “I can find it easier to gear my work pattern around my depressive episodes than I would ever do if I was in a full-time job. If I was employed I would have to take sick leave – instead I can take time off when I need to. In fact, I find that by being this open about my mental health problems I encounter much less stress. Being open about the subject is becoming quite acceptable.”

General wellbeing

But is a good work/life balance achievable for everyone? Pressures and anxieties to work can come in a number of ways – you have to be mentally prepared and ready to accept you are now self-sufficient.

There are ways of dealing with the added pressures and stress of self-employment, as Michel says: “Balancing different work environments is important. Self-employment should not necessarily mean working at home exclusively. Travel to new work locations when you can – it can help relieve the stress of work.”

Every individual’s wellbeing will be different, so self-employment will not be the best option for everyone. What is increasingly apparent when speaking to Michel is that more research needs to be undertaken on how style of working impacts an individual’s wellbeing.