Every year - we conduct a research study into the relationship between mental health and self-employment. Initially, it was because we were unable to find any non-commercially interested studies into the stressors of the self-employed and to help guide the work we do within the project, I wanted to find a good source of impartial information. Secondly, many of the academic studies we've subsequently uncovered are narrow in their scope, and rather than proving causation or correlation, I wanted to uncover commonalities in experiences so that we are able to create and curate content which truly addresses both frequent and less-discussed challenges our community faces on a regular basis.
In 2019, the study showed us three main groups of influences on our mental health: behavioural, emotional and external. This year, we've regrouped the influences to look at how significant each group is, and specifically what external factors could be tackled as well as individual concerns. I also wanted to understand if people were able to find support when they needed it, and of course, enquire about 2020's most significant influence on mental health - the COVID pandemic.
As our community grows, this research will help us not only support our members and their needs, but also raise awareness around gaps in support for mental health at work for the self-employed, areas where individuals, employers and government can do more, and critically go to identify the things to be aware of either as you move into self-employment for the first time, or things to keep an eye upon even for the most established of freelancers.
For me, the most significant finding this year is not COVID related, but rather how few freelancers know where to look for support when they need it, and how few freelancers feel that their clients have their wellbeing at heart. Leapers will always be committed to supporting individuals, but starting conversations with businesses around how they work well with the self-employed is increasingly essential to truly enable a more sustainable and supportive future of work.
Founder and Chief Freelance Officer
Mental Health is increasingly a reason to go freelance
yet most didn't consider the impact of freelancing on their mental health before they become self-employed.
51% of our entire panel hadn't considered the potential impact of freelancing on their mental health before becoming self-employed.
43% of new freelancers (those who have been self-employed for 0-12 months) cite wanting to improve their mental health as a motivation to become self-employed - this is in contrast to established freelancers where only 18% say it was a reason.
Poor mental health has had an impact on the majority of freelancers' ability to work but few are actively putting things in place to improve it.
64% state that stress, anxiety or poor mental health has at some point had a negative impact on their ability to work since freelancing but only 29% say that looking after their own mental health is absolutely part of their plan to build a successful business. 32% of our group are spending 2 or fewer hours a week investing in their own mental health on average.
Even taking rest can lead to stress despite rest being critical for good mental health.
67.44% state that even taking time off creates stress, and 47% are stressed by a lack of control over their own working hours or workload, despite a quarter of the group citing more control over hours being a primary reason for becoming self-employed.
Isolation is a more of a problem this year
absolutely driven by the pandemic.
79% are spending more than 50% of their working time working alone, 58% are spending more than three-quarters of their time working on their own
72% say feeling isolated causes them to feel stress, which is a significant increase on last year when 59.3% said working alone wasn't causing them stress.
The self-employed don't feel supported by government, and it's not just a pandemic issue.
72.30% have said COVID and the pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health
67.44% said they did not feel supported during COVID by government during the pandemic (this increases to 80.5% if you only consider limited company owners), and 85% say they don't feel supported as a small business by government generally.
Brexit (64%) and IR35 (39%) are still concerning for many too.
Too many freelancers don't have and cannot find the support they critically need.
68% don't feel they have adequate support for their mental health within the context of work.
64% don't know where they'd be able to get support for their mental health at work, as a self-employed professional.
Clients aren't doing their part to support their freelancers and bad client behaviours are leading to stress and poorer mental health.
71% don't feel their employing organisations or clients have their emotional wellbeing in mind in any way, and over 80% would like their clients to take some shared responsibility towards their mental health.
Common causes of stress and negative impact of mental health directly under the control of clients include:
Having to chase late/unpaid invoices (62.79%)
Poor communication from client (73.5%)
Lack of on-boarding / project kickoffs (54.9%)
Lack of feedback (34.8%).
But despite all this - there's still optimism.
89.85% say uncertainty around the future is worrying them.
But 65% are still feeling positive about 2021 professionally.
62% of our group stated that they are currently or have at some point dealt with a mental health challenge or condition - whether formally diagnosed or not. 12% were not sure.
27% percent say they didn't actively think about their mental health before freelancing, and 51% hadn't considered the potential impact of freelancing on their mental health before going self-employed, whilst 87% of those who are freelancing agree that being independent does have an impact on their mental health.
64% of freelancers say they now spend more time thinking about their mental health since becoming self-employed, and 64% also state that stress, anxiety or poor mental health has at some point had a negative impact on their ability to work since freelancing. 73.52% of the group who didn't consider the impact of freelancing upon their mental health now actively think about it more often.
68% don't feel they have adequate support for their mental health within the context of work, and 64% don't know where they'd be able to to get support for their mental health at work, as a self-employed professional. Only 29% of say that looking after their own mental health is absolutely part of their plan to build a successful business - 39% say it is not, and the remaining 32% are doing a little to look after themselves. 32% of our group spend 2 or fewer hours a week investing in their own mental health on average.
Our ranked list of reasons for going independent shows a little change behind motivations for being self-employed as reasons won't change year on year.
We split out new freelancers (0-12 months) to see if there was a marked difference in reasons this year too, and saw more of a focus on wellbeing being a driver above the total audience, with 43% of those new to freelancing citing it as a motivation, compared to 18% of the total audience.
The group who cited mental health as being a reason for going independent are generally younger too - 42% are between 26-35, compared to only 28% in the total audience, suggesting mental health being higher up the priority of younger freelancers.
65% are working 5 days a week or more as a freelancer (11% are committing six or seven days a week to freelancing).
27% are working 3-4 days a week as a freelancer, with only a small proportion working freelance as a minority of the week. 79% are spending more than 50% of their working time working alone, 58% are spending more than three-quarters of their time working on their own. [This is an unsurprisingly large increase on the previous year where only 30% of people were working more than 30 hours alone each week, undoubtedly driven by the pandemic.]
93% of respondents were working from home - with a long-tail of alternative spaces and places, including client offices, coffee shops and coworking spaces - but as the majority of the year had been under lockdown - this is not surprising.
Activities our group undertake to look after their own mental health.
Only 20.08% make use of talking therapies to support their wellbeing, only 32.77% make use of professional communities for support, and only 38.27% use regular time off as a way of looking after their own wellbeing.
Financial Resilience is one of our core foundations of self-employed wellbeing.
What tasks, behaviours and tangible experiences cause stress or anxiety for the self-employed in relation to money and finances?
What are the most stress inducing admin tasks when self-employed?
What are the key ways of working which are leading to cause stress and anxiety for freelancers?
Does taking time off or not being able to work lead to stress?
* For those who are primary carers, the number of people who are caused stress or worry by homeschooling and childcare increases to 76.53%
What are the common emotional experiences and feelings that our self-employed encounter which cause stress or anxiety?
What about external relationships and how they place stress on our work?
Whilst the self-employed are responsible for their own behaviours - as we can see, much of the influence upon mental health comes from external factors, and the behaviours of others, including our clients.
71% of our group didn't feel their employing organisations have their emotional wellbeing in mind in any way, 25% felt clients did somewhat, but only 4% felt they generally did - a worryingly small number.
19% wouldn't want employing organisations to take shared responsibility in their emotional wellbeing, **but an overwhelming 80.55% want their clients to take some sort of responsibility towards not negatively impacting their mental health.**
[Whilst we know that many clients/employers aren't able to provide direct benefits or support, we do recognise that there are plenty of stressors and behaviours identified within this research where clients can make improvements to indirectly support their freelancers mental health - such as on-time payment of invoices, better communication and good feedback. The most valuable first step, however, is signposting towards quality support - as 64% don't know where to get good support for their mental health at work].
What levels of concern do our panel have around the significant global and economic changes within 2020?
A majority of our panel have felt let down by government during the pandemic - 67.44% said they did not feel supported during COVID, and 85% say they don't feel supported as a small business by government generally.
When looking only at Limited Company owners, 80.50% felt unsupported by government during the pandemic - reflecting the gap in financial support for this group.
65.54% are positive about 2021 though, feeling next year will be better professionally - and 66.17% feel positive about the future of their career as a freelancer, however 33.83% feel negative towards their career as a freelancer, which is reflected in the number of people leaving self-employment.
We'll be publishing our review and observations later this month. Please register to receive update via email.
We spoke to 563 self-employed workers who volunteered to share information about their mental health. Panelists were invited to join from across a wide range of self-employment communities and networks, such as Leapers, Freelance Heroes and DIFTK. 68% of panelists were not members of Leapers.
Our group spanned a wide range of ages - but the bulk of respondents were 36+, over 71%.
The gender split was 60/40 skewed towards females - which reflects how men generally are less open to sharing their emotional wellbeing.
32% of our group are also a primary carer - perhaps as a parent or for another member of close family.
Only 13% of our panel are newly self-employed, within the last 12 months, 24% are in their first three years, 16% have been self-employed for 3-5 years, and 14% 5-8 years. 32% have been self-employed for more than 8 years, the largest proportion of our panel.
Our respondents are relatively established in their careers too - 60% of the group have over 15 years of working experience, 22% have 8-15 years of working history, and only 11% have less than 8 years of their career behind them - making this a mature group, rather fresh to the world of work.
Self-employed has a range of definitions - and our group is no different. 54% are registered as sole-traders and 36% are the sole employee of their own limited company - one of the groups which received little or no financial support during the pandemic.
Whilst we have a wide spread of sectors our freelancers work in, the majority (51%) work in "creative industries", including creative services and design (i.e. illustrators, designers, project managers, etc), Advertising, Marketing and PR, Media, Film, TV and Theatre Production, journalism and writing. A notable proportion work in Management, Business and Consulting, IT and Technology and Arts and Charities. It's clear that this group is mostly a 'white collar' knowledge-worker group, so reflects freelancing at large, rather than self-employment generally - which has large proportion of construction, retail and hospitality workers.
Questions were asked during a four week period from September 2020, when the UK was between lockdown periods - but most of the year had been spent in some form of restrictions around how and where people could work. Many were being encouraged to return to offices, but many shops, cafes, coworking spaces were still closed. Participants were not paid for their involvement.
All data within this report: Copyright 2021 Foxlark Strategy Limited and must not be used or republished without express permission. Please do not re-publish this data or commentary without quoting the original source as "Leapers Annual Study 2020" with a link to https://leapers.co/research. For any additional requests or further data, please contact [email protected]
A huge thanks goes to everyone within the Leapers community for sharing the survey links within their own networks, as well as those freelance friendly communities who additionally shared our survey with their audiences - including Frankie at DIFTK, Anna at Lance, Ed at Freelance Heroes, Dave at Independent Work, NABS, Ewan and team at Mind UK, and many others.
Leapers supports the mental health of the self-employed. Founded in 2017, the award-winning peer-support community has welcomed 50,000 individuals and over 5000 registered members, curating and creating tangible resources, and works with individuals and organisations to help modern workers work well.
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