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Mental Health and Self-Employment

2021 Annual Survey Report

Every year, we ask the self-employed a series of questions about their work and their mental health, to understand the relationship between the two.

This year's report highlights that ...

80% of us feel that being self-employed has a net positive effect on our mental health.
40% of those new to freelance this year chose to become self-employed to improve their mental health compared to only 23% of the established freelancers (those self-employed for more than 1 year).
87% feel 2022 will be a better year for us professionally, than 2021.

But ...

1 in 2 of us have been not able to work due to poor mental health at some point whilst self-employed.
3 in 4 of the self-employed have felt or experienced burnout.
2 in 3 of us lack adequate support for our mental health at work. Only a third of us know where we're be able to find support, and only a third of us would tell our peers or colleagues when we're struggling.
70% of us have felt disconnected or isolated when working in self-employment.
23% of the self-employed took less than a week off last year. Only a third were able to take off more than 20 days in the last twelve months. Employed workers get 40 days of paid leave by law.
84% of us have had our work negatively affected by poor mental health 46% of us have been prevented from working due to poor mental health.
79% of people spent no or little time considering the impact of becoming self-employed on their mental health Of those people, 64% think about it more often now. 35% of you say that the 'reality' of self-employment is not what you expected.
45% of us are reactive to mental health concerns, waiting for them to happen, rather than putting proactive efforts in place to mitigate or protect against them, despite 97% of us say that our mental health is very important to us.

Report on our 2021 Findings

01. Introduction

Why do we ask?

Every year, we ask the self-employed a series of questions about their work and their mental health, to understand the relationship between the two.

Mental health at work is a critical part of creating a sustainable business and has had increased focus over the past decade, especially since research showed there's a 5:1 return on investment when you invest in employee wellbeing, but when you're self-employed, you've got no-one else looking out for you - no HR team, no line manager, no colleagues, and if your mental health starts to slip, you're not only putting your own wellbeing at risk, but the success of your business too.

You are the most important asset in your business - and taking care of our own mental health at work when self-employed is too important to leave until something goes wrong.

After recognising the importance of your own mental health at work, the next step is understanding what influences it, positively and negatively, so you're able to start building a plan, resilience towards the challenges, and design for the positives.

This survey aims to highlight the breadth of the challenges facing the self-employed, so that anyone who is considering moving into freelancing, anyone who is working for themselves, or those who work with the self-employed can be more aware of the things which have an impact, and actively design towards working well.

This year's survey is in the context of the second year of lockdowns and dealing with the ongoing impact of COVID. The UK is in the grip of a mental health crisis for all, not just the self-employed, but where employers are doing their best to support their employees, the self-employed are yet again being forgotten by government, by clients, and at times, we forget to prioritise ourselves too.

As always, I hope this survey helps to shine a light on where we can all be doing more to take care of ourselves and each other.

Matthew Knight, January 2022.

02. Who took part?

The self-employed community is diverse and undefined - and this causes issues when trying to treat them as a single group of people with similar needs.

We asked a series of questions to understand which segment of the self-employed community we were speaking to. There's over 5M people who work for themselves in the UK, so to say "the self-employed" describes a very wide group of employment types, models of working and approaches.

02.1 How are you legally trading?

02.2 What do you call yourself?

There are so many labels to define the self-employed, and they're not consistently defined, and often interchanged. Only "Sole-Trader" has a definition with regards to a legal recognised entity or in the eyes of HMRC.

The majority of us use multiple terms to describe yourself. Only 50% of us use the label "self-employed", yet 100% of our respondents identify with this term. Freelancer and Self-Employed are the preferred terms. Contractor is used rarely here, yet from a client perspective seems have a distinct meaning different to freelancer. Almost no-one uses 'gig worker'.

Interestingly, 19.3% of the group who are legally trading as a limited company, who are legally not self-employed as far as the UK government or HMRC is concerned, still call themselves self-employed. As far as Leapers are concerned, we do see this group as self-employed, as they have no employer other than themselves.

The main observation here is: the language we use to describe ourselves is not well defined, understood or consistently used.

02.3 What sector do you work in?

Our group is primarily working in service industries, with a significant skew towards creative industries, such as creative services, advertising, marketing, journalism.

Whilst this doesn't reflect the self-employed at large in the UK, it does reflect the majority of members of the Leapers community, and the reach we have.

02.4 What gender do you identify with?

A significant skew towards those identifying as female in our responses - this aligns with the reality that men are less likely to talk about their mental health, or access help - for example, only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men. Whilst everyone has mental health, there's still a long way to go to destigmatise the topic, especially for men.

02.5 What age are you?

02.6 How long have you been in any form of work?

The majority of our group are aged 36+, and fairly established in our careers, with over 67% having more than 15 years of work experience to date, but a wider spread of time spent in self-employment.

02.7 How long have you been in any form of self-employment?

Roughly half have been self-employed for more than 4 years, and the other half are newer to self-employment.

Our data suggests that freelancing is something you do after a few years of work to build up your specialism in employment first.

02.8 What were your motivations for going self-employed?

Consistently every year, the primary reason for going self-employed is more control: more control over the work you do, more control over your schedule, more control over where you work.

Most interestingly, people say the primary reason is control over the type of work being done - less than where, when and how, but the work itself.

For those who are new to freelancing, the second most common answer is "to improve my mental health" at almost 40% of respondents, in contrast to only 23% for established freelancers - those moving to freelancing in the last year are looking to improve their mental health, and feel freelancing is part of the solution.

There wasn't a significant change in the number of people who said they wanted to have more control over 'where' they work, but we expect to see this reflected next year, after effects of the 'great resignation', and people returning to work after the pandemic with lack of flexible working options.

28% of those new to freelancing find themselves in self-employment because they were laid off, or could not find employment, reaffirming that being self-employed is not always a choice for many.

Only 5% moved to self-employment because they felt it would increase their income.

03. How are you working?

There's a wide variety of working patterns and habits - there's no one way to work when you're self-employed, so no one answer for how to work well.

03.1 Are you working in more than one form of employment?

21% are holding down more than one type of job, i.e. self-employed and working in employment.

03.2 How many days a week are you committing to freelancing?

The majority of us are still working a classic five day week, dispelling the myth that freelancers work less, and 15% are making their entire week available to work. The 28% who are working 3-4 days a week is still our primary role - and there is a marginal increase to 34% who work 3-4 days a week in those who've said they're a carer.

nb. this is about time committed to freelancing, not how much time people actually work, as many will work into weekends even if they hadn't planned to.

03.3 What is your average working day length?

The average working day is between 6-9 hours. Again, dispelling the myth that freelancers are the 'four-hour-work-week' people - most of us are working aligned with traditional models - as are our clients.

03.4 How much time did you take off in the last 12 months?

23% of us took less than a week off work in the last twelve months. This is more significant for those new to freelance: 80% of new freelancers took less than 20 days off, compared to 67% of established freelancers

Whilst restrictions in travel might have played a role in this, on average our results show that the self-employed are generally taking way less than most employees get. Almost all workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks' paid holiday a year (known as statutory leave entitlement or annual leave), but the self-employed get no paid holiday and are taking way less than 40 days on average.

Only 17% are taking more than 30 days time off. The lack of ease with which the self-employed can rest adds to challenges like burnout and anxiety. We will see later that taking time off also adds to stress levels. We'll also use this data to correlate to those who face more significant stress levels.

04. How are you feeling?

Despite us now all saying mental health is important to us, we're still very reactive to dealing with issues, rather than putting things in place to build resilience.

We asked a series of questions about your mental health in the context of work.

04.1 On average, how is your ...

Almost a quarter of us said our sleep was poor, and almost 50% said the quality of our sleep was only fair. This is true for the majority of the UK also, after two years of ongoing stress.

The majority of our group say on average, the quality of their mental health is either fair (62%) or good (22%). Right now, this is fantastic to hear, all things considered.

04.2 How important is mental health to you?

04.3 How aware of what influences your mental health?

It's really promising to hear that the vast majority of us see mental health as a clear priority, and feel we have a good awareness of what influences our mental health.

These are the two main steps in taking care of your own mental health - prioritising your mental health, and being actively aware of what has an influence on it, both negatively and positively.

04.4 Are you reactive or positive in taking care of your mental health?

There's a fairly even split between people who are being more proactive - i.e. taking steps to build resilience and protect themselves, with those who are being reactive - i.e. responding to issues as they arise.

The main challenge of self-employment is uncertainty - 78% of us feel uncertain about the near future, so taking a proactive approach to things can help when we're surprised by issues that crop up without us having plans in place.

04.5 Did you consider the impact on your mental health of becoming self-employed?

79% of people spent no or little time considering the impact of becoming self-employed on their mental health.

For the group who were actively thinking about their mental health before moving to self-employment, these numbers change radically - only 16% didn't consider the impact it would have.

For the group who didn't actively think about their mental health before self-employment, a whopping 64% think about it more often now, and 35% of you say that the 'reality' of self-employment is not what you expected.

It's clear that self-employment's impact can come as a surprise to many. There's a lot of work to be done to make the experience more transparent, so that those new to freelancing can be better prepared.

04.6 Do you feel you have adequate support for your mental health at work?

67% of us don't feel we have adequate support for our mental health at work, and For those new to freelancing, this number is lower - suggesting there's more support today than there ever has been, but there's still a long way to go, not only in creating better support for people, but also signposting to existing resources which are under-utilised.

04.7 Do you feel like you know where you'd be able to get support for your mental health at work, as a self-employed professional?

If and when things do go wrong, only a third of us feel like we have adequate support for our mental health at work, only a third of us now where we're be able to find support, and only a third of us would tell our peers or colleagues when we're struggling.

04.8 Since becoming self-employed, has stress, anxiety or poor mental health ever had a negative impact on your ability to work?

Only 16% have said that poor mental health has never had a negative impact on your ability to work.

04.9 Since becoming self-employed, has stress, anxiety or poor mental health ever prevented you from being able to work?

Almost half of the self-employed have had situations where they cannot work, because of poor mental health - and remember, we do not have paid sick days. No work = no income.

04.10 On balance, do you feel that working independently generally impacts your own mental health positively or negatively?

04.11 Do you feel that 2022 will be better or worse than 2021 for you professionally?

05. Stressors of the Self-Employed

There are many stressors, large and small, surprising and obvious - which can add up to a significant load if not managed adequately.

Our deep-dive into the specific challenges of self-employment, and their impact on you.

We listed a number of experiences, and for each one asked: have you ever experienced this since becoming self-employed, and did it cause you stress or anxiety?

Here, we have listed your responses, grouped by theme, only for those where more than 50% of you say it causes some or significant stress.

There is of course, a long tail of additional stressors below that 50% threshold, but we're listing the most significant here, and will be addressing each and every issue over the course of 2022 within the Leapers community - no matter how few people struggle with an issue, we aim to prepare people for it.

05.1 Money

Money worries are not only a self-employed concern, but financial anxiety and concerns are one of the most common stressors for those who work for themselves.

An unsurprising 79% of us are caused stress by irregular income - and whilst for most it's to be expected, it doesn't reduce the impact of that stress.

Spending time setting and justifying pricing causes stress for almost 3/4 of us, and overdue invoices - whilst a known issue to almost all freelancers, can be a surprise to many just how frustrating and stressful it can be.

05.2 Administration

The amount of work outside of 'doing the job' can often surprise people, and just how much time and additional stress it can create adds to the cognitive load for an individual.

Administration duties range across accounting, legal, sales, marketing, client servicing, tax, and more. Finding new clients is unsurprisingly stressful for many, but many find the act of self-promotion incredibly challenging too, as it can hit right to the heart of your own confidence and humility, especially in the face of constant comparison with others on social media.

Regular changes to legislation and taxation around self-employment is also causing a significant drain of time, energy and creating stress for many, especially around topics such as IR35.

05.3 Energy and Boundaries

Energy levels and boundaries between work and not work have significant influence on our mental health - and if they're not well maintained, can have a negative spiral effect: less energy and poorer focus means work takes longer, longer working hours makes you more tired, and on and on.

Concern over managing workload is almost always an issue for the self-employed, it can feel like "feast or famine" at times, hence the high number of people who report stress from both too much work and too little work, and self-reported burnout is over 75% of the respondents is worryingly high.

Even taking time off work can cause stress, and independent workers can find it hard to truly switch off, or even take time off at all.

Finally, over three quarters have experienced a lack of control over their working hours - despite it being a primary reason for many going self-employed, suggesting that simply going self-employed isn't the answer to wanting more control over your work.

05.4 Connection and Community

A lack of connection to others or community of peers can have a dramatic impact on one's mental health - 86.4% have reported feeling disconnected or isolated during self-employment, and of those, almost 70% have said it causes them additional stress or anxiety. A vast majority of the self-employed feel they're doing this alone, and it's causing them stress.

The role of connection is so critical, and one of the reasons we focus on our community efforts above all else.

05.5 Emotions and Feelings

Feelings and facts are not the same thing - but how we are feeling can impact stress and further negatively (and positively) impact our mental health.

Even if those feelings may be rooted in something which isn't objectively 'true' (perhaps a feeling of imposter syndrome, or thinking we did a bad job when our client thinks otherwise) - this is still what we feel, and those feelings are very real for us.

Productivity and motivation rank highly as negative feelings which cause us stress on a common basis for around 80% of us, and a lack of confidence in what we're doing also effects 95% of us at times.

This data demonstrates the importance of working closely with others to get a subjective view, to get feedback from clients, and to be part of a community to support accountability and motivation.

Over 50% of us feel our skills or career development is not what it needs to be too, suggesting there need to be more accessible options for learning and development.

05.6 Professional Relationships

Working with other is such a significant part of freelancing and most forms of self-employment, it's unsurprising that many of the influences are related to the work itself, working with others and the professional relationships we have.

Having to work on projects we don't enjoy is a fact of life - regardless of your employment type, it affects 93% of us, but it causes stress and drains 69% of us, further depleting motivation and adding to the risk of burnout.

Conflict with clients, from disagreeing over scope, negative feedback, difficult conversations, chasing invoices, or having to fire clients even, are all significant stressors for us - and scope creep, or the changing goalposts of work during an active project, causes problems for 65% of us.

06. Client Behaviours and their impact on our work

Whilst there's limited legal requirements to protect suppliers' mental health, there are benefits in doing so - namely the quality of work.

We also asked you a series of questions about how your clients support you to do great work - Which of these things have you experienced, and did they have a negative impact on the quality of your work?

Whilst this might not seem like a mental health issue, the truth is our mental health at work is directly affected by whether we felt like we did a good job.

67% of us feel stressed when they haven't done a good job, 69% of us are caused stress when we're doing work we don't enjoy, 82% of us are stressed when we're not confident in what is being asked of us. So the way in which our clients work with us is a direct impact on both the quality of our mental health, but also the quality of our work.

Again, this is limited to experiences more than 50% of you are experiencing, with a longer tail of less frequent issues, but that the top six are all above 80% is a considerable concern and should be a wake up call to clients to aim to work with freelancers in a more invested way to improve quality of outcomes.

06.1 Client Behaviour on Work Quality

We asked which of these behaviours had our community experienced, and which had led to a negative impact on the quality of their work or ability to work.

Ways of working and organisational culture are a common barrier to getting started quickly - and a lack of, or poor on-boarding is true for over 82% of us. 57% of us have experienced clients ghosting us, and 82% of us experience a complete lack of feedback entirely.

The biggest challenge however, is unclear briefs, and the lack of confidence this can create in the early stages of a project for more than half of us.

06.2 Would you prioritise work for those clients who support you better, over those who don't?

A clear statement that we will actively give priority and time to those clients who support us to do our best work, and work well.

06.3 Would you tell fellow freelancers to avoid a client who has treated you badly?

Whilst clients ways of working might not get publicly reviewed anywhere, freelancers talk, and will share how clients who behave well are actively praised, and those who are behaving badly will build a negative reputation in the marketplace.

07. Summary

It takes a shared responsibility of individuals and clients to take care of the independent workforce, if we want to continue drawing upon diverse experience and capabilities.

If there’s one thing which every year of research shows, there’s no single thing which influences everyone. Yes, there are many common experiences, but it's the long tail of things which influence our community’s mental health that we need to build awareness around.

Yes, of course - uncertainty of income is going to be a stressor, but there are few who go into self-employment not expecting that. It’s the surprises and the things which are more out of our control, and the influences that others have upon our mental health where a sort of ‘shared responsibility’ is required.

Being more aware of our own stressors and what influences our wellbeing is essential, so that we can build a working wellbeing plan for ourselves and our own business - a set of plans or actions to reduce the risk of things happening, or to help you respond when things happen.

So many of the influences above come from clients poor behaviours, or the pressures that we feel after comparing ourselves to others on social media, by many of the influences are simply part of being human - yet when dealing with them on our own, can become overwhelming.

Mental health isn’t just an internal experience, it affects external things too, such as our ability to work and the quality of our work, which in turn effects whether we get work, which goes on to further impact our mental health - a downward or upward circle, depending on your situation.

As freelancers, we need to take care of ourselves in order to work sustainably.

As a community, we need to take shared responsibility to support each other.

And, as employers, we need to look after freelancers' mental health to get the best work from them.

If individuals want to embrace sustainable independent work, and businesses want to continue relying upon an independent workforce, we all need to take a shared responsibility for supporting the mental health of the self-employed.

08. Further Informatiom

Leapers is a project supporting the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed. Each year we run an annual study open to anyone in self-employment to report on their mental health and its influences. This survey ran during October 2021, and data was collected from 566 non-incentivised individuals.

Feel free to quote from this study - please reference the source as Leapers Mental Health and Self-Employment Annual Study 2021, and link back to this full report at www.leapers.co/research

All work within ⓒ 2021-2022 Matthew Knight.

For additional information on the study or our work, please contact [email protected]

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