Taking Care of Your Mental Health as a Contractor

Contract work and freelancing comes with many perks, including flexibility, and potentially higher pay.

These benefits can have a positive impact on a freelancer’s mental health – in fact, a survey by IPSE found that 80 per cent of respondents felt that switching to self-employment had at least a somewhat positive impact on their mental health.

‘Not having to deal with bureaucracy and office politics was rated as the joint top aspect of self-employment that had a positive impact on freelancers’ mental health (70 per cent) alongside ‘greater overall flexibility.’

However, contract work has its own set of challenges that can negatively impact mental health. Factors like irregular work hours, increased responsibility, less job security, and in many cases isolation, also play a part in freelance mental health issues.

Common Struggles Freelancers Face

According to an IPSE report that surveyed more than 700 freelancers, some of the top issues that freelancers highlighted included:

Finding work and irregularity of income

Just over half of respondents (53 per cent) stated that finding work had had a negative impact on their mental health and half also struggled with the irregularity of income that comes with self-employment.

When you begin freelancing, there’s an inclination to take on any work because you need more business experience, or you don’t know when work might disappear (particularly recently, when freelancers lost work due to the pandemic).

Because of this, some report being in a constantly ‘heightened state’ due to financial uncertainty and often convey sentiments of guilt when they don’t work; even when they are on holiday, spending time with their family at home, or going out socialising.

A lack of sick or holiday pay

A benefit of being a freelancer is that you can choose your hours/workload, but this can also be negative if it means overloading your plate, working outside of hours without the oversight of an employer, and blurring the line between work and home. The fluctuating flow of work combined with a lack of a safety net of sick or holiday pay can also lead to workers feeling the pressure to soldier on when they might be unwell.

Almost one in ten freelancers didn’t take any days off in the previous 12 months, and 14 per cent took less than five days. 24 per cent felt unable to take time off when feeling sick or unwell.

The impact of isolation

According to a recent survey, nearly 40 per cent of people felt lonely after going freelance. This could be due to a lack of office camaraderie, or even missing the infamous ‘water cooler’ chats.

Missing these interactions might not seem to be a major issue when everything is going well, but during challenging times, having people to speak with becomes all the more important.

Although as a freelancer you can avoid sometimes taxing office politics, that doesn’t make you immune to other issues, such as difficult or demanding clients. And without the support of a network of other employees to share the burden with or to receive advice and reassurance from, contractors can be left to solve these issues on their own, exacerbating the stress involved. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Ways to Overcome These Challenges

When asked what mental health support measures they would find useful, the top three measures given in IPSE’s report were all related to interacting with others. These included ‘coaching and mentoring’ (23 per cent), ‘connecting with others in similar situations’ (22 per cent) and ‘co-working opportunities’ (22 per cent).

Curate your own network 

Whilst some of the challenges that freelancers face are inherent to the trade, by engaging with others who have had the same experiences through online or in-person networking and support groups, freelancers can share tips and advice, find mentors and job opportunities, and ask questions.

There are other options for being around people too – shared workspaces (pay-as-you-go office memberships or hot desking offices) are becoming more flexible in their pricing structures. And apps now exist to match people with restaurants, cafes and bars which have a spare table for you and your laptop.

Establish boundaries

Without the oversight of a manager to answer to and a lack of routine, work can seep into home life and, before you know it, have a knock-on effect on mental health and sleep patterns. Time management is key to this; setting (and sticking to) deadlines is crucial. Anything that creates a hard backstop, whether that be a regular evening fitness class or a weekly meeting with a friend, might help to establish a boundary.

The same goes with client work – although turning down extra client work may not be an option. Try setting virtual ‘office hours’ in which clients can contact you, or an automatic holding email reply that gives a rough timeline of when you will respond. This may help to keep interactions limited to the work hours that suit you, as well as ensure that you don’t feel guilty about not replying to an inquiry straight away, outside of your chosen hours.

Utilise available resources

Engaging with professional services is also an option worth exploring, whether that be in-person mental health support, financial advice, or accessing online mental health support, such as Mental Health At Work’s: ‘How you doing? Helping freelancers to look after their mental health.’

Ultimately anyone, whether self-employed or employed by a company, can face mental health and well-being issues, but the key is not to bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away. Continuing to work when you might need a break can lead to burnout and ultimately lower productivity in the long run – so it’s worth making use of the support available.

If you are interested in the flexibility that a contract role in data offers – get in touch with one of our consultants today.

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