01/11/2023

Isolation and uncertainty – what employers need to know about their temporary staff

Stock image representing Victoria Brown
Victoria Brown

Anonymous IT Contractor

Mental Health at Work has partnered with Simply Business to support the UK’s self-employed with their mental health and wellbeing. Together we surveyed more than 700 small business owners to understand their challenges. Now we want to start a conversation and break the stigma surrounding mental health at work.

We asked an IT contractor to share her experiences of feeling isolated in the workplace. She asked us not to share her name – we’ve used a pseudonym, and used a stock image for her author portrait. Here, ‘Victoria’ talks candidly about some of the places she’s worked, and what those who hire freelancers and contractors could be doing to better support their temporary staff.


 

I’ve been working as a contractor for eight and a half years. While it has its benefits – flexibility, independence, and increased earnings, to name a few – it’s not without its downsides too. As someone who comes into an organisation as an outsider, sometimes for a short amount of time, you can find yourself feeling very isolated from the permanent employees.

In some places I have worked, the separation between ‘employee (us)’ and ‘contractor (them)’ is really pronounced, despite you all being on the same team and working towards the same goals.

Employees working late

There are certain meetings you can’t attend. You don’t get the staff rate at the canteen. Sometimes you don’t even get an access pass, you have to sign in and out every time you go to work and bother a colleague to meet you in reception to let you in and out.

You don’t get a desk, or a locker, so you can’t settle in properly. And then, you can’t commute in trainers because where would you put them all day?

And being in the office the week of the Christmas party is horrible. You can see everyone getting excited, planning outfits, setting their out of office notifications… but you’re not allowed to go with them.

It can feel like you cease to exist

And sadly, the feeling of disconnection from your colleagues continues even after you’ve left a workplace. Once your contract is over, it can feel like you cease to exist. I suspect this is probably true when you move permanent jobs as well, but it’s very pronounced when you move so often.

I’ve had several ‘best work friends’; chatting every day, going for lunch multiple times a week, sharing our personal lives. I’m only in touch with two of them now, and only one of them is someone I can consider an actual friend. I’m cut off from one of the main avenues that adults make friends and keep an active social life from – the workplace.

A man works alone in an open office.

I’ve had one really bad experience leaving a workplace. I was constantly being given jobs that didn’t match my skillset, and I realised they were likely going to let me go shortly. But there was no official leaving lunch. No thank you card. No email sent around to let the team know I had finished working with them. I couldn’t even send one myself to thank all my colleagues and let them know I’d love to keep in touch, because I’d been locked out of the system.

I received no personal acknowledgement that my zero hours contract finished.

Essentially, I stopped being useful to them, so management ghosted me. This was very damaging to my mental health – the long-term uncertainty, the awkwardness in the workplace, and the tasks I wasn’t suited for hurt my self-esteem and left me feeling anxious and stressed out. I felt like I was just an optional resource on a spreadsheet that could be tapped or ignored as needed – not a real person who deserved respect.

Remember we have different needs too

There are definitely things employers can do to help contractors and freelancers to feel more included. I have been at places where the ‘entire team’ was expected to attend things like off-site days, with no delineation between the two, which felt really nice and helped me build some important workplace relationships.

But they also need to remember where we have different needs, too. Generally, companies aren’t great at remembering contractors need different guidance and processes; particularly around on-boarding. You arrive and are given the employee handbook, the links for employee portals, training, holiday requests, benefits, and so on – but loads of it doesn’t apply to you and it can be hard to suss out what you should and shouldn’t be accessing.

Your team members wouldn’t necessarily know either. It’s a low-level stress, but it is one that I have felt in almost every new role.

Three women work together on laptops

And when it’s time for a contract to end, honesty really is the best policy. In my line of work, roles aren’t meant to last forever, and we aren’t going to take it personally when the job is finished. It’s a lot easier for everyone if employers are open about their intentions and give their temporary staff a chance to say their goodbyes and part ways on a positive note.

Despite these drawbacks, I have always seen contracting as a relatively easy option, where the financial benefits far outweigh the perceived risks. In fact, I have struggled to understand why more people don’t try it! I’ve always thought it a bit strange that I enjoy it as much as I do, when I am a person who hates change and loves forward planning!

It's not all bad

What it really boils down to is that as a contractor, you are being paid more to deal with the risks associated with a lack of job security, and having to self-fund your own sick leave, holiday pay and maternity pay. Putting up with the social isolation and uncertainty is just a side note to those.

And I have heard employees complain that they’d rather have the money in their pocket than attend a fancy work function, so maybe it’s not all bad!

I try to focus on the fact that it’s a deliberate choice I have made, and that it – mostly – works for me.

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