The mental wellbeing lessons employers can learn from freelancers
Ewan Main is a freelancer who has worked in the mental health charity sector. Here, he shares what he’s learned from his move to freelancing, and what lessons employers can take from his experiences.
Lately, I’ve straddled both sides of the divide between employed and self-employed. I mainly do creative and digital things with charities and small businesses – website strategy, video, writing, product management, that sort of thing. To be clear: this is a very white-collar, privileged type of self-employment. That said, the creative industry is 35% self-employed, whereas only 15% of the general workforce is, so I’m not atypical.
There is nothing I’m doing just because someone has told me to do it
I don’t ever interact with anyone who’s in charge of me; only ever with people who’ve invited me to do interesting things with them and who appreciate what I’m doing. (Again, this is a luxury and by no means guaranteed.) I found myself pondering an upcoming job and thinking “It’s really important to me to make a really good job of this.” Then I realised I think that about everything I’m doing at the moment, because there is nothing I’m doing just because someone has told me to do it. Compared with the days of scheduling meetings, filling in purchase orders, completing appraisals and dealing with HR…
Well, it’s different.
found that 61% of those new to self-employment reported their mental health had improved in the year they moved to it. And having more control is the top reason people cited for making the move. There’s a lightness to feeling no longer like a cog in a wheel, and it’s not surprising; autonomy is recognised as a fundamental aspect of human wellbeing. Even within employment, it’s one of the key drivers of performance. Maximise autonomy: this is something that colleagues and employers can learn from the world of independent work., the mental health initiative and community for freelancers,
We overlook how much colleagues can be part of making you feel anchored to the world
It’s not all positive. The same survey highlighted lack of confidence, lack of time off,and more. or disconnected was one of the top five significant stressors. It’s certainly the one that hit me the most; the one that always lurks in the back of my mind. We overlook how much colleagues can be part of making you feel anchored to the world, giving you both a and a network – one reason why unemployment can be so problematic. Having such networks around you is a great protective factor; a sort of scaffolding that makes it easier to cope when other things are difficult.
For one thing, I had never realised before how the presence of professional networks helped offset, for me, the absence of family ones. Two Christmases in a row, I have been faced with losing all my colleagues. We’re inundated with messages that hammer home the primacy of these networks: your children, your extended family, and your workmates. The festive season is always tricky when you lack two of those – and without the third, it really felt fragile; as though there was almost nothing left holding me up.
So, I cannot recommend highly enough finding a way to feel part of a tribe. Or several. For me, joiningwas a huge one. So, too, was finding freelance work with kind, supportive people who made me feel part of their team. I’ve taken time off work this week and last to write a eulogy for a friend, quite unexpectedly, and my current two clients could not have been more lovely about it.
This is something the self-employed can learn from the employment world, and my number one recommendation to anyone going independent: prioritise finding networks, tribes, people and places where you can feel belonging. With whom you feel aligned in some way. Keep this high on the list when looking for contracts and people to work with; and seek out other types of community that will persist through the gaps.
You might be fine now – maybe you have more of the other networks in place than I did – but this is about being anti-fragile; building scaffolding for the future.
The employed sector can learn from the self-employed
This is certainly something the employed sector can learn from the self-employed; not to match it, but to better it. The trend towards casual working, very short-term contracts, repeated reorganisations, redundancy and insecurity seems like an unnecessary own goal. An enlightened employer could so easily make a better offer in this regard than the world of independent work. More should.
Finally, it’s worth thinking about representation. One of my most recent fields was in workplace wellbeing, and it’s striking the extent to which that world, the media, and the public in general, assumes that everyone works in an office and has a manager. This leaves out all the people like me, but also anyone else who works in a different workplace setting.
Sadly, a lot of wellbeing-focused circles share advice on how to improve organisational wellbeing from the leaders of these office-based, hierarcical businesses. That means it can feel irrelevent to those of us working in another type of workplace.
And such concepts of hierarchy, where everyone has a manager, may well be what independents like me see as part of the problem too.
Fortunately, there arewho are starting to focus explicitly on the independent worker. But they are the exception; you have to seek them out. Just looking for “workplace mental health” or “wellbeing” will take you back to the usual stuff.
The independent sector is just one example of an overlooked narrative in the conversation about work. I’ve experienced the extent to which almost none of the discourse will relate to me. How many other groups of people are there who might say the same? And, while we’re at it, how many of them relate to some aspect of privilege or minoritisation?
Widen your conception of what work is
That’s my final example of how considering the self-employed can be revealing for everyone: widen your conception of what work is, who workers are, and therefore what’s relevant about wellbeing. There are more people than you know who aren’t receiving messages that you assume relate to everyone.
Representation, security, autonomy and, above all, belonging: these are the issues that have stood out most sharply for me as an emigrant from the employed world. I hope they’re food for thought about improving things not just for any independent workers you might be interacting with, but for everyone.
We’re not so different.