Mental health discussions are very prevalent these days, but luckily, the majority of companies are not using these trending hashtags to simply present themselves in a better light. Many organisations are making sure they have actual conversations with their workforce through methods such as apps, mental health days, support networks, and other initiatives to help build a healthy, productive workforce.
However, what happens if you don’t have a company to support you and bring these initiatives to the table? There are 2.2 million freelancers in the UK, working on multiple projects across numerous industries, and very often in solitude. Even when engagements are within larger organisations, freelancers typically work alone. Depending on the work and the individual completing that work, being self-employed can mean very long hours, limited holidays, and feeling very isolated.
The Mental Health Foundation has announced that Mental Health Awareness week, which starts on May 9th and ends on May 15th, will focus on the experience of loneliness. YunoJuno has partnered with Leapers to bring awareness to our freelancer community on how best to protect themselves from the issues around loneliness.
Matthew Knight, Founder and Chief Freelance Officer at Leapers, knows all too well about advocating for freelancers and the self-employed when it comes to supporting their mental health. We were lucky enough to sit down with Matthew and get his thoughts on how we can all combat loneliness within the freelancer community.
How did you start on your journey to advocate for mental health when people are self-employed?
Leapers started about five years ago when I noticed there were very few resources on the topic of mental health for the self-employed. Whilst most of the basics of taking care of yourself are universally applicable, there are unique challenges that the self-employed face that employees do not - so I wanted to try and help people find relevant and useful resources, as well as creating a space where people could talk openly about their experiences, and connect with others to build their own support networks. 66% of freelancers don't feel they have adequate support for their mental health at work, and two-thirds of freelancers don't know where to find support. We want to fix that.
The 2021 Leapers research annual survey revealed 70% of [freelancers] have felt disconnected or isolated when working in self-employment”. What impact is this having on freelancers in the long run, especially when it comes to maintaining their income pipeline that could impact other areas of their lives?
Whilst many of us can feel lonely at times, for the self-employed it can have a significant detrimental effect on their ability to work too.
Having no one to talk to or turn to can easily manifest into feeling less confident in the decisions you're making, spending lots of time ‘in your head’ wondering whether something is good enough, and worrying like you're the only one feeling this way or you've done something wrong. Even more so, feeling isolated has been proven to have negative effects on our mental and physical health.
That's one of the reasons why having a sense of community or a team around you is so important when you're working for yourself. But even if you're not feeling 'lonely', there are plenty of benefits of connecting with others as a freelancer: people to ask advice from, people to say hello to in the morning, to celebrate your wins (whatever the size) and support your worries, to get feedback from, or simply to share recommendations of which biscuits are best. Being connected to people who understand the self-employed experience creates confidence as you grow your business.
What tips and tricks would you recommend to help reduce those feelings of being disconnected or isolated?
I'd say there are five things:
- Let go of the feeling that you need to do everything by yourself - I often think people who choose to go freelance feel a weight on their shoulders to try and figure everything out for themselves - which doesn't need to be the case. Just because you work for yourself doesn't mean you have to work by yourself. Building a 'team' of people who you can check in with, who you can turn to for advice and guidance, who can support you and you can support them, is an essential part of working well when you're a freelancer - in fact, we say that community is one of the foundations of freelancing.
- Build connections with people to understand your experience - Join communities of other people who are self-employed and are going through similar things to you. It can feel more isolating if you're part of networks and communities where people don't get it - i.e. someone suggesting you "just take some time off" doesn't help if they don't realise how hard taking a holiday can be for the self-employed. Take some time to find those communities and get involved. You don't need to start posting immediately; you can start by just reading, listening, and adding emojis to posts you like. But pretty quickly, you'll find some folk you'll feel a connection to. Many online/digital communities have offline meetups or coworking sessions, which can help deepen those connections.
- Get out of the house - It's really easy to work for days on end without seeing other people, and whilst just sitting in a coworking space or coffee shop doesn't mean you're connected to those other people, over time, it can really help to be around others, where you have the potential to make new connections, start a conversation, start to recognise regulars, being open to serendipity. More and more coworking spaces or platforms that allow you to access space have connected communities with them, such as AndCo or Othership. They really are a rich source of interesting people and potential collaborators. Your clients might have spaces and places you can work from - consider asking if there is a desk free or if they'd like to work with you for the day on site.
- Collaborate - Consider how you can bring in additional people into your projects that can act as collaborators, so there's an additional way to connect with people on a professional level. Not only can these collaborations often turn into supportive and sometimes personal relationships too, they're a great way of lightening the emotional load a little and also offering someone to learn from, get feedback from, and chat about things that aren't all work, but on a regular basis. Collaborators could be other freelancers or even your clients too. They can also add additional capabilities to your offering, so you can pair up to offer more to your clients.
- Support others - One of the most amazing ways of tackling isolation is by helping others. There is no shortage of people who would benefit from support right now, whether in your local community, others online, or people you discover through charities and volunteering organisations. Using some of your free time to help others not only provides much needed help but also immediately provides an opportunity for you to create connections with others and gives your well-being a boost.
What are your goals within Leapers and yourself to continue driving this conversation over the next 12 months to build an inclusive and engaging community to help combat loneliness?
It'll be our fifth anniversary this year, and our goals are the same as every year - to continue trying to support as many people as possible. This means continuing to welcome anyone who works for themselves to join our community, partner with organisations who also want to support their freelancers, and continue to develop tools, techniques, research and content which offers tangible ways to take care of your own mental health when self-employed. The heart of that will always be a community, and I think that's the single most powerful way of combatting loneliness - feeling like you're part of something.
To end on a positive note, the report mentioned that “80% of us feel that being self-employed has a net positive effect on our mental health”. What would be your advice to keep that momentum going of remembering those positive effects?
It can be really easy to remember the bad things that happen; they can often block out remembering the positives, so we encourage people to regularly capture and share their little wins. Post them on your wall, in your notebook, in a community space, and then look back over them each month - you can even turn them into an annual report. Those little wins include things like new clients or an invoice being paid on time, as well as choosing to take the day off when you want or just reading a book you've had on your shelf for a while. Even when you're having a bad day, having a list of the positives to look at helps you see the bigger picture.
If you are feeling any symptoms of loneliness or isolation, there are services available to assist you. The British Red Cross provides local support services, workshops and resources to help understand and overcome living with loneliness. Also, Leapers helps support the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed. They are an accessible and inclusive community project for anyone who works differently. Make sure you join their free, non-judgemental, open and supportive slack channel of over 3,500 members across 22 timezones.
Finally, remember the theme for this Mental Health Week is loneliness. Regardless of whether you don’t feel any symptoms yourself or if you’re struggling with symptoms of loneliness right now, many people in your community are just a message away. This is why it’s essential to make that extra effort to reach out to those around you to make sure they feel included, and maybe it can help reduce any issues you’re currently experiencing.