The Career

Why being self-employed can transform your mental health

One of the main reasons I wanted to be self-employed was to give myself permission to take mental health days.

Like any big career change, there are pros and cons to going freelance. When I was a music student, the tutors spoke a lot about exploring the idea of being self-employed. But the idea absolutely terrified me, so when I graduated I panicked and took the first job that came my way. I worked myself to the bone in a job I despised, like many new graduates do, and suffered intense periods of burnout for years.

This was back in the early 00s, and burnout wasn’t well-publicised, so I ignored the symptoms and ended up having a mental breakdown and was left with ongoing depression and anxiety diagnosis.

Managing my mental health became a top priority, and whilst employers did try to accommodate my needs I had an inkling that being self-employed would give me a fresh start. I’ve documented the journey in my book Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss which offers a host of practical tips on how to start a side hustle and go freelance.

But for now, I want to talk about why freelancing can be great for your mental health.

Job security

One of the main reasons I wanted to be self-employed was to give myself permission to take mental health days. I’ve been living with depression and anxiety for years now and seen varying levels of prejudice from employers in relation to mental health. Some of it was directed at me, some of it was said in my presence about others in a similar position, and some of it was not-so-subtly inferred.

Most of the negative conversations around mental health were not specifically aimed at anyone, but derogatory and hard to hear nonetheless. I felt pressure to show up to work every day and pretend to be okay. It was a state of being that took a tonne of energy that often I didn’t have.

My personal foray into freelancing has therefore been heavily influenced by my mental illness. Rocking up to work with an anxiety disorder and depressive tendencies is – all jokes aside – a major inconvenience. I hope that one day mental illnesses will be accommodated in traditional workplaces, but until then, having control over my own workload and schedule has been a major positive in my life.

Although I like to talk openly about the mental health benefits of freelancing, I’m keen to bring a balanced view to the topic, and the figures certainly help with that.

In a 2019 survey conducted by Leapers, freelancers were asked the main reasons that they chose to work independently. The results found that ‘improving mental health’ was a motivator for just 29% of freelancers. Surprisingly, though, 56% of freelancers said that they think about their mental health more now than before they went self-employed. It’s not necessarily the self-employment that brings relief, but, instead, shedding the weight of a toxic work environment that feels so damn good.

Accommodates disability and chronic illness

According to the Office of National Statistics the number of self-employed disabled people in the UK has risen by 30% since 2014. Disabled people account for 14% of the self-employed workforce – amounting to roughly 611,000 people – and nearly half have been freelancing for a decade or more.

In America, one out of five freelancers face health challenges that would prevent them from working if it weren’t for freelancing.  Although there is need for further research, some studies conclude that traditional employment tends to be less accommodating for certain conditions and impairments.

One survey also found that disabled people work in freelancing because of better work conditions, better job satisfaction as well as a desire to maintain or increase income.

A sense of purpose

You don’t have to love your job. There are other things to get excited about in life, but there are some people who need to have a career that aligns with their personal values. Lots of us are bored at work or feel resentment because we bust a gut to line someone else’s pockets. We see how decisions from management impact the whole team or feel like we have creative ideas that get blatantly ignored. Freelancing offers you a blank slate. The chance to make the most of your skills in an area that you’re passionate about.

Maybe you’re an HR expert and you specialise in creating a healthy work environment in your company and now you want to go into companies and train teams to do the same. Maybe you’ve become disillusioned as a wedding planner and want to run events for single women in your local area to foster a sense of community. Or maybe (and this is okay too) you’re not quite sure what you want to do but you know it’s going to be more meaningful than everything that went before.

Going freelance means you can address some of the issues that currently make your working life difficult. It’s not a quick fix by any means, but it gives you the chance to tap into your passions and harness skills that might be under-utilised in your current role. It’s hard work, but it has so many invaluable benefits such as flexible hours, the opportunity to work in multiple industries, the freedom to embark on a wide spectrum of projects and the ability to step away from the mental pressures of a typical workplace. On top of all that, the sense of achievement that comes from freelancing really is magical. I still get stressed and over-worked, but it’s all in the name of growing something that yields the most glorious results.

Learn more about Fiona Thomas and buy Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss.

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