The future of work will have an increasing number of people who are not interested in working for a single organisation – so designing your workforce to include and support freelancers is essential.
Employers need to invest in working well with freelancers, if they want to maintain their ability to access talented people on demand. We know that 96% of freelancers would actively choose not to work again with a client which treated them badly. So, employers need to put as much energy into attracting, retaining and building up networks of freelancers as they do to employees.
For the past few years, we’ve run an annual study into the relationship between mental health and self-employment, to understand the influences on mental health at work for a group which has very little support, and additional challenges which aren’t wholly recognised.
The vast majority of research on mental health at work focuses on employees, and the vast majority of advice is designed for employees. Whilst much of the advice is useful for all humans – like foundations of physical health, boundaries, communication, respect, support – there are unique challenges and influences which self-employed workers experience that employees do not.
When you’re considering the wellbeing of freelancers, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that supporting their mental health is inviting them to a wellness day. It’s much more useful for you to be reducing the stressors they’re facing, rather than tackling the symptoms.
These are the biggest stressors for freelancers and how you can reduce the stress caused by them:
1. Late payments
These are the biggest source of frustration for the self-employed. Having to chase invoices and deal with archaic payment systems creates a huge amount of stress for individuals, taking time away from their ability to do great work for their clients. Sort out your payment process, and don’t have payment terms over 30 days.
2. A lack of good and respectful communication
This is very common. Ghosting is frequent, as are out of hours emails and demands, poor quality briefing, unclear expectations and missing context. So, too, is expecting the freelancer to be able to understand and navigate an organisation’s culture. Freelancers are very good at making it work – they have little choice – but this again reduces effectiveness. Create responsibility internally for freelance network relationships, and build principles of engagement.
3. Not allowing freelancers to talk about the work they did
Freelance creatives in particular rely upon their ‘book of work’ to demonstrate their experience and find new work, and make their career sustainable. Yet many organisations won’t let freelancers include the work they did in their portfolio. Building a creative workforce (which is increasingly important for all businesses, see this article here) means enabling a sustainable one, and if people can’t talk about the work they’ve done, they are less able to work. Allow freelancers to talk about and advocate the work they did with you.
4. Lack of feedback and not being told about their work’s impact
Working on your own can be isolating and lonely. Not having others to bounce ideas off, get feedback from, or even just share a cuppa with can all be really hard. Meaningful work is an important part of mental health, and many freelancers don’t get good feedback after the project, or know what impact their work went on to have. Follow up on where the work went, and celebrate the successes together.
5. Lack of signposting to mental health support
66% of freelancers don’t know where to find support for their mental health at work. Whilst employers might not always be able to provide direct support, as IR35 can often get in the way, they can signpost to good quality support and do what they can to help reduce the negative mental health impacts by working well with your freelancers.
Add signposting to support organisations, resources to help build awareness of the factors of mental health, content which offers tangible ways to work well and, most critically, where they can turn to in times of crisis.
6. The prospect of having to take time off for stress
Burnout specifically is really challenging for the self-employed as “taking some time off” is rarely the right answer, and often not possible. Burnout for the self-employed comes from doing work which is misaligned to the individual’s idea of meaningful and impactful work, and doing work in a way requires disproportionate effort towards things that don’t create value. Employers can help by connecting the right person to the right brief, removing hurdles to doing good work, and building a relationship which is supportive and sustainable.
7. Lack of psychological safety, respect and autonomy
Any behaviours where freelancers are not given a voice in the room, or are made to feel insignificant, bullied, gaslit, or feel excluded, are going to have a significant detrimental impact on mental health. Similarly, so do teams where an individual’s contribution is not recognised, their professional development is uncatered for and different, flexible ways of working are not embraced.
It’s within these cultures that people easily burnout because workers’ behaviours will shift to try and do the best they can for the organisation, rather than the best way of working sustainably. Long hours tend to be a symptom of an organisational culture that doesn’t respect and support its people, rather than the issue to tackle itself.
To avoid their freelancers burning out, employers can learn a great deal from looking at how the self-employed self organise, define their own ‘how to work’ structure and deliver brilliant work without micromanagement.
We’re already seeing a new wave of creative organisations that are building hybrid teams. These combine core permanent staff and fluid freelance staff, who work brilliantly together by setting clear goals for what outcomes are expected and providing the right support structures, but allowing individuals and teams to self-organise.
It can be difficult to know where to start, which is why I do lots of work with organisations to help them identify the ways in which they can build more effective relationships with freelancers. This has the dual benefit of delivering better quality work and supporting their mental health. We’ve identified a set of attributes which ‘Freelance Friendly’ businesses demonstrate, which include many of the things above. (https://freelancefriendly.business).
About Matthew Knight and Leapers:
Matthew Knight is founder of The Independency – he helps freelancers and organisations work effectively together. Leapers is an award-winning project supporting the mental health of the self-employed – it’s a peer-support community which curates and creates resources to help freelancers support their own mental health at work.
Leapers is for anyone who works for themselves but has a high proportion of people who work in the creative industries. However, most advice is relevant to anyone self-employed or any company looking to support their growing freelance workforce better.
Find out more at www.leapers.co.
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