How coronavirus has affected the mental health of the UK’s self-employed

Inna Yordanova, IPSE’s Senior Researcher, discusses IPSE's new report which highlights the negative impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on the self-employed's mental health.

According to ONS data, the number of people in the UK suffering from mental health issues has increased in recent years. Mental health charity Mind highlight that approximately one in four adults in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, while one in six report experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety or depression) in any given week.

Mental health of the self-employed during coronavirus

While there has been a lot of research on the various effects of poor mental health on employee wellbeing, very little is known about how these issues can impact the self-employed. This understudied impact is especially important to consider in light of the ongoing coronavirus health and economic crisis.

To address this, IPSE conducted a bespoke piece of research aiming to discover how self-employment affects mental health, how the mental health of freelancers has been impacted by the pandemic, what measures have been taken to maintain positive mental health, and what freelancers need to support their mental health.

Self-employment and mental health

The vast majority (80%) of freelancers felt that moving to self-employment had at least a somewhat positive impact on their mental health. The key reasons for this that were cited all linked to greater autonomy and control: not having to deal with office politics (70%), greater overall flexibility (70%), being their own boss (69%) and having control over their work (67%).

Negative impacts on mental health

However, as discovered in previous IPSE research, self-employment doesn’t come without its challenges. For freelancers, these include having trouble finding work (53%), irregularity of income (50%), and blurring of boundaries between work and home life (32%).

Interestingly, for almost all of the negative effects of self-employment tested, women were significantly more likely than men to have experienced them. The most pronounced difference was seen for ‘irregularity of income’ with 64 per cent of women saying it had negatively impacted their mental health compared to 43 per cent of men.

Mental health during coronavirus

The challenges freelancers face in normal times seem to have been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. IPSE’s research found that before the coronavirus outbreak, 68 per cent of respondents rated their mental health as excellent or good. However, when asked about their level of mental health since the outbreak, only 39 per cent rated it as excellent or good – this represents a 43 per cent decrease.

Stress levels and job satisfaction

Furthermore, the crisis has also affected freelancers’ job-related stress and work satisfaction. A third (32%) of respondents stated that their stress levels were high (8-10 on a 10-point scale where 10 is high) in June/July 2020, while 10 per cent reported the highest level of stress (10).

Job-related stress also had an impact on freelancers’ overall wellbeing and their work, with almost half feeling less productive (48%), depressed or anxious (48%) or experiencing lost sleep over worry (47%) as a result.

Finally, almost a third (29%) of respondents stated that their job satisfaction in self-employment was low (0-3 on a 10-point scale where 10 is high) in June/July 2020. The average job satisfaction level was 5.22 points out of the possible ten, dropping down from an average of 5.56 in Q1 2020 and 6.13 in Q4 2019. This shows that freelancers’ job satisfaction has been deteriorating since the beginning of the pandemic.

Chloé Jepps, Head of Research at IPSE, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has clearly had a devastating impact on the mental wellbeing of freelancers across the UK.

“With many freelancers struggling with financial issues, job-related stress and decreases in job satisfaction, something clearly needs to be done to ensure that the wellbeing of this innovative and vibrant sector of the economy is supported.”

The drop in overall mental health and job satisfaction during the pandemic is hardly surprising given that a recent report by the University of Edinburgh Business School in association with IPSE found that the pandemic has led to an 80 per cent increase in freelancers’ stress levels, with 74 per cent of them losing income and 69 per cent having cashflow problems.

How can freelancers’ mental health be improved?

Not all is bad in the world of freelancing, and many respondents have adopted different measures to care for their mental health throughout the pandemic.

Measures

The most popular way freelancers take care of their mental health was exercising (67%), followed by getting enough sleep (50%), spending time on hobbies and entertainment (50%), and maintaining a healthy diet (49%).

Perhaps concerningly, however, only 17 per cent of respondents had accessed either mental health information and advice online (12%), counselling/therapy sessions (7%) or mental health helplines (1%) since the start of the pandemic, despite 26 per cent currently reporting poor mental health.

Jepps stresses the need for further support for the group to improve their wellbeing. “While freelancers are adopting lots of different measures to look after their mental health, there is a lot government, industry and organisations like IPSE can do.”

There is undoubtedly space to do more to better support freelancers’ wellbeing and mental health. Freelancers themselves pointed out that measures that allow them to interact with others would be particularly useful to them, including coaching and mentoring (23%), connecting with others in similar situations (22%) and co-working opportunities (22%).

Jepps adds: “Government should ensure that self-employment support is made more flexible as we emerge from lockdown and that groups that have fallen through the gaps receive the support they urgently need. There is also much that can be done around providing and advertising mental health information and advice specifically tailored to the UK’s almost 5 million self-employed."

Meet the author

Inna Yordanova

Senior Researcher