Why we must remember the hidden cost of the pandemic: the impact on freelancers’ mental health

The pandemic has had a devasting impact on many – not least the self-employed sector. The onset of the pandemic and the ensuing restrictions have crippled freelance businesses and severely affected a group that was already more likely to experience periods of isolation and loneliness. Reduced earnings, an increase in business debt and job-related stress have taken their toll on freelancers – particularly those who have been unable to access government support during the pandemic.

Two people hugging each other for support

The pandemic and mental health

We already know that freelancers’ mental health is closely linked to the success of their businesses: whether they have enough work and a regular income flow – and their overall stress level. Before the pandemic, only six per cent of freelancers reported that their mental health was poor or very poor. In July 2020, after the onset of the pandemic and its impact on freelancers’ businesses, this figure rose to 26 per cent: a 349 per cent increase. In March 2021 when our most recent research was conducted, it showed that one in five freelancers (20%) still have either poor or very poor mental health.

A crucial factor in this is that three-fifths of freelancers (60%) report that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their freelance business. In fact, for limited company directors – who were excluded from support throughout the pandemic – this figure rises to 62 per cent compared to 54 per cent of sole traders.

What does poor mental health look like for freelancers?

If you have experienced reduced energy levels, trouble sleeping or an increase in negative thoughts or anxiety – you are not alone.

Over the last 12 months, 77 per cent of freelancers who reported poor mental health experienced reduced energy levels and 71 per cent had trouble sleeping as a result. Concerningly, 71 per cent reported that this translated into depression and anxiety, while 69 per cent experienced an increase in negative thoughts.

29 per cent of freelancers also reported their mental health problems led to physical health problems, while 60 per cent said they had experienced feelings of inadequacy or failure. Additionally, 57 per cent lost interest in activities that were once enjoyable and 60 per cent felt an overall lack of confidence.

Mental health problems also had an impact on freelancers’ ability to work: our research revealed that three fifths (61%) felt unable to concentrate on work or had reduced productivity (60%). Another one in seven were forced to cancel or delay projects as a result of poor mental health.

How are freelancers taking care of their mental health?

Encouragingly, our findings reveal that freelancers are, by and large, following the NHS recommended steps for maintaining positive mental health. For 65 per cent, that included exercising outdoors or at home, while 48 per cent were maintaining a healthy diet and 46 per cent were focusing on getting enough sleep. Other NHS steps freelancers were following included regular socialising and sharing feelings with family and friends.

Similarly, to manage their mental health and mitigate the impact of the pandemic, freelancers have also been adopting various workplace strategies. These include 26 per cent taking time off work, 24 per cent taking time to plan workloads and 20 per cent networking with others.

Other approaches to maintain positive health involved practising mindfulness or meditation (19%) and directly seeking access to mental health and wellbeing resources (11%).

Will we see freelancers’ mental health return to pre-pandemic levels?

Looking to the future, the success of the vaccine roll-out (65%) and the government announcement of the roadmap out of restrictions (44%) have both now been cited by freelancers as improving confidence in the future of their freelance business. However, it remains to be seen whether these positive developments will directly translate into improved mental health for freelancers as the UK begins to open up and restrictions are lifted.

We do, however, know that freelancers’ mental health has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. The impact of the lockdowns has increased thoughts of isolation and loneliness, while reduced earnings have led to reduced energy levels and an increase in negative thoughts.

Read the full report here.

If you are at all concerned about your own or someone else’s mental health, the following charities and organisations offer free and confidential support:

Samaritans – 24-hour support to those experiencing emotional stress, struggling to cope or with suicidal thoughts.

116 123

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – Offers support to those who are down or have hit a wall for any reason.

0800 58 58 58

MIND – Offers support, advice and information to those with mental health problems.

0300 123 3393

SANE – Offers practical and emotional support to individuals affected by mental health problems or if family or friends are suffering.

07984 967 708

Rehab4addiction – a UK-based addiction and mental health helpline with links to rehab centres across the UK



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Meet the author

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Joshua Toovey

Senior Research and Policy Officer