More bank holidays: would it matter for freelancers?

This week, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been pushing for four more bank holidays to bolster the UK’s “stingy” offering, which, they note, is four fewer than the EU average. It sounds good to employees: basically an immediate jump in their annual leave entitlement.


But would it make a difference to freelancers? That’s the question we were asked on LBC this week, and it’s a question that cuts to the heart of a much broader issue: how self-employed people take time off.

The stressed sector

For many freelancers, of course, a bank holiday is just another work day. If anything, it’s just quite annoying to find the shops closing earlier when you’ve finished up. There’s no obligation for freelancers to take a bank holiday off, and many feel pressured to keep working to meet client deadlines. But if there’s no obligation, at least more bank holidays could be a prompt to get freelancers to take a bit of time off.

Even before the pandemic, freelancers just weren’t taking enough holiday. IPSE research in 2019 found that freelancers took an average of 24 days off a year – four less than the basic entitlement for employees. And a shocking one in ten even said they took no time off at all during 2019. And one thing that was clear across the board was that freelancers weren’t happy with their holiday: four out of five (78%) said they wanted to take more days off than they did.

So, what was stopping them? Well, probably what you’d expect – they simply didn’t feel they could: because they didn’t want to let their clients down (62%), they wanted to work when they could in case they didn’t have work in future (60%) and they didn’t want to lose money when they could be working (57%). The result? Freelancers were overworking themselves, driving up stress and undermining their mental health.

Mental health in the pandemic

If overwork was undermining freelancers’ mental health before, during the pandemic many freelancers found themselves stressed from the opposite problem: losing their work overnight. As if their worst fears – which were driving them to overwork before – were suddenly realised and almost all work dried up.  

In fact, at the height of the pandemic, two out of three freelancers (69%) said there was a drop in demand for their work – and over half (53%) said there was a substantial decrease in demand.

Combined with the gaps in government support, this led to financially devastating situations for many freelancers. And there wasn’t just a financial cost: there was a more than 200 per cent increase in poor mental health among freelancers.

So, would more bank holidays help?

In normal times then, freelancers worry about taking time off and push themselves hard for their clients. And on the one hand, more bank holidays could be a nudge to freelancers to take more time off and look after their mental health.

On the other hand, these are not normal times. Many freelancers (in fact more than 60 per cent of the sector) have taken a serious financial hit during the pandemic – which has taken its own mental health toll. Now, as the economy opens up, those feast and famine worries will be weighing on freelancers like never before: and after long months without work, taking time off will be the last thing on their minds.

Now, therefore, freelancers are trying to work harder than ever. But maybe that’s why, ultimately, more bank holidays would be just the nudge freelancers need: generally, they’re inclined to work for long periods and take long breaks between contracts. But is this the best approach? Taking short breaks during contracts – the occasional long weekend prompted by a bank holiday – could greatly improve mental health, output and productivity.

In our research, freelancers said taking time off gave them a better work-life balance (59%), improved their relationships (44%), made them feel less stressed (44%), and even made them more productive (33%) and more creative (30%). In other words, in the flurry of freelance work as we emerge from the pandemic, more bank holidays and a few more short breaks could be just what the doctor ordered.

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Meet the author

Tristan Grove

Head of Communications and Policy Engagement