Being self-employed can give you a lot of freedom and provide an exciting change of career. As the world starts to focus on what the “new normal” could look like, remote working is a hot topic of discussion - with freelancers championing this new working model.
Whether you’re working from home, enjoying the increased flexibility, or able to secure higher pay, there are a wide variety of reasons for choosing self-employment. But the flipside is that you give up access to employed benefits such as sick pay or automatic enrollment for health insurance.
As an independent freelancer, you can cover yourself as part of the IPSE membership benefits. And as our dedicated guides explain, there can be benefits to freelancing and self employment with a chronic illness, or choosing to freelance if you have a disability.
But we all know that poor health can be one of the main causes of stress when you’re self-employed. Whether you’re just starting out, or an established freelancer, you may still need answers to questions such as; How to manage freelancing if you get sick, or how to deal with clients and projects during an illness?
Even if you don’t have any current health issues, there are common conditions which are shared by many self-employed professionals. These include occupational risks such as repetitive strain injuries (RSI), particularly if you’re spending long hours at an improvised desk or workstation.
The stress of freelancing can increase stress and anxiety, which can lead to problems with sleeplessness and insomnia. While the odd restless night isn’t an issue, when it becomes a regular occurrence, it can lead to serious work and personal complications, along with increasing the risk of long-term health issues in the future.
And unfortunately there’s no self-employed immunity to the health issues which impact everyone, whether that’s common colds and flu, a global pandemic, or life-threatening conditions such as strokes, heart attacks or cancer.
Hopefully you’ll only ever have to deal with minor illnesses. But some preparation and planning can help you avoid some problems, and will help you to be focused on recovery rather than worrying about your business and finances if you do encounter a serious health issue.
Why is maintaining your health vital if you’re self-employed?
When working a typical nine-to-five, keeping on top of everything, including yourself, can be hard. Adding into the mix running an entire business, getting it off the ground, seeking out clients, promoting yourself and figuring out how best to do your taxes (tip: get an accountant!) can make the challenge seem almost insurmountable. Making sure you’re taking time to consider your health can seem like the least of your concerns once deadlines start looming.
The Catch-22 also comes into effect when your self-employment means your health - both mental and physical - is even more vital to your business than a typical nine-to-five. When you're not on top form, promoting yourself and conversing with clients can fall by the wayside, as well as the actual quality of your work can suffer.
Another point comes from the fact that when self-employed, you are usually paid per a particular project or outcome, rather than in hours, meaning if you don’t deliver you won’t get paid. Whilst this isn’t always the case, this can definitely make health more important to consider. IPSE research shows that many freelancers don’t take enough time off from work when they’re feeling unwell.
If you’re in a creative self-employed role, taking care of your health can aid in innovation and inspiration for your creative projects. Whilst this means rest and taking care of your health is just as productive as doing the work itself, it can be hard to make the time to manage your health when the temptation to overwork and overstress is too much.
Having an irregular income can lead to an overworking cycle, but it must be said that as a self-employed person, burnout can affect you financially and emotionally more than a typical employee. Our guide to spotting and tackling burnout can help you to avoid it hurting your freelance career.
How can freelancing and self-employment benefit your health?
However, despite it being tricky to care for your health in a very busy world - where life moves at a dizzying pace - studies have shown that switching from regular employment to self-employment can benefit your health massively.
Self-employment can actually help you work at your own pace and do something that you are passionate and knowledgeable about, boosting all types of health. Allowing for more freedom in what work you choose to do - which can provide a mental health boost - as well as being your own boss can really allow you to care for your own mental wellbeing and achieve huge levels of satisfaction in your work.
Physically, self-employment can allow you to spend less time commuting and more time outside, as well as socialising and taking time off for family and friend engagements, all things which can contribute to a positive health streak. Equally, for those with long term health conditions and disabilities, being your own boss can allow you to work around your condition - for example going to hospital appointments - without impacting on the work you can do, as well as allowing for you to avoid inaccessible travel.
Overall, then, self-employment is great for freedom and flexibility. This can come with its challenges, but also allows you to be less confined to one place and time, meaning you can make time for activities that can improve your health. If you work from home, this allows you to make sure you have regular access to snacks, and can make more full-bodied meals, whilst choosing to work in a self-employed shared space or a cafe can allow you to connect with others in the community and decrease the risk of feeling isolated and lonely - so there are ways to get the coffee corner feel without working in an office.
What are the most common health issues for freelancers and the self-employed?
However, whilst being self-employed can allow for positive health changes, especially if you are switching from a nine-to-five job that doesn't suit how you like to work, it can also pose issues.
Due to the amount of time freelancers spend on their business - especially in parts of their work that don’t provide immediate pay such as promoting work and pitching new clients - self-employment can throw a wrench in our mental wellbeing. An inability to switch off, especially if home working, as well as increased isolation, can follow freelancers on their journey in self-employment, causing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Taking on a whole business by yourself is a tricky thing, and on some days the pressure can seem insurmountable.
This is where having a network of like-minded freelancer friends may come into play. It can be hard for your traditionally employed friends to understand the pressure of being solely responsible for the success or failure of your work, and therefore having people who understand - and who also can reassure you that dips and lows in amounts of work and success of work are normal in the freelance journey - can help keep your health in check.
Similarly, issues such as repetitive strain injury and eye strain can be common for self-employed workers. Employers have certain obligations to provide equipment and checks to lower the risk of problems occurring. But when you’re responsible for paying for everything, it’s easy to put off setting up an ergonomic workstation or having an eye test.
And while we all know that it’s fairly quick and easy to take regular breaks, or do some quick desk exercises, that can easily slip from your routine when you’re caught up in projects or deadlines. Without colleagues and physical meetings to interrupt your day, it’s not uncommon to find hours have passed without a chance to rest.
How to lower your chances of health problems if you’re self-employed
There are ways, however, that you can make self-employment work for both you and your health. A majorly important way to manage your health is to consider your boundaries, reviewing them often so that your work/life balance is what you would like it to be. This is one of the most important factors in keeping your health in check whilst being self-employed, as it can account for both mental health breaks and physical health, as well as making sure you don’t work on projects that can damage your health. Some other options can include:
1. Making sure your notifications for work channels such as Slack, Trello and WhatsApp are muted when you’re not working. This allows time to spend with family, friends, and with yourself, whilst not being distracted and constantly switched on. Equally, turning notifications off when you’re trying to focus and replying when you’re ready, rather than immediately, can reduce your stress levels and increase concentration.
2. Leaving the house at least once a day - even if it's just for a brisk walk if you have a lot of client work to do - can both give you time to think and process your current projects, take in some nature, elevate your mood, and get some exercise in. The change in scenery can be stimulating for your brain as well - and if you’re having a particularly tricky work call you can always take it with you!
3. Give yourself extra time and deadlines if you can. Being self-employed means sick days or personal emergencies can be an inconvenience if it's near a deadline, or several deadlines. Work out how long you think something will take and add 20% extra on top.
4. Take a holiday. Whilst self-employment means you don’t get any paid holiday time, there will be times when your workload may quiet down enough that you can afford to take a holiday. Using your “out of office” email can reinforce your boundaries and allow you to take a much-needed break. Your clients will understand that you need some R and R.
5. Making sure you’re eating healthy, and regularly, can help with sleep, concentration, and your work capacity. Meal planning can be one of the ways in which you can take time for yourself and decrease the stress after a long work meeting.
6. Prepare your business in case of illness. It’s inevitable that at some point in your self-employed career you will be unable to work due to illness and preparing for when this happens will lessen the problems it can cause. Which means you can get better faster.
7. Exercise. Now that you don’t have your cycle-to-work scheme and running for the last train may not be as frequent, making time for exercise can keep your health levels up and your mental health issues minimised. This can also help you structure your day, switch off from work, get out and about in nature and possibly combine your exercise time with friend time if you go to the gym together! Even if you can’t get away for long, there are a range of desk exercises and options to get you moving around in a few minutes.
8. Take advantage of being self-employed. One of the main advantages of working for yourself is that if something isn’t clicking, you can just go and do something completely different and come back to it. Allow yourself the freedom to exercise these privileges. This can help improve your mood and keep you loving your freelance life, which in turn will improve your health and, if you have a more chronic condition, decrease your risk of flare-ups.
Dealing with minor illnesses and health issues if you’re freelancing
Even if you do everything you can to stop it, minor illnesses and health issues can creep up on you through no fault of your own. Making sure you have a backup plan - such as savings to cover your basic expenses whilst you get better - can allow you to bounce back from your minor illness without many complications which can then spiral and contribute to stress and more health issues. It’s also worth noting that regular rest and breaks for yourself are actually productive activities and should be scheduled into your daily workload. This will allow your body to keep fit and well to be in the best position to fight minor illnesses and health issues if they so arise.
Building an understanding client base can also be vital to dealing with minor illnesses. Having clients who respect you and your work will mean that delaying deadlines and focusing on your health will be both understood and encouraged, allowing for you to get back to work as and when you are ready.
It is also worth considering passing on work in an emergency if your clients need the work quickly. Building a network of freelancers who you can outsource to will enable you to be confident that, if needed, your client will not be harmed by short term illness, keeping your clients happy, helping you to build friends, and - you never know - you may get asked to cover work yourself in return!
Managing long-term illness and health problems if you’re self-employed
With over 15 million people in the UK having a chronic condition or disease, and over 5 million people in the UK being self-employed, a good chunk of freelancers will have a long-term illness or health problem that, from time to time, may impact their capability to work.
This may actually have been one of the factors in you going freelance - as it can allow for more time to manage your condition, flexible working hours and spending your energy on your work rather than on a commute or dressing in office attire.
Chronic illness flares can lead to fluctuating productivity levels and can lose you hours and projects to sickness. This can often cause anxiety which can continue to flare up illness, and therefore seeking proper support when you need it can help massively manage the impact long term illness can have on your health.
Building a support network of like-minded freelancers can be one of the ways you find tips and tricks on how to continue to make the best out of your self-employed status without risking your health. Facebook groups, forums, and chats for those with disabilities and chronic illnesses, can see you finding friends who can help you organise finances, manage contracts or even find the right pain medication.
Similarly, communicating with your clients and being realistic about deadlines - even if it means being more open about your illness and access needs - will build a stronger connection with your clientele, who would rather you deliver something on time within an extra week, rather than not at all. It’s also more than reasonable to say no if you do not have the time. This includes if you have already booked in recovery time! Spending time on yourself is an important investment as a freelancer.
Budgeting and financial planning can also help matters, as working out your business expenses can reduce the risk of a chronic illness flare impacting your finances as much. Building sick pay and pension into your budget and your fees can enable you to feel secure when you need a day off. This can also help you reduce your stress levels, which is a key factor in chronic illness management. Worrying over deadlines, client interactions and being unable to work can exacerbate symptoms.
Moreover, gaining insurance to cover short term periods of sickness, as well as having savings, can alleviate stress and give you peace of mind, as you know that you have a buffer to fall back on if you must take time off due to an illness flare or hospital stay.
Finding illness insurance if you’re self employed
Illness insurance can seem like an unnecessary protection when you’re fit and well, but it’s incredibly valuable if you fall sick. Knowing you’ll still receive an income even if you’re unable to work means you can focus on getting better rather than worrying about the mortgage, bills and looking after your family or other dependents.
Obviously the exact cover and policy you need will depend on your individual situation. If you work in a dangerous industry with an increased risk of physical injury, or your ability to perform rests on your health, then you may want to invest in a higher level of insurance and protection..
You should also check that your policy covers you for any specific conditions which are likely to crop up. And some common issues, like stress or back pain, are usually excluded, so it’s still worthwhile to build up your savings as a safety net.
Some long-term insurance policies will cover issues such as cancers, heart attacks and strokes, and often pay out a tax-free lump sum if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness.
You should also think about dependents, such as your children or partner. Critical illness cover may not offer them a payment, so it could be worth choosing additional life insurance to ensure they’re taken care off in the most unfortunate circumstances
If you previously enjoyed good health cover as an employee, it can be worth checking who it was with, and getting a quote on an identical policy. But when you start freelancing or become self-employed, your needs and priorities are likely to change, so it’s still worth checking alternatives, especially with sizable discounts through the IPSE marketplace for members.
Can you claim benefits or financial support if you’re ill and self-employed?
The simple answer is yes. There are a variety of different benefits out there that you can still claim if you’re self-employed. Often, there have been alternative benefits made specifically to suit freelancers, and some benefits do not consider your employment at all.
In the UK, PIP and ESA are the main types of benefits that will apply if you’re ill and self-employed, as well as if you’re self-employed and unable to work due to reasons such as pregnancy. For example, Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), which is paid by an employer when an employee leaves work to have a baby, is not available for freelancers, however you may qualify for Maternity Allowance.Similar self-employed benefits exist for illness, such as Personal Independence Payment - which is non-means tested and related to how much your long-term illness affects your life - as well as Employment Support Allowance.
You can find out whether you can make a claim for ESA, PIP, and other benefits by using a Benefits Calculator.
More support and resources
- Self-employment with a chronic illness: https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/physical-wellbeing-advice/self-employment-with-a-chronic-illness.html
- Freelancing and self-employment with a disability: https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/physical-wellbeing-advice/freelancing-and-self-employment-with-a-disability.html
- All IPSE guides to physical wellbeing: https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/physical-wellbeing-advice.html
- IPSE guides to mental wellbeing https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/mental-wellbeing-advice.html
- Ergonomics: How to prevent an injury when you work from home: https://www.ipse.co.uk/ipse-news/ipse-blog/ergonomics-prevent-injury-work-from-home.html
- Freelance Corner: What to do when you fall sick as a freelancer? https://freelancecorner.co.uk/what-to-do-when-you-fall-sick-as-a-freelancer/
- IPSE Member Benefits: https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits.html
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