Before exploring how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted freelancers’ mental health and wellbeing, the research first sought to examine how the transition to self-employment itself had affected their mental health.
Transition to self-employment
Overall, 80 per cent of freelancers felt that moving to self-employment had at least a somewhat positive impact on their mental health. In fact, almost half of freelancers (48%) stated that transitioning to self-employment had a very positive effect on their mental health with a further third (32%) stating it had an at least somewhat positive effect. However, there were seven per cent who said that transitioning to self-employment had had a negative impact on their mental health.
There were few significant differences between the different demographic groups, however, those aged 16-34 were the least likely to say that transitioning to self-employment had a positive impact on their mental health (67%) compared to those 35 and over (82%). Younger freelancers were also significantly more likely to say that the transition had had a negative impact on their mental health (16%) compared to those 35 and over (5%).
This reinforces previous research which showed that 60 per cent of younger freelancers had found self-employment more challenging than they had expected, compared to the average of 43 per cent. Younger freelancers also rated their happiness in self-employment as lower than the overall sector with only 66 per cent rating their happiness as seven out of ten or higher compared to an average of 77 per cent across all age groups.12
The evidence suggests that younger freelancers on average earn less, compared to older freelancers, as they are nearer the beginning of their careers and they are much more likely to state that they experience worries about their financial circumstances most or all of the time (50%) compared to older freelancers (20% of those aged 55 or over).13 This could explain the difference in happiness ratings between various age groups.
Sole traders were also significantly less likely to say that the transition to self-employment had a positive impact on their mental health (73%) and more likely to say that it had had a negative impact (11%) compared to limited company directors (83% positive impact and 4% negative impact).
of freelancers felt that moving to self-employment had at least a somewhat positive impact on their mental health
Positive effects of self-employment on mental health
To understand why such a high proportion of freelancers felt that the move to self-employment had a positive impact on their mental health, respondents were asked which elements of self-employment contributed to this.
Similar to previous research into why people became self-employed, flexibility (70%), being their own boss (69%) and having control over their work (67%) were some of the top answers. However, ‘not having to deal with bureaucracy and office politics’ was rated as the joint top aspect of self-employment that had a positive impact on freelancers’ mental health (70%).
Figure 1: Aspects of self-employment that have a positive impact on mental health.
Looking at the differences between genders, earning more money was significantly more likely to have had a positive effect on men (60%) compared to women (32%). Women on the other hand were significantly more likely than men to say that the freedom to choose where to work (73% compared to 62%), having greater control of working hours (69% compared to 53%) and being able to pursue a passion/ be creative (51% compared to 34%) had a positive impact on their mental health.14
These gender differences are in line with previous research that showed that women are more likely to value elements such as being able to choose where and when to work and having a better work-life balance. This is in contrast to men who were more likely to say that they value career-related elements of self-employment such as being in control of their work, being able to do a greater variety of work and having the opportunity to earn more money.
Younger freelancers (57%) were also significantly more likely than those over 35 (37%) to say that being able to pursue a passion/be creative had a positive impact on their mental health. This trend was also seen when looking at business structure with sole traders (61%) significantly more likely than limited company directors (29%) to say that pursuing a passion/being more creative had a positive impact on their mental wellbeing.
Negative effects of self-employment on mental health
As previous reports have shown, self-employment is not without its challenges. Just over half of respondents (53%) stated that finding work had had a negative impact on their mental health and half also struggle with the irregularity of income that comes with self-employment.
Other aspects of self-employment that freelancers felt had a negative impact on their mental health included the ‘blurring of boundaries between work and homelife’ (32%), ‘not having access to statutory employment benefits’ (29%) and ‘working long hours/tight deadlines’ (28%).
Other financial challenges such as late payment (26%) and managing finances (25%) also had a negative impact on a quarter of freelancers.
Similar to previous research which found that one in five freelancers felt lonely as a result of remote working15, ‘feeling lonely and isolated’ had a negative impact on the mental health of close to a quarter of freelancers (24%).
Figure 2: Aspects of self-employment that have a negative impact on mental health.
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.
Similarly, sole traders were significantly more likely to have experienced most of the negative effects of self-employment compared to limited company directors. Again, the biggest difference was seen for irregularity of income with 71 per cent of sole traders stating that it had negatively impacted their mental health compared to 40 per cent of limited company directors. Sole directors were however significantly less likely to have experienced the negative effects of ‘administrative tasks’ compared to limited company directors (16% and 26% respectively). This is in line with previous IPSE research, which found that limited company directors are more likely to have spent larger amounts of time than sole traders on administrative tasks such as reporting, paying and reclaiming VAT, chasing late payments and completing their annual tax return.16
Respondents reporting higher levels of job-related stress were more likely to select each of the negative effects of self-employment compared to those with lower levels of job-related stress. For those reporting high job-related stress, 64 per cent stated that finding work had a negative impact on mental health, compared to 32 per cent of those reporting low job-related stress.
Only nine per cent had not experienced any of the negative aspects of self-employment that were covered in the research.
of respondents stated that their stress levels were high
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on stress levels and job satisfaction
Previous IPSE research conducted throughout the coronavirus pandemic has revealed that freelancers are feeling more stressed and have higher concerns about issues such as cashflow and availability of work as a result of the crisis. One in five are also worried that they will have to close their businesses.17, 18
Data from the Q2 2020 IPSE Freelancer Confidence Index also reveals that freelancers saw their demand for work drop by unprecedented levels in the second quarter of 2020 (April-June), with them working only 5.5 weeks on average out of a possible 13 weeks in the quarter. They also saw an average of 25 per cent decline in their quarterly earnings.19
In line with this, 32 per cent of respondents stated that their stress levels were high (8-10 on a 10-point scale where 10 is high) at the time of this research in June/July 2020. This included 10 per cent who reported the highest level of stress (10/10). Respondents operating through a limited company (35%) were significantly more likely to report high levels of stress compared to those operating as sole traders (26%).
This is to be expected as we know that, due to the strict criteria, the majority of those operating through limited companies have not been able to take advantage of the government support schemes available. This has resulted in 74 per cent of them experiencing a fall in income and on average this fall was of 76 per cent.20
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, this included 10 per cent who rated their job satisfaction as 0/10 – the lowest possible score. The average job satisfaction level was around five points out of the possible ten (5.22). This has dropped down from an average of 5.56 in Q1 202021 and 6.13 in Q4 2019.22 This shows that freelancers’ job satisfaction has been deteriorating since the beginning of the pandemic similar to their stress levels.
There was correlation between stress levels and job satisfaction with 53 per cent of those with high stress levels also reporting low job satisfaction ratings, in comparison with only 13 per cent of those with low stress levels.
Like with stress levels, limited company directors (31%) where significantly more likely than sole traders (24%) to state that their job satisfaction was low (0-3 on a 10-point scale where 10 is high).
of respondents stated that their job satisfaction levels were low
Consequences of job-related stress
Given the high levels of job-related stress in self-employment, the research aimed to uncover the impact that this stress was having on freelancers. As a result of job-related stress almost half had felt less productive (48%), depressed or anxious (48%) or lost sleep over worry (47%). There were also 46 per cent of respondents who had experienced a lack of confidence or reduced energy levels.
This therefore shows that job-related stress can not only have a negative impact on health, but also on the work itself. In fact, just over a fifth (22%) admitted that they had lost clients due to job-related stress. The consequences of stress are also widespread with only 13 per cent stating that they had never experienced any of the issues listed.
Figure 3: Consequences of job-related stress.
Women and younger freelancers were more likely than their counterparts to have experienced issues as a result of job-related stress. For almost every issue, women were more likely than men to state that they had experienced it exclusive of ‘limited time for non-work activities’. ‘Experienced a lack of confidence’ was the most common consequence of job-related stress for women (61%) and significantly higher than for men (38%). Similarly, women were significantly more likely to ‘experience feelings of inadequacy/failure’ than men (52% compared to 29% respectively).
Looking at age, the 16-34 age group were more likely to experience all of the issues, with the exception of ‘losing sleep over worry’, as a result of job-related stress compared to the 35-54 age group, who are in turn more likely to experience almost all of the issues than those aged 55 or more.
For those in the 16-34 age group the top two most experienced issues were ‘a lack of confidence’ and ‘feeling depressed or anxious’ with almost two-thirds (63%) selecting these options. This was followed closely by ‘reduced energy levels’ (62%), ‘feeling less productive’ (61%) and ‘experiencing feelings of inadequacy/failure’ (52%).
Furthermore, there is a strong relationship between the levels of job-related stress and the likelihood of experiencing negative consequences as a result. Those with high levels of stress are significantly more likely to have experienced each one of the negative consequences compared to those with lower levels of job-related stress.
Impact of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health
The data revealed that not only has the coronavirus pandemic led to an increase in job-related stress and a decline in job satisfaction, it has also had an impact on mental health. In fact, there has been a significant drop in positive mental health levels since the outbreak of coronavirus and this has been felt across all freelancer groups regardless of age, gender or earning levels.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, 68 per cent of respondents rated their mental health as excellent or good, however, when asked about their current level of mental health, only 39 per cent rated it as excellent or good - representing a 43 per cent decrease. This decrease was highest for women (54% decrease), those aged 16-34 (49% decrease) and those reporting high stress levels (80% decrease).
The only group not to have experienced a significant drop in mental health levels was those reporting low levels of stress. This group only saw a three per cent decrease in positive mental health ratings since the outbreak of coronavirus. This is in line with previous research showing that stress has a direct impact on mental health and wellbeing, as it increases the chance of developing depression and anxiety in some people.23
Looking at the poor or very poor mental health ratings reveals a very similar story, with all groups experiencing significant increases in negative mental health since the coronavirus outbreak, apart from those reporting low stress levels.
Before the coronavirus outbreak only six per cent of respondents rated their mental health as poor or very poor, however, when asked about their current level of mental health in June/July 2020, 26 per cent rated it as poor or very poor representing an increase of 349 per cent.
Again, the increase in poor or very poor mental health ratings was highest for women (255% increase), those aged 16-34 (236% increase) and those reporting high stress levels (549% increase). There was also a trend for those on lower day rates to experience higher levels of poor mental health than those earning more. For example, 36 per cent of those earning up to £199 a day rated their mental health as poor or very poor after the outbreak compared to 20 per cent of those earning £500 or more per day.
Getting enough sleep
Spending time on hobbies and entertainment
Maintaining a healthy diet
Socialising with friends and family
Measures people adopt to take care of their mental health
There are a number of online sources available where people can get advice on how to manage their mental health, especially during the pandemic. These include official government advice, advice from the NHS25 and advice from charities such as Mind.26 The advice covered ranges from keeping active and staying connected to setting a routine.
The measures that freelancers are adopting to take care of their mental health are very much in line with this advice. The most popular way to take care of mental health was exercising, with two-thirds (67%) of respondents stating that they made time to do this. This is in line with research and guidance that highlights the positive effects of physical activity on mental health. There was also little difference between the different groups in terms of the proportion who were engaging in physical activity and this was the top measure adopted to take care of mental health for all groups.
Half of the respondents also stated that ‘getting enough sleep’ and ‘spending time on hobbies and entertainment’ were measures they put in place to help manage their mental health. This was followed closely by ‘maintaining a healthy diet’ (49%).
A quarter of respondents also said that they took time off work to care for their mental health which is not always easy for freelancers as shown by previous research.
In a 2019 IPSE report, an overwhelming majority of freelancers reported that taking time off had a positive impact on their wellbeing. However, a quarter of freelancers felt unable to take time off when feeling sick or unwell and freelancers also had to miss personal commitments like holidays, as well as family occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries because of their self-employed work.
The main reasons freelancers felt unable to take time off was because they didn’t want to let their clients down (62%), they were worried about future periods of little or no work (60%) and they didn’t want to lose money when they could be working instead (57%).27 Therefore, although taking time off can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, more needs to be done to enable freelancers to do so.
Women were more likely to state that they adopted almost all of the measures to take care for their mental health compared to men, however, their top four measures were the same and in line with the overall population.
The measures that showed the greatest differences between women and men included 'sharing thoughts and feelings with others’ (42% for women and 24% for men), ‘taking time to plan their workload’ (32% for women and 17% for men) and ‘practicing mindfulness/meditation’ (28% for women and 16% for men).
Interestingly younger respondents under 35 were significantly more likely to engage in various other techniques to take care of their mental health than those over 35 including: ‘sharing thoughts and feelings with others’ (45% compared to 26%), practising mindfulness/meditation’ (30% compared to 19%) and ‘keeping a diary’ (19% compared to 6%).
They were also significantly more likely to ‘socialise with friends and family’ (51% compared to 31%) and ‘take time off work’ (36% compared to 22%).
Therefore, while women and younger freelancers are more likely to experience the negative effects of stress and poor mental health in self-employment, they are also more likely to take care of their mental wellbeing and seek help.
Perhaps one of the most interesting findings is that there were no significant differences in the measures adopted to care for their mental health and the levels of reported job-related stress, apart from for ‘getting enough sleep’. For this measure those with low levels of job-related stress were significantly more likely to state that they got enough sleep to care for their mental health (63%) compared to those with higher levels of stress (50% for those with medium levels of stress and 43% for those with high levels of stress).
Mental health support accessed since the coronavirus pandemic
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 outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, despite 26 per cent currently reporting poor mental health.
Women were significantly more likely than men to have accessed mental health information and advice online (18% compared to 8%), counselling/therapy sessions (11% compared to 4%) and mental health helplines (3% compared to 0%).
What more can be done to support freelancers with their mental health?
When asked what mental health support measures they would find useful, the top three measures - with one in five selecting them - were all to do with interacting with others. These included ‘coaching and mentoring’ (23%), ‘connecting with others in similar situations’ (22%) and ‘co-working opportunities’ (22%).
Figure 4: Measures that freelancers would find useful to support their mental health.
Women were more likely than men to find each of the options useful and this difference was significant for the top three options to do with ‘connecting with others’ (32% compared to 17%), making use of ‘co-working opportunities’ (31% compared to 17%) and taking part in ‘coaching and mentoring’ (30% compared to 19%).
These findings build on previous work which highlighted that some of the key disadvantages of remote working were that it affected their need for human interaction by making freelancers feel lonely (19%), disconnected (19%) and not part of the team (26%) and again, women were more likely than men to have experienced these.28
Other things that respondents would find useful to support their mental health included ‘work-related training’ (19%) and ‘financial advice’ (17%). Interestingly, those aged 16-34 were significantly more likely to rate financial advice as a useful tool to help with their mental health, with 31 per cent choosing this option compared to the average of 17 per cent. This makes it the second most useful tool for this age group after ‘coaching and mentoring’ (33%). Similarly, younger freelancers are also significantly more likely to value ‘work-related training’ (30%) compared to the average of the sample (19%).
Almost a third of respondents (32%) didn’t feel that any of the options would be useful to help support their mental health. Men were significantly more likely to state that they wouldn’t find any of the options useful (39%) compared to women (18%).
There was also a significant trend when looking at the age of freelancers, with younger freelancers significantly less likely to say that none of the options would be useful (19%) compared to those aged 35-54 (32%) and those 55 and over (41%).
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 a decrease 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.
Freelancers themselves are adopting a range of different measures to look after their mental health including exercising, getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet. There are however, a number of other mental health support measures that freelancers would find useful including opportunities for coaching and mentoring, interacting with others in similar situations and having more opportunities for co-working. Freelancers would also value access to more work-related training to help build their skills, as well as more financial advice to manage their finances.
There are a lot of things that government, industry and organisations such as IPSE can do to support the mental health and wellbeing of freelancers, especially in this difficult time, and these are outlined fully in the recommendations section below.