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This Mental Health Awareness Week, don’t forget your freelancers

For Mental Health Awareness Week, Matthew Knight, founder of the freelancer support community Leapers, explains why we should all be doing more to support the mental health of our independent workers.

In many ways, freelancers were better prepared for the pandemic than most: we are used to dealing with uncertainty, working from home, working on our own, not having people around support us. When COVID hit, the reason why Leapers, a project supporting the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed, was able to support the 30,000+ people who arrived in those first few weeks of lockdown looking for advice, was because we are all too well versed in the issues many were facing: feelings of isolation, disconnection and loneliness.

Yet, just because we as freelancers are used to working without a team - that doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. 

Our research at the end of last year showed that over 70% of the self-employed have struggled with feelings of isolation, disconnection and loneliness at some point. This negative impact on our mental health has a direct relationship to our ability to work: reducing our productivity and ability to focus, impacting our quality of sleep, reducing our creativity and confidence, for some even prevents us from being able to work at all - and as the self-employed can't take paid sick leave, even taking time to rest is harder. This creates a dangerous negative spiral, and if you're already feeling like you've got no-one to talk to about what you're going through, things only get worse.

Employers have woken up to the importance of mental health at work - the moral and commercial importance of ensuring their people are able to work well and feel more connected to each other, especially in light of distributed teams being more common. Yet we're not seeing this attention being paid to the "total workforce" - not just employees, but also the temporary, contingent, extended team members who power so many organisations. 

Increasing numbers of businesses, especially in the creative industry, utilise freelancers.  Many rely upon the ability to contract teams to power projects, to bring in specialist expertise on demand, to spin up a production, to cover gaps in resource or capabilities. Increasing numbers of models are wholly built of temporary team members, whether it be in the Film and TV industry, or creative, strategic and full service agencies where everyone but a small core is external talent. Clients too are bringing in consultancy and specialisms they don't have internally, to supercharge their work. 

The freelance workforce are a significant and essential proportion of the creative industry, yet receive so little support in order to be able to do their work well.  

It's often a hidden problem. 66% of freelancers feel they don't have adequate support for their mental health at work, and only one third of freelancers know where to turn for support. Freelancers will do their very best to push on through, to do a good job, to be not asking too many questions or admit they're struggling, in fear that their client might just hire someone else who is 'less hard work'. That's why community support is so critical for freelancers - so they do have someone to talk to, to ask questions and find help, and support each other.

We need to do more, as an industry, to support our total workforce's mental health. There's not only a moral obligation to take care of the people we work with, but also a commercial benefit: better supported people do better work. If you care about your work - you need to care about the people who help you create the work. It's as simple as that. 

The Great Resignation demonstrates proves this out - to work with great talent in all forms, whether it be perm or freelance, you need to be recognised as a business that takes care of its people. 97% of freelancers state they would actively prioritise clients who support them to do better work. 94% would actively tell their peers not to work for a client who has treated them badly. If you want to be able to continue to access the best quality freelancers, the most talented, trusted, inspiring and motivated specialists and experts on demand, you need to do more to support and build stronger relationships with your freelancers.

This isn't about yoga and bananas, it's not about inviting your freelancers to 'wellbeing' events or giving them access to your Headspace subscription. This is about identifying behaviours that have a disproportionate impact on freelancers wellbeing and then making improvements to your processes.

Late payment. Poor Communication. Lack of feedback. Lack of credit or attribution. Ghosting. Not telling someone their work just picked up an award. Scope creep. Lack of respect for boundaries. No onboarding. Harassment or Bullying. No point of escalation for major issues. Most of these things are the same issues employees might face too. Having a holistic approach to supporting your people to work well will, 9 times out of 10, also solve for your freelancers - but it requires you to be inclusive of your freelancers when designing your process and policies, and actively understanding what impacts freelancers more acutely.

This won't change overnight, and I recognise there are hurdles that businesses face when supporting their freelancers, not least issues like IR35 or time, budget and prioritisation, but there are some simple things which all organisations can do with minimal effort, like better signposting to support - so we can close that 66% gap in knowing where to find help; supporting the work of organisations such as NABS who support freelancers as well as employees; or working with Leapers to help you find effective ways to support your freelancers.

No-one should feel like they're alone - and taking shared responsibility for the huge numbers of independent workers who we rely upon to deliver our work, ensures that we're collectively building a more supported and sustainable workforce for the future of creativity.

5 things to better support your freelancers mental health at work

Based upon our conversations and research with thousands of independent workers, these are the most impactful actions you can take to start supporting your freelancers mental health:

  1. Fair Payments - Financial anxiety is a huge driver of poor mental health. Pay market rates, keep payment terms to 30 days or below, and pay on time.

  2. Preboarding and signposting - Get your freelancers off to the best start with an effective onboarding process before they arrive, and include signposting to critical support resources and organisations, which are relevant to the self-employed. Offer independent sources of support as well as internal initiatives.

  3. Contracts and Communications - Be clear on expectations and scopes of work, maintain clear communications, provide a point of escalation for the individual in case of issues. Remove any overly burdensome or non-enforceable clauses in your contracts, like exclusivity.

  4. Feedback and Followup - ask for feedback, provide feedback, and communicate what impact the freelancers work went on to have, including any awards or press it generated. Allow the freelancer to talk about work they've done with you. 

  5. Community and Connection - Create ways for freelancers to make more connections within your business and with each other, during and after the project. Have an alumni mindset and build a network of trusted partners. Leverage your physical spaces as places for your extended network to meet and encourage serendipity.


This article was first published on CreativeBrief

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