Leapers Annual Report Mental Health of Freelancers and the Self-Employed in 2022

After another turbulent 12 months, it’s unsurprising to see Collins Dictionary name “permacrisis” as the word of the year.

But how have the self-employed weathered the continual storm of increasing cost of living, perpetual changes in government, back and forward on taxes and IR35, and countless sectors cutting back on hiring?

Every year, we ask hundreds of freelancers and the self-employed to answer a series of questions about their mental health in relation to their work, to paint a picture of how people working for themselves are feeling.

There’s a mixed story as ever - whilst the majority of the self-employed are still reporting positive mental health and optimism in the macro, dig a little deeper, ask a few more questions, and they’re dealing with a great deal of pressures - some shared with the total workforce, others unique to self-employment.

Read the headline insights, or keep scrolling to dive into the complete data below.

Key Insights from 2022

More Control is still the top reason for moving into self-employment - 54% of those who were new to self-employment this year cited it as the primary driver for moving to this way of working. In contrast “control over where I work” has declined to only 13%, perhaps reflecting employment now being more flexible around remote and distributed working habits.

61% of those who were new to self-employment reported their mental health had improved during the year they moved to self-employment, and 85% of those new to freelancing said it has a positive benefit on their mental health.

54% of people didn’t give a significant amount of thought about how self-employment might affect their mental health before taking the leap - often leading to a ‘shock to the system’, such as feelings of isolation or worries about irregularity of income.

80% of our group said feelings of a lack of confidence have caused them stress or anxiety during the year - suggesting that ideas like “imposter syndrome” are something we all experience and part of human nature, rather than a “condition” or failure.

63% of the group don’t feel they have adequate support for their mental health at work, and the same number don’t know where they’d look for support or resources for their mental health at work, suggesting there’s still a long way to go to create a well-supported ecosystem for the self-employed.

There’s an increasing number of ‘side hustlers’ or people who are both employed and self-employed at the same time, and they seem to be in poorer mental health: 56% of the ‘dual-employed’ were prevented from working at some point due to poor mental health, compared to 39% in only self-employment.

75% of the self-employed took less than 28 days off in the last 12 months - this is less than the mandatory legal right for employees in the UK. 40% of those who took less than 21 days off reported poor mental health having a negative impact on their work, compared to 28% who took more holiday.

41% of our cohort said that at some point during 2022, they were unable to work, due to stress, anxiety or poor mental health. This number drops to 30% for those who say they have an adequate support network in place.

87% are concerned about increased cost of living and only 11% of our group feel supported by the government as as a small business owner, and 55% of the group considered leaving self-employment during 2022.

77% of the cohort are feeling positive about 2023, and 68% feel it will be a better year for their mental health - suggesting that despite the challenges 2022 threw at us, there’s still excitement, motivation and positivity towards self-employment as great way of working for this group.

How are you doing? The full 2022 report

1. Our Cohort

691 self-employed individuals took part in our survey during November 1st-December 1st, primarily from the UK, but with some geographic spread. We asked them a series of questions about their work and mental health during 2022.

1.1 What gender do you identify as?

Of this group, there was a 67% female / 31% male split, with the remaining 2% identifying as non-binary, in another way they defined themselves, or chose not to share.

Two-Thirds Female

Over two thirds of our respondents were female. Whilst this is higher than previous years, it still speaks to a significant imbalance in men talking openly about their mental health. Death by suicide and isolation are two major mental health challenges in the UK male population, and making connections or admitting struggling is something men often find harder to do than their female counterparts.

Many of the freelancing communities and groups we know of definitely over-index with female members, and there are many many female-centric support groups and communities, but fewer which focus on men and their specific challenges. There’s a great deal of work to be done on this disparity.

1.2 Where are you based?

70% of the respondents were UK based, the rest from Europe (14%), North America (9%), and 1.6% as nomadic.

Freelancing Nomads

1.6% of our group defined themselves as nomadic, having no fixed place of residence. It’s estimated that there are 15.5 million digital nomads worldwide, and this number continues to grow, with countries creating more open visa programmes to allow people to work within their borders, as clients are open to more remote work positions.

Some of our members who are nomadic, interestingly share stories of the added challenges of not only working remotely, but also having to find infrastructure, think about the next place they’re headed to, dealing with paperwork and red-tape.

So whilst the idea of nomadic work can be quite appealing, it can add to some of the stresses and challenges on top of running your own business. On the flip-side, it can be an antidote some of the rising costs in the UK, and afford you to travel whilst working.

1.3 How old are you?

Our respondents were distributed across most age groups, with a skew towards older groups, the largest segment being 35-44.

Freelancers tend to offer specialised services which generally require some years of experience to demonstrate - many freelancers will spend some time in employment, and then move into self-employment once they have capabilities and confidence built up.

*Experience and a sense of confidence in one’s work is often a critical element of positive mental health.*

1.4 How long have you been working?

Our group are fairly experienced in their career, with 1/3rd having less than eight years of career experience, 24% having between 9-15 years of work under their belt, 47% having over 16 years of career experience.

1.5 How long have you been working in self-employment?

Compare this to the number years in self-employment, and there’s less experience of working in this way (despite our group being older in their years and career) - suggesting that freelancing is something that often comes later in life, once you’ve built up some years of experience in employment. 40% of our group are relatively new to self-employment - less than 3 years in this way of working.

New to work, New to freelance

There is a non-insignificant number of people who have both less than 3 years of career experience and have gone straight into self-employment.

Of the 16% who are in their early career (less than three years), more than half have been freelancing for the majority of that time.

This is a group of people who are both a) new to the workforce and b) have only known self-employment - and may need additional support in understanding what they can and should expect from work.

1.6 What type of work are you doing?

Our group is predominantly working in Advertising, Marketing and PR (25%), Creative Services and Design (20%) and Management, Business and Consulting (16%).

This is fairly consistent with reported data from other sources, and a significant creative industry in the UK - of which 35% is self-employed, in comparison to the general workforce where only 15% are self-employed. In some sectors, such as Film and TV, self-employment is the dominant model of employment, i.e. 89% of people in TV production are freelance.

2. New to Self-Employment

We asked a series of questions focused on just those who joined the self-employed workforce within 2022. Previous years of data gives us a broad view on the reasons of why people move into self-employment, so we wanted to look at the drivers that are affecting people right now, as well as how prepared they feel for self-employment.

Top reasons for moving into self-employment in 2022

As ever, ‘control’ is the single biggest reason for people choosing self-employment, whether that be control over the type of work, when they work or where they work. The mental health benefits of self-employment are still attractive to a significant proportion of people, and self-employment might often be seen as ‘the alternative’ to toxic or non-supportive employers. Mental health is increasingly a major driver of people moving into self-employment. Additionally “starting a business” is still a popular driver. There is still a sizeable number of people who fell into self-employment due to matters outside of their control.

Desire for more control:

54% wanted more control over the work they do

47% wanted more control over their schedule.

13% wanted more control over where they worked.

Desire for improved Mental Health:

33% were moving on from a previous employer who was damaging their mental health

14% to work around other obligations / caring

13% said they chose self-employment to improve their mental health

Desire to enter entrepreneurship:

29% to increase income

25% wanted to start a business

Didn’t have a choice:

8% Couldn’t find a perm-role which suited requirements

8% Previous role was made redundant

2.2 Before self-employment, did you actively think about how work affects your mental health?

60% of those new to freelancing were actively thinking about their mental health at work prior to moving into self-employment - which suggests a health awareness about mental health at work. Recent data from other sources shows that nearly two-thirds of people are now talking about their mental health to someone at work in the past year. This is hugely positive.

2.3 Did you consider the impact of becoming self-employed on your mental health, before you moved to this way of working?

54% of people didn’t give a significant amount of thought about how self-employment might affect their mental health before taking the leap. That means more than half of those who are new to freelancing might not be prepared or have given adequate consideration of the challenges it can create.

2.4 Since becoming self-employed, do you actively think more often or less often about how work affects your mental health?

35% of those new to freelancing think more frequently about their mental health at work since becoming self-employed, around a fifth are thinking about it less frequently - and for just under half, it hasn’t really changed how often they’re thinking about their mental health at work. That’s a significant increase in awareness and consideration when you move into self-employment.

We’re getting better at talking

Active awareness of mental health is increasing year on year, the pandemic has, without a doubt, raised the profile and reduced some of the stigma attached to talking about mental health with others - with topics like burnout, boundaries, and how to better support employees dealing with stress, being on everyone’s radar. This is a huge positive, as it makes it easier for anyone struggling to be more open, and seek support. However, there’s a still a significant gap for the self-employed in a) finding people to talk to and b) finding relevant support.

3. Working Patterns

We asked a series of questions about how and when the self-employed are working - rest is a critical part of mental wellness, and we wanted to see if there are any correlations between a lack of rest and poorer mental health.

3.1 Are you working in multiple forms of employment at once?

Almost one-fifth of our group are working both in employment and self-employment - this is perhaps freelancing on the side of a full-time or part-time job, or balancing longer-term PAYE type work with shorter-term contracts. Increasing numbers of people are adding freelancing as a ‘side-hustle’ especially with the increase in popularity of four-day-working-weeks.

Side-hustlers beware

Around 18% of our respondents are both in employment and self-employment at the same time - this includes ‘side hustles’, part-time work, portfolio careers, and people looking to supplement their income.

Of the group who have mixed employment models, things look less positive - 56% were prevented from working at some point due to poor mental health (compared to 39% in full self-employment); and over half of those in multiple forms of employment are considering leaving self-employment (compared to 43% in full self-employment.) And those in more than one form of employment are taking way less time off - 27% of the fully-self-employed took more than 28 days off, whereas only 14% of the mixed-employment cohort.

There’s a word of warning here, more than one form of employment can add significant load to your mental health.

3.2 How many days a week are you committing to freelancing?

For our group of people who are solely in self-employment, it’s clear that freelancing falls along similar lines to the classic ‘five day week’ as with employment. 56% of our group are committing five days a week to the job, with a much smaller proportion working less than that.

When you include those with in both employment and self-employment - 32% are working less than five days a week.

*Boundaries and structures within work are an important part of mental health, and if individuals feel they have little control over when they work, or don’t have time where they feel they are not working, it reduces reported wellbeing.*

3.3 How many hours are you working?

We asked what people’s average working day looked like. The majority of people are working between 4-10 hours a day, with the most common a fairly standard 6-8 hour day. 5% were regularly working more than 10 hours a day. When you remove those who are committing less than four days a week to self-employment, 42% of people are working the standard 6-8 hour day on average.

It’s important to note that 7% of the group say it’s too variable to be able to say how many hours and days they work each week, and that 10% of the group are open to working every single day of the week.

3.4 How many days did you choose to take off work this year?

We asked people how much time they chose to take off from work in the last 12 months - and there’s a significant spread and variation across people. 17% of the group took less than one week off in 2022.

Free time isn’t free

75% of the self-employed took less than 28 days off in the last 12 months - this is less than the mandatory legal right for employees in the UK. Taking time off when you’re self-employed is more challenging, as you’re not paid for your time off, and it can be difficult to find time inbetween projects.

Whilst this doesn’t necessarily show a realistic picture of how much time off the self-employed have though, as many people will not be working every single day, it does dispel the myth that freelancers take as much time off as they want.

Holidays = Happier Freelancers

If we split the group of people who took less than 21 days and compare it to the group who took more than 21 days, there’s a noticeable difference in people’s wellbeing. 30% of the ‘well rested’ group reported ‘good’ mental health, compared to 20% in the less rested group.

43% of the less-rested group reported being prevented from working during the year due to stress or anxiety, and 40% reported poor mental health having a negative impact on their work, compared to 28% in the well rested group. The group taking less time off reported poorer financial health (25% said their financial health was poor, compared to the rested group where only 15% said poor).

4. Mental Health and Self-Employment

We asked a series of questions about the individual and their mental health in the context of work, to understand any influences on the wellbeing of the self-employed in 2022. This was the focus of the survey, and helps us understand both the overall picture of wellbeing, but also changes year on year.

4.1 How would you rank your general wellbeing in 2022?

We asked people about their general wellbeing, across physical, mental, financial and sleep measures during 2022.

Sleep health and level of exercise in people’s lives were the least healthy, the smallest proportion of people claimed good mental health - but 50% had fair mental health. This aligns with averages for the UK.

Most people reported they were in positive (good or fair) financial health - but 24% were significantly concerned.

4.2 Over the last 12 months, would you say your mental health has on average improved or declined?

Almost half of our group reported their mental health neither declined nor improved during the year. 31% reported an improvement in their mental health (this number increases to 61% for the newly self-employed), and 24% saw a decline in their mental health - 30% for the ‘less rested’).

4.3 In the last 12 months, would you say that being self-employment has generally impacted your own mental health positively or negatively?

Generally, most people feel that being self-employed has a net positive benefit to their mental health - this number is even higher for those new to self-employment at 85%. 80% of those who said improving their mental health was a primary reason for switching to self-employment felt their mental health had been positively impacted.

On the negative side - fewer people saw positive benefits when they felt they had a lack of support, and when in more than one form of employment at once.

Becoming self-employed is good for your mental health (initially)

61% of those who were new to self-employment reported their mental health had improved during the year they moved to self-employment, and 85% of those new to freelancing said it has a positive benefit on their mental health.

However, the longer individuals have been self-employed, the higher likelihood of reporting a decline in their mental health this year.

It’s possible there is a positive ‘novelty’ effect, and a greater sense of control makes a marked improvement in one’s mental health initially.

4.4 In the last 12 months how often has stress, anxiety or poor mental health had a negative impact on your ability to work effectively as a self-employed professional?

Whilst everyone will at some point have their ability to work well impacted by how they’re feeling, over a third of the self-employed are reporting that they’re frequently affected by stress, anxiety and poor mental health impacting their work.

This creates a negative spiral as people worry about being able to get their work done. Combined with feelings of isolation or lack of support structures, it can be a worrying time for individuals.

4.5 In the last 12 months, has stress, anxiety or poor mental health prevented you from being able to work?

41% of our cohort said that at some point during 2022, they were unable to work, due to stress, anxiety or poor mental health. This number increases to 45% when taking less than 14 days off during a year, and 53% when in more than one form of employment (i.e. employed and self-employed).

The number of people falls to 37% for those who are proactively taking care of their mental health, and 30% for those who feel like they’ve built an adequate support network and know where to find support for their mental health at work as a self-employed professional.

*The benefits of being proactive and seeking support is clear.*

Mental health is the number one cause of absence from work in the UK

Figures from 2021 showed poor mental health led to more time taken off work than even COVID, and the cost to the UK economy is estimated at £8.6b.

Whilst employers have made positive movement towards investing in their peoples’ wellbeing, the self-employed have no-one other than themselves to prevent or support time off due to being unwell, nor paid time off for sick leave.

Many of the self-employed will ‘push through’ being unwell, both physically and mentally, exacerbating their health issues and risking the quality of their work and relationship with the client - which can lead to financial challenges later.

4.6 Are you proactive or reactive to your mental health challenges?

An increasing number of freelancers are getting proactive about their mental health at work, which is a positive trend to see. However, 43% are still reactive to their mental health.

Proactivity really matters

A much larger proportion of the proactive group had average better mental health (33% “good”) than the reactive group (12% “good”). 36% of the proactive group were prevented from working due to poor mental health during the year - compared to almost half (48%) in the reactive group. 36% of the proactive group said their mental health improved this year, but only 22% of the reactive group saw an improvement in their mental health this year. The proactive group also felt they were 10% more financially healthy than the reactive group.

Being proactive and putting things in place to take care of your wellbeing has a positive and tangible effect on your mental health, work and income.

5. Influences on mental health in self-employment

We asked a series of questions on experiences that led to any feelings of stress, anxiety of concern as part of self-employment. These are the core stressors of mental health in self-employment. Many of these influences are not ‘mental health’ issues, but direct lead to a negative impact on the individual.

Top five significant stressors

1/ Irregularity of income.

40% of our cohort say that the irregularity of income related to self-employment causes them significant stress - this concern is even higher for those in the first three years of self-employment at 51%. 79% of the group say it causes them some level of stress. Only 21% say this is not of concern.

Unsurprisingly, irregularity of income is the most well known and oft-cited ‘risk’ with self-employment for good reason - there are no guarantees of work, and being less able to plan your monthly income can make this way of working harder. During 2022, the looming cloud of an oncoming recession, along with rising cost of living, increasing inflation, increased global uncertainty and redundancies in many sectors creates a desire for some stability. Even being ‘aware’ of the risk doesn’t necessarily help reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety around irregularity of income.

The concerns around irregular income are exacerbated when 56% of the cohort are spending time chasing invoices and money due - so not only is income irregular, individuals are also having to work hard to get money they are owed, furthering the issue. Irregularity doesn’t just mean periods of less work, it can also mean periods of too much work, often described as ‘feast of famine’, as we can see that 66% are caused stress by having too much work and 64% are stressed by irregular working patterns, and 66% concerned with having a lack of control over their work - the number one reason of moving into self-employment.

The level of concern with irregularity of income decreases over time though, for those who have been working in self-employment for more than 15 years, only 25% are still concerned. This demonstrates that whilst the concern never goes away, the longer you’ve been self-employed, the more you’re able to cope with the irregularity.

2/ Feeling unproductive

32% of our cohort say that feeling unproductive creates significant anxiety or stress - this affects 80% of our cohort at some level. It’s worth noting that three of the top significant stressors are feelings rather than facts, and many individuals within the community often share feelings of feeling guilty around taking time off, feeling like they aren’t able to focus, and giving themselves a hard time when not being 100% productive.

The past two decades of startup and entrepreneurship ‘hustle’ culture has had a damaging effect on all of us - the idea that you need to be constantly productive and effective leads to a situation where if someone doesn’t get a ‘full day of work’ done, they feel like they’ve failed to achieve. Feeling unproductive is directly linked to the irregularity of work too - when there’s no work in the pipeline, it’s easy to feel like you haven’t ‘done anything’ for a while.

For many of our community who are creative workers, there are not always immediate outputs either - the creative process requires dwelling, thinking, exploring, not just pure output - and time to ponder can often feel like a luxury rather than work.

This is an area we’d like to explore more in the future - to see if there is a disconnect between people’s feelings of productivity and their tangible productivity, as our hypothesis is that people aren’t fairly measuring what productivity means to themselves, and some evidence to help demonstrate their achievements during the day would benefit wellbeing.

3/ Feeling lack of confidence

31% of our cohort say that a feeling of lack of confidence has caused them significant anxiety or stress during 2022, this number is as high as 80% when you include any level of stress or anxiety. For the self-employed, this lack of confidence manifests in many ways, and gets in the way of many things. For example, a lack of confidence can directly lead to charging lower rates for work, not putting yourself forward for a project, less able to chase an overdue invoice, not challenging difficult requests from clients, not setting good boundaries.

There’s been a great deal of conversation about challenging the notion of “imposter syndrome” in the last 12 months, and when 80% say they feel a lack of confidence, it suggests that it normal human condition, rather than ‘something wrong’ or a ‘syndrome’. Indeed, it is exacerbated when working alone, it can be easy to challenge your own thoughts or ideas if there’s not someone else with you championing your work, or if you’re not receiving regular objective feedback from others. Previous years data shows us that 80% experienced a lack of quality feedback on projects, and without tangible feedback to know if you’ve done a good job, it can be hard to build confidence over time.

This confidence often holds freelancers back in their career development, with individuals opting to do work they’ve got experience in, rather than pushing themselves to develop their skills. Equally, clients are less willing to take a ‘risk’ on a freelancer who can’t demonstrate previous examples of a skill - which can hold their development back too - indeed, 66% have reported stress by a feeling of lack of skills required.

4/ Feeling isolated / disconnected.

After irregular income - feelings of isolation is the most commonly understood “myth” about freelancing. Whilst only 29% have said it caused them significant stress or anxiety, 71% have reported feelings of isolation or disconnection during 2022. This has been exacerbated in recent years due to enforced working from home in relation to COVID, but also the increased amount of remote work from clients, meaning a requirement or opportunity to be in a workspace with clients has declined.

Feelings of isolation and disconnection are not the same as loneliness - but rather a feeling of not having people who understand the self-employed experience to talk to, to share with, to connect with, to build a support network from.

The solution is relatively simple - when comparing those who feel better supported at work (i.e. have a support network or know where to find support) the numbers are clear: only 16% of those who feel they have adequate support networks experience significant isolation.

Interestingly, there seems to be a relationship between time spent in self-employment and feelings of isolation. In year 1, there’s a ‘shock to the system’, where suddenly feelings of isolation kick in (47% of those new to freelancing feel a sense of isolation/disconnection, which drops to 28% when they’ve been freelancing for 1-3 years, what we call the ‘emergent’ phase’. That number then steadily increases over time the longer people have been self-employed, 40% for 4-8 years; 45% for 9-15 years; 48% for 16-24 years. This potentially mirrors the reduction in size of social groups related to age - but also maybe speaks to the ease of network building in employment, i.e. friends at work, which can be harder to establish in self-employment.

Helping the self-employed to make new and maintain meaningful connections is something which Leapers and all communities could do more to support the wellbeing of the self-employed.

5/ Being unable to find work / projects

28% experience significant stress or anxiety and 70% experience stress related to being unable to find work. Whilst unsurprising, this needs to be recognised as part of the self-employed experience, rather than something that might happen. Being able to weather the quiet periods takes both financial and emotional resilience, and also requires a certain level of financial privilege, as it often requires some form of savings or emergency fund which allows you cover costs if you’re not working. Longer periods of being unable to find work, or perhaps work at the level of income you require (41% are caused stress by working below their established day rates), or indeed even work which is not motivating (48% experienced stress from doing un-motivating work and is a key driver of burnout in self-employment) can cause feelings of further lack of motivation, progress, success or ultimately sustainability of self-employment as a way of working.

Positively though, stress related to being unable to find work and projects tends to reduce based upon the number of years in self-employment - the first year ranks highest at 92% of individuals experiencing some or significant stress, as the ‘shock to the system’ takes place; this drops to 77% for the ‘emerging’ phase (1-3 years), and 76% for the ‘established’ phase (4-8 years), and further again over time with 65% for those 9+ years of self-employment. This will also be influenced by people leaving self-employment if it is not sustainable for them.

Whilst many issues and influences on mental health are shared by everyone in work, the consistent requirement to continually find new work on a regular basis is unique to the self-employed, and adds a significant time and emotional overhead to this segment of the workforce.

Top 10 stressors ranked by any level of stress

We asked for individuals to tell us what caused them any amount of stress, concern or anxiety during 2023, a wide range of experiences and events that might have caused concern for the self-employed. We’ve listed and ranked the top 15, but it’s important to note the long tail of stressors not included here. Our project continues to develop resources tackling all of the stressors, not just the most common - to try and support as many people as possible. Even those stressors which affect less than 50% of the self-employed population are affecting tens of thousands of individuals in the UK.

87% Increased cost of living

87% of the cohort reported the increased cost of living as being a stressor in 2022, and this only looks to be set to continue into 2023 with rising inflation and global recession. The cost of living increase has a direct impact upon not only the outgoing costs of the self-employed, but also the budgets of clients, and day-rates not rising in line with inflation.

80% Feeling lack of confidence; Feeling unproductive

Tied at in the second ranking, in line with the most significant stressors, feelings of lack of confidence and feeling unproductive is causing stress or concern for 80% of our cohort.

79% Irregularity of Income

The most signficant stressor is also one of the most common stressors for almost 4/5ths of the cohort

74% Feeling a lack of direction / progress

A highly reported common concern is a sense of lack of direction or progress in the individual’s self-employment career. Interestingly, this is highest for those new to self-employment (82%), suggesting an expectation of faster progress or clarity around purpose in the first year; but only drops to 70% for even the most established (25+ years). This suggests learning and development is a missing piece for many of the self-employed.

72% Changes in government leadership

The turmoil in the UK’s central government and leadership in 2022 weighed heavily on 72% of the self-employed - perhaps in relationship to the swinging perspectives on issues directly affecting the self-employed and financial wellbeing of the country, such as tax rates, changes to IR35, interest rates, and declining strength in the global markets affecting our ability to trade with other countries.

87% Increased cost of living

87% of the cohort reported the increased cost of living as being a stressor in 2022, and this only looks to be set to continue into 2023 with rising inflation and global recession. The cost of living increase has a direct impact upon not only the outgoing costs of the self-employed, but also the budgets of clients, and day-rates not rising in line with inflation.

71% Poor communication / briefing from clients

Almost three-quarters of the cohort reported poor communication from clients being a stressor and having a negative impact on their mental health in 2022. This external influence is rarely under the control of the individual, and not only does it lead to stress, but has an impact on the quality of work which indirectly drives other stressors such as lack of confidence, lack of productivity, working longer hours and irregularity of income. 99.2% of our cohort said that good communication was the most valuable way that clients could support them to do better work.

71% Feeling isolated or disconnected

87% of the cohort reported the increased cost of living as being a stressor in 2022, and this only looks to be set to continue into 2023 with rising inflation and global recession. The cost of living increase has a direct impact upon not only the outgoing costs of the self-employed, but also the budgets of clients, and day-rates not rising in line with inflation.

70% Being unable to find work / projects

Again, as reflected in the most significant stressors, being unable to find work directly leads to stress and anxiety, and has a negative impact on mental health. This affected 70% of the self-employed in a meaningful way during 2022, and for many is a key measure of whether they feel self-employment is sustainable for them or not.

70% Working too long hours / unable to set boundaries

Tied at number 7, 70% of the cohort reported that long working hours or poor boundaries on working hours caused some level of stress or anxiety for the individual. The number of people reporting this is lowest in the first year of freelancing (58%), increasing as years in self-employment rises: 72% in the 1-3 years emerging/established groups, and 80% in the long-term self-employed groups.

66% Lack of control over work

Two thirds of our cohort had experiences a lack of control over their work which caused stress or anxiety during 2022. More control over ones work is the key driver for moving to self-employment, so when individuals feel a lack of control, there’s a disconnect and frustration which adds to the feeling of overwhelm. This stress is least significant for those new to freelancing, perhaps suggesting a ‘novelty’ effect in the first year.

6. Do the self-employed feel supported?

We continually ask whether self-employed individuals feel like they’re able to access the support they need within their work, to measure whether awareness of support is improving over time. During 2021, 66% of individuals felt they didn’t have adequate support for their mental health at work, and 66% didn’t know where to find support for their mental health at work.

6.1 Do you feel you have adequate support for your mental health within the context of work?

Whilst the number has decreased since last year - still 63% of the self-employed don’t feel they have good enough support for their mental health at work, and the same figure don’t know where they’d find support for their mental health at work. This is still a significant majority.

For those who are new to freelancing, however, things look more positive - 59% say they do have adequate support - suggesting that there are more awareness and resources available to those who are exploring stepping into freelancing.

6.2 Do you feel like you know where you'd be able to get support for your mental health at work, as a self-employed professional?

Again, significantly high numbers for those who are looking for support, but do not know where to find or access it, suggesting a gap in useful content, resources and signposting from the entire ecosystem.

For new freelancers, again a more positive story, 45% feel they do know where to access support, but again, this still leaves 55% without adequate signposting to support and resources.

This suggests a requirement for a much more robust set of pathways towards supporting mental health in self-employment, for instance from government when registering a small business or sole-tradership.

A significant gap

This is lower than in previous years, but two-thirds of the self-employed still feel like they’re not well supported or know where to find support - a huge gap, which should be a wake up call to anyone who provides services, communities, platforms and marketplaces to the self-employed, as well as government and clients.

None of us are doing enough to help signpost to good quality support for freelancers.

6.3 As a small business owner, generally do you feel supported by your clients to do good work?

This is hugely positive - that 75% of us feel well supported by our clients to do good quality work. However, 1 in 4 of us don’t feel supported by our clients to do good work. We’ve done additional research into what freelancers feel is most valuable and supportive to doing good quality work, and supporting their wellbeing, which will be published later this year on FreelanceFriendly.business.

6.4 As a small business owner, generally do you feel supported by the government?

The lack of feeling of support from government is hugely telling, just a little more than 11% of us feel the government is doing enough for small businesses. Trust and positive feeling towards government is at an all time low.

This number is lower than in previous years, and possibly speaks to the many changes in central government, changes around IR35 and lack of support during the pandemic.

7. The future of freelancing

We asked a series of questions about how individuals felt about the sustainability of working in self-employment, and their feelings towards 2023.

7.1 Within the last 12 months, have you considered leaving self-employment?

This number is hugely significant - and whilst we unpack the reasons behind this in more detail below, the ‘consistent uncertainty’ of self-employment is the core reason, particularly the ‘irregularity of income’ and being unable to find work, coupled increases in cost of living and the emotional experiences of ‘feeling unproductive’ and ‘feeling lack of confidence’, all combine to make self-employment potentially harder work than employment, and certainly not a way of working suitable for everyone.

"Just" find a job

When individuals are struggling to work within self-employment, the emotional load can really build up. If an individual is not working, they’re not getting paid. If they’re not getting paid, the stress around income builds, and inevitably they’ll be eating into an emergency fund or savings.

It often comes associated with a feeling of ‘failure’ that they’re not able to find work doing what they’re skilled at, and ultimately whether they need to move out of this way of working entirely. For many that not only means finding a job, but often stepping out of the type of work they’re doing, wholly changing how they work and what they do.

For many who weren’t able to find a job in the first place, the entire prospect feels daunting and impossible, and that they’re ‘trapped’ in a circumstance. This anxiety often gets in the way of being able to focus on finding or doing great work, creating a downward spiral. Anecdotally, this downward slump is not uncommon, and leads to thousands of the self-employed leaving the workforce.

7.2 Do you feel that self-employment is a long-term and sustainable way of working for you?

This feels hugely positive that the majority of people feel that self-employment is sustainable for them, despite the challenges which have been outlined, they're not insurmountable with good support. For the 22% who don't feel as positive, it shouldn't be seen as a failure for the individual either - circumstances change, and it's important to focus on what is right for you at the time.

7.3 Do you feel that 2023 will be a better year for your mental health?

The overwhelming sense of optimism is consistent for the majority of our cohort year on year - despite challenging times, most of our community feel that 2023 will have a positive outlook, and with greater awareness of resources discovered within the last 12 months, we hope that all of our members and friends will continue to strengthen their mental health in the new year.

7.4 Do you feel that 2023 will be a better year for you professionally?

Again, significant optimism from the majority of the cohort - and wonderful to see, in spite of the global economic challenges we potentially face. It shows courage and determination from the community - and we're glad to be supporting freelancers and the self-employed in 2023.

In Summary

The net positives of working in self-employment are clear - people generally report better or improving mental health, and have more autonomy in how they work, leading to positive experiences in the main.

However, simply being self-employed does not lead to a better experience - it takes work to make it work.

Being proactive in taking care of one’s mental health has clear benefits, with improvements in reported positive mental health. Having access to supportive resources and networks also creates an improvement in reported wellbeing. Taking a fair amount of time off and effective rest shows an improvement in positive mental health.

There are a huge range of emotional experiences which the self-employed go through, which would benefit from further investigation and support. Feelings of lack of confidence, lack of experience, lack of focus, lack of direction and progress and lack of productivity are common - and part of the human condition. Indeed, to not feel those things would be arrogant - but to feel those things without having others to connect and talk to about the experience leads to isolation, and working alone can feel incredibly hard. It’s not something you can just ‘solve’, but takes consistent personal investment over time.

Meaningful connections with others who understand the experience of self-employment is consistently a positive driver for improved mental health - and being more aware of the factors which cause you stress or anxiety, so you’re able to understand the impact they have, and then take actions to mitigate their negative impact, is a critical aspect of a successful and sustainable working practice for the self-employed.

Whilst there is an improvement in people actively thinking about their own mental health, there is still a significant gap in access to support or having adequate support though - this speaks to the need of better signposting and improved journeys for those starting a new business, from all of the existing touchpoints for the newly self-employed, such as HMRC, Companies House, business banking and accounting platforms, self-employment communities and service providers. There’s still a great deal that clients could do to better support the freelancers they use, from paying on time to better communication, and there’s still a huge lack of feeling of support from government for small businesses.

This speaks to a lack of a truly supportive and connected ecosystem for the self-employed - there are lots of elements within the ecosystem: services, platforms, communities, networks, government departments, people, but they’re disconnected and the self-employed have to do a great deal of work to find their way and navigate this way of working, often by themselves, until they find the support they’re looking for.

For Leapers, this research reminds us of how important the three pillars of our work are.

1/ Community - creating supportive connections between the self-employed, so people don’t feel isolated and can share experiences. We’ll look into more ways of creating connections, not just within our own community but across multiple platforms and spaces.

2/ Resources - creating and signposting to good quality content on how to maintain and improve positive mental health within self-employment. We’ll look at refreshing our content platform with more content aligned to the key and common issues uncovered in our research this year, and ensure it is distributed more widely.

3/ Partnerships - working with those who work with freelancers to create better behaviours and signpost to good support to close the 63% gap. We’ll look at how we can better enable partners to access both these insights and better support their freelancers.

For more information

If you’d like more detail on this research, please contact [email protected]

If you’d like support as a freelancer, join our community at www.leapers.co/join

If you’d like to better support your freelancers, visit www.leapers.co/freelance-friendly

Please attribute any data used from this report as “Leapers: Mental Health and Self-Employment in 2022” with a link to www.leapers.co/research

Copyright 2023 Leapers / Foxlark Strategy Limited.