LONDON SUMMIT 2019
9th October 2019
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Mental Wellbeing and the Solo Worker

17th December, 2018

Stuart Hillston




The rise of the solo worker

If you work for a company, of virtually any size, there is a good chance they take their Duty of Care seriously. The most enlightened organisations will take a holistic view and support the mental health of their employees through wellbeing policies, procedures and practices.

If you are a solo worker – self-employed or working in the gig economy – then the Duty of Care will probably be up to you. And if you are a manager in a company which uses solo workers how often do you consider the wellbeing of those people?

The Office for National Statistics’ annual report on self-employment trends published in February (see here) states that there are now 4.8m self-employed people in the UK. And the trend is for an increasing number of these people to be on their own without employees. One factor in this rise is the increase in the gig economy either enabling (or forcing) solo working for many more people.

Freedom and risk

There are many benefits to being self-employed, including freedom to chose when and where we work. With this freedom comes responsibility for the administration, sales, marketing, HR and delivery – the effort we put in translates directly to our income.

The normal issues relating to workplace stress apply equally here, however there is no corporate function to consider our wellbeing. Equally there are no colleagues or manager to notice changes in our mood or behaviour that could indicate the early warning signs of stress, anxiety, fatigue and low-mood.

To compound the danger, there are more limited opportunities for socialisation. This social interaction, the “water cooler” conversations, lunch time chats and after work activities, can be a useful part of the process of mitigating stress.

As solo workers we need to be alert to this environmental constraint and take steps to help ourselves become our own wellbeing manager.

The intertwined nature of our physical and psychological wellbeing means that we should pay attention to basics first. Are you really getting a good night’s sleep most nights (6-8 hours)? Do you find it easy to get to sleep and sleep the whole night through? Similarly, are you eating a balanced diet, do you get regular exercise?

When working with clients in the early stages of burnout I have observed a common thread in how often they have relinquished nourishing activities in favour of “getting things done”. This cycle of “doing more” and taking less care depletes us and can lead to serious psychological consequences.

If you work in an organisation that relies on the services of solo workers, do you extend the benefits your employees get to those on contract? As has been demonstrated, employee wellbeing can be linked directly to the performance of a business, so it makes sense to extend the Duty of Care to all those you depend on as a business.

Action steps for Solo Workers

Assuming you are looking after your physical self as best you can, then let’s look at some strategies for the solo worker to take care of their psychological self:

1.    How is your mood?If can be hard to assess our own mood, so it is worth keeping a diary – nothing complicated, or long-winded. We want something that can become a habit. If you keep a journal, a to-do list, a diary or keep notes on your phone/tablet you can simply make a note at the start and end of each day about how you are feeling, what is your mood? This is just for you, so you can be honest!

2.    Take breaks.When you have a to-do list that never ends, it can be easy to slip in to the habit of working all day long (and evenings, and weekends). We convince ourselves that “it has to be done” and lose sight of the fact that we are burning ourselves out. Try setting a timer to 90 minutes and see what can be achieved in that time – then take a break. Step away from your work environment for 15 minutes – go to the “staff canteen” (usually your kitchen), read something not work related, or phone a friend. Then reset the timer and go again. By inserting breaks at regularly intervals you can release the invisible tension that builds in our bodies and minds.

3.    Socialise away from work.Whether with your partner, with friends or in a club setting, find ways to socialise with people not connected with your work. This may take some effort, so consider this an investment in you as the only employee, who wants to lead a happy and balanced life.

4.    Take care when ill.It can be tempting to try to work through illness, being proud of not taking sick days or concerned about the impact on your business. In full-time employment this could be considered presenteeism – present in work but not fully effective. As the solo worker, your health (physical and mental) is critical to your effectiveness and productivity. Illness affects our cognitive functions and mood. Taking some time to recover from illness will pay back in the long run.

5.    Accept that solo working can be stressfuland take preventative action before stress becomes a real issue for you. Stress and anxiety can lead to low mood and depression – and by the time you realise you may no longer feel like doing anything about it. In addition to the steps above, develop your own quick relaxation technique that you can deploy at regular intervals. When you recognise those early symptoms of stress (the increased heart rate, the mild sense of panic, the “jangling” of your nerves) then bring on the relaxation technique. I like the three-minute breathing space I learned from Prof. Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (which he has kindly made available here). Or you can simply close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly for a few minutes, letting your mind wander – just let it do its thing and notice what it does.

6.    Find a solo buddy.It is often useful to discuss what has happened in your day, or how you are feeling right now, with someone who can empathise. This is often not your partner, or even a friend. Try and develop a buddy relationship with another solo worker, someone who will be experiencing the same things as you, although not necessarily at the same time. Take time to chat to, and listen to, your buddy. Let them tell you what is going on, what they are thinking, without judging or trying to fix their problems. Just be there for them. And ask them to do the same for you.

Action Steps for Managers

1.   Mental Health First Aid. Do you have qualified Mental Health First Aid trained people in your organisation? If not, or you don’t have enough, then you can get training MHFA England here.

2.   Communicatewith the solo workers that you use to make sure they know that they are valued and supported. Let them know the MHFA trained contacts and provide information (such as included here) to help them to support themselves.

3.   Extra effort.Given the remote and often disconnected nature of solo workers, it takes extra effort to get to know them and support them when they need it (and ideally before they do). Take a look at Creating Well Workplaces herefor research and guidance for all employers in our changing economy - especially those who support new ways of working such as home working or gog economy.

Conclusion

The greater freedom of working for ourselves is offset to some degree by increased stress and anxiety. It is important to recognise this and take steps to consider our mental health and mitigate the effects before they can develop into a serious problem.

There are many more tactics to self-care for solo workers, and perhaps I’ll write about these in the future. For now, if you are a solo worker, make a commitment to start your own EAP (employee assistance program) for your own benefit, and develop lasting habits that ensure your make the most of your freedom.

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Stuart Hillston

Stuart Hillston has been an entrepreneur for most of his working life and a solo worker for nearly half that time. He started as a software entrepreneur, building companies in the UK, USA and Japan, selling them and starting again. He became a professional investor and then a business advisor. In more recent years he trained as a Mindfulness Teacher, as a Hypnotherapist and is finalising 3 years of Psychotherapy training. Stuart focusses on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, particularly for the self-motivated and entrepreneurially minded.

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