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Is self-employment the best option for people managing mental illness?

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  • Picture of Benedict Dellot
    Benedict Dellot
    Former Head of the RSA Future Work Centre and Associate Director
  • Employment
  • Enterprise

Richard Sennett once wrote that ‘work is the road to the unification of the self’. I like the quote and certainly get the sentiment, but from time to time it dawns on me how flimsy and trivial it can sound. Clearly it wasn’t penned thinking about the call centre operator dealing with irate callers, a nurse on a manic A&E ward, or a police officer taking care of a volatile crime suspect.

Where work is a joy for many, for others it is a deep source of angst. This is particularly true for the 1 in 4 people who will at some point in their lives experience mental illness. According to the NHS, almost 50 per cent of long-term absences from work are due to mental health issues – including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Of course, the job itself is not necessarily the cause of such problems, but by failing to accommodate those with more trying demands it can often be the catalyst. A report published by DWP a few years ago found that many employers do not to respond to people’s disclosures of mental illness, in turn making their problems worse. Another study – this time by the Depression Alliance – found that close to 80 per cent of people felt that revealing their illness to colleagues would affect perceptions of their capability and ultimately hurt their job prospects.

All of this begs the question of whether self-employment might be a better option for people dealing with depression or similar illnesses. One particular sufferer writing in the Guardian describes his decision to go freelance as one of the best things he’s ever done, not least because of the freedom it offers to work around his own needs:

The fact that I don't have to slap on a fake smile and spend all day with a group of people who almost certainly don't understand what I am dealing with, is an incredible relief…. As a freelancer I am in control of what I do and when. Even knowing that I have this choice can avert the sense of panic and paralysis that the thought of having to go into an office would bring.

The writer talks from the perspective of someone moving from a typical PAYE job. But the opportunities that self-employment provides may be more important for those currently unemployed. The government makes no bones about its intention to bring more people on disability benefits into work. Indeed, tougher work assessment tests combined with a decision to cut disability living allowance (DLA) claimant numbers by 20 per cent will force many with long term mental health issues to find some form of employment – perhaps their first taste in decades. Realistically, few of these will be prepared for a full time job, meaning self-employment is their only option.

A few years ago, this may have been a big ask. But today it has never been easier to work for yourself. Over 367,000 more people became self-employed since 2008, bringing the total number of one-man-bands to a record 15 per cent of the workforce. A big driver is the economic crash, yet much of it is also down to new and more affordable technologies – high speed broadband, mobile communication tools and new platforms like eBay and Etsy. The latter allows growing numbers of people get their foot on the entrepreneurial ladder. Since starting our new research on microbusinesses, for instance, I’ve heard several instances where people have begun selling a few handmade items on Etsy to build their confidence, gain some independence and bring in extra income.

Of course, self-employment is far from a perfect means of making a living. The financial worries that come with inconsistent streams of work may be too much for some to bear. Likewise, the isolation that comes with working for yourself, usually at home, may exacerbate depression and other illnesses. But ultimately every individual is different, with needs and desires that will change radically throughout their lifetime – just as their illness fluctuates. So all of this is not to say that self-employment is simply better, but to recognise that there are other options out there for those with mental health problems - some of which will make them much better placed to realise their potential.

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  • I am intrigued by this discussion and as a young 21 year old I have found the job market difficult enough as it is alone, not without mental health experiences as well.  My solution has been to treat my life as a company and run it as one.  This is why I started Ingenium Labs Limited, because for too long the discussion over our collective mental health is about treating symptoms, not looking at the underlying causes and treating them instead.  The discussion has been cleverly biased towards the medical model causing severe detriment and charm to young lives.  

  • Thanks for the comment, Nikki. It's interesting to hear about your own experiences. As with most things, it comes down to the individual - their needs and their preferences. It may be that self-employment isn't the best option in the long-term, but rather a short-term stepping stone that eventually leads to a typical job. Websites like Etsy appear good at enabling people with various needs to be part-time entrepreneurs, bringing in income but also generating confidence that might one day lead them into conventional employment.

  • I've been trying to work freelance for around 18 months now and have to say it takes a lot of energy and persistence. I can see that being able to work at home selling items etc may be a good way for people to gain confidence and certainly that the flexibility that freelance work affords could be suitable for many people with mental health problems (and indeed in a variety of other situations too). But I think it could be very difficult for anyone suffering from anxiety, particularly social anxiety due to the need, in many areas of work, to continue to network and to be quite upfront about looking for work opportunities. I'd be the first to say I haven't cracked this myself yet.

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