Self-employment is becoming an increasingly popular option for Australian workers. According to a Global Data study, 2.2 million Australians were self-employed in 2021 – a 7.2% increase in self-employment from 2010.
The reasons for choosing self-employment are varied. Motivating factors like managing family commitments, experiencing personal freedom and autonomy, or changes to work status such as redundancy were the catalyst for many workers making the shift to self-employment. While these are all worthy and valid motivations, the large increase in self-employment may also point to potential issues in the workplace, such as inflexibility or stressors related to the working experience.
Yet self-employment is not without its own set of challenges.
A 2021 UK study  found that while many self-employed workers were more committed and experienced higher levels of job satisfaction compared to employees, they were often exposed to more work-family life conflict and longer working hours. The more unregulated the market, the higher the competitive pressure tended to be.
Sickness and presenteeism are considerable health risks that tend to be displayed more often by the self-employed – conditions that may cause chronic stress and lead to negative mental or physical health effects.
While reasons for opting into self-employment centre on lowering stress and promoting greater well-being, factors that contribute to mental health occurrence rates and higher mental health risks still remain. Yet, unlike traditional workplaces, where colleagues may spot changes in mood or behaviour or be able to share the workload or responsibility as required, self-employed people generally lack these supports and safeguards. Nor do they have the chance to debrief with a team after a stressful day or project, or the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on team wins.
The nature of self-employment lends itself to a set of challenges including:
- Higher rates of isolation from working autonomously and in many instances remotely
- Increased risk of financial strain through low pay rates , late pay cycles, difficulty with obtaining mortgages and credit lines, poor cash flow or fewer savings
- Susceptibility to bullying and abuse from clients without organisational support or formalised mediation redress schemes
- Overwork and overbooking, leading to isolation from loved ones as workload management takes precedence
- A tendency to drop self-care activities, such as sleep, exercise, proper nutrition and socialising, from the timetable when the time pressure is on
- The continued and prolonged obligation to others via project deadlines, managing competing priorities, and dealing with multiple clients or customers.
Identifying the challenges is a crucial step. Normalising discussion of these challenges and risks may be able to reduce their overall impact. Appropriate training and support can help reduce the impact through better detection and potential management strategies.
The benefits of mental health training in self-employment
Learning the skills to recognise and respond to the early warning signs of an emerging or worsening mental health problem can create the conditions to help support self-employed people on both an individual and an industry level.
While mental health training is often more general in nature, the cornerstones of what helps improve mental health outcomes through early intervention and management are easily adapted to suit self-employed life.
Mental Health First Aid® Australia (MHFA™) training can help with early intervention, prevention and in the management of these challenges by:
- Highlighting the importance of community connection outside of networking or financial return
- Identifying the stressors and factors that reduce mental health in the individual
- Normalising the importance of conversations about the impact of self-employment stressors or financial strain with qualified supports or peers, or as an industry
- Reminding self-employed people that stress has a productivity cost
- Encouraging a focus on self-care as part of a flourishing business strategy for management and growth
- Providing the skills to identify improper treatment, bullying, harassment and other undesirable behaviour – and the language to safely self-advocate and challenge it.
Adopting a proactive approach
Undertaking mental health training also helps self-employed people grow skills that can help the individual and the wider self-employment community by:
- Noticing changes in self and having the language and sense of safety to talk about the experience
Practical advice on how to have a mental health conversation peer-to-peer and help others when stress, strain or thoughts of suicide feature
- Applying mental health first aid principles when managing difficult client relationships and discussions. This can help foster trust between the two parties and help manage stressful situations effectively
- Remaining focused on what is possible and making incremental changes, especially at times of high work volume or when feeling overwhelmed generally
- Advocating for more mental health support for self-employed people through leading by example and showing the tangible benefits.
Additional ideas for ongoing self-employed self-care
Choosing self-employment may come with unique and additional responsibilities and challenges, but it can create freedom, autonomy and the opportunity to create a healthier approach to work – especially if mental health is a cornerstone of the decision-making process.
For example, small changes to routines and thinking can help boost mood, promote well-being and lower stress.
Ways to include mental health as a feature in your workday may include:
- Conducting a walking meeting with a client instead of meeting for coffee or a drink
- Joining peer networking groups in your local area for socialisation and support
- Valuing the positive and restorative value of sleep, exercise and proper nutrition as fuel for problem-solving, creativity and productivity
- Trying out places like coworking facilities or the local library as a way to separate work and home life
- Booking appointments to socialise and exercise ahead of time to ensure they are kept on busy days or when deadlines loom
- Incorporating time for sick days, holidays and interruptions into the working calendar
- Setting aside time to work on marketing or self-promotion projects, industry advocacy or learning new software and techniques in creative, self-directed and obligation-free ways to help remain curious, applied and upskilled
- Taking advantage of virtual communities through self-employment organisations and grassroots communities such as Beyond Blue’s Heads Up, research-focused community Never Not Creative, and the freelance-focused community The Freelance Jungle.
References and Sources
 ShieldSquare Captcha [Internet]. www.globaldata.com. [cited 2023 Feb 20]. Available from: https://www.globaldata.com/data-insights/macroeconomic/number-of-self-employed-in-australia-2137679/
 Willeke K, Janson P, Zink K, Stupp C, Kittel-Schneider S, Berghöfer A, et al. Occurrence of Mental Illness and Mental Health Risks among the Self-Employed: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2021 Aug 15;18(16):8617. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8393630/
 The state of freelance journalism in Australia A MEAA report [Internet]. [cited 2023 Feb 27]. Available from: https://freelancers.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Freelance-campaign-document.pdf
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