Mental health and self-employment: How to self-care

A self-employed business owner taking a break from work, drinking a coffee and looking out of the window.

Being your own boss can be a liberating experience, but it also comes with certain pressures and anxieties. If you’re not careful, over time, this can take a serious toll on your mental health.

In some cases, it becomes a vicious circle; work causes you stress, and this impacts your mental wellbeing. In turn, this affects your ability to run your business effectively, causing you further stress.

However, there are steps you can take to look after your mental health. In this guide, we outline why this issue matters and what you can do to improve self-care.

Why is self-care important for the self-employed?

From the pressure of meeting deadlines, to stress caused by late payments, to feelings of isolation, you might face a range of challenges if you’re self-employed. And it’s down to you to protect your mental health; you don’t have a manager to help you with this.   Self-care can play a vital role here. By using effective self-care techniques, you stand a much better chance of safeguarding your mental wellbeing.  

Self-care tips for mental health

To help you with this, below we set out concrete actions you can take to minimise your stress and anxiety levels, feel more rested, and combat feelings of loneliness.

Schedule breaks and downtime

When you’re an employee, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of rest. For example, workers over the age of 18 are usually entitled to three types of breaks at work.

This includes:

● breaks during the working day itself (a minimum of one uninterrupted break of 20 minutes if you work more than six hours a day)

● a daily rest (which is a minimum of 11 hours rest between working periods)

● a weekly rest (which is either an uninterrupted 24 hours without work per week or an uninterrupted 48 hours per fortnight)

When you’re in charge of your own schedule, you might not give yourself enough downtime, especially if you’re under pressure to meet deadlines. But failing to factor in enough breaks is bad news for your wellbeing. It can quickly lead to increased tiredness and stress, and put you at risk of burnout.

So, even though you might have to fight your instincts to just carry on, it’s crucial that you build breaks into your schedule. For example, this could include making sure you give yourself a proper lunch break each day, and having a rule that you don’t check emails or take business calls after a certain time in the evening.

Keep sleep, hydration, exercise and diet in mind

You can’t look after your mental wellbeing properly if you don’t take care of your physical health. This means making sure you eat a healthy, balanced diet, drink plenty of hydrating fluids and - crucially - get enough sleep. We all know that after a bad night’s rest, we tend to be more irritable and less mentally alert. And over time, the effects of a lack of sleep can become much more serious, increasing our risk of problems such as anxiety and depression.

It’s therefore vital to make sure you get enough rest each night. If you regularly struggle to fall asleep, there might be some simple changes you can make to your routine to address this problem.

For example, try to avoid caffeine, particularly in the later afternoon and evening. Cutting down on screen time in the later evening can help too, as the blue light emitted by screens is thought to suppress production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. You might also find that factoring in time for relaxing activities such as yoga, taking a warm bath or reading before bed helps.

Know the signs of ‘burnout’

In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised the term ’burnout’ as an occupational phenomenon. It describes a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur if you experience stress in your job over a long period of time. It’s important to be aware of the signs of this condition, and if you notice them in yourself, take action to reduce your stress.

Common signs include:

● Feeling drained or tired most of the time
● Feeling overwhelmed
● Feeling defeated, trapped or helpless
● Experiencing self-doubt
● Feeling isolated
● Taking longer than usual to complete tasks
● Having a negative, cynical outlook

Put financial safeguards in place

Understandably, financial concerns are a common cause of anxiety and stress among the self-employed. There are steps you can take to help you feel more confident and in control of this aspect of your business though. For example, making sure you have suitable business insurance in place is key.

While you can’t always prevent problems from occurring, you can ensure that you have financial protection in case the worst should happen. For instance, if you regularly come into contact with members of the public, you may benefit from taking out public liability cover. And if you employ anyone, you are required by law to have employers’ liability protection in place.

Another way to ease concerns over money is to try to build up a financial buffer. Having savings in place to help you pay your bills during dry spells or in case you face an unexpected expense that’s not covered by insurance can give you greater confidence about the future.

The threat of late customer payment is also high on many self-employed people’s list of concerns, and it’s not hard to see why. Research carried by IPSE, a non-profit association dedicated to the self-employed, found that 60% of these people have experienced delays in client payments. It may not be possible to eliminate this risk, but there are things you can do to minimise it. For example, it may help to insist on a deposit from customers up-front, and to agree on milestone payments as projects progress. You could also provide clients with incentives to pay promptly, such as discounts for early payment. Check out our guide to dealing with late payments for more tips.

Stay on top of business admin

Running any type of business requires admin, and often a lot of it. It’s easy to put admin tasks off, particularly if you’re under pressure. But doing this can store up problems for the future, and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. This means it pays to stay on top of your paperwork. To do this, try to get into a routine of doing a certain amount of admin work every day. Even if this is only around 20 minutes or so, it could stop your paperwork from mounting up.

It also helps to invest in the right software and tools. For example, accounting software can speed up your finance processing. Review your filing and reporting processes occasionally too to see if you can identify ways to improve and streamline them. And in some cases, it may make sense to outsource admin tasks to specialist third parties.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Last but by no means least, don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family and professional connections for help and support. You should never feel alone dealing with the pressures of being self-employed.

Professional networking events can be a great source of support and can help you to feel more connected and less isolated. For example, the networking events run by the Federation of Small Businesses are open to both members and non-members and give you a chance to access advice, support and guidance - and to speak to people in similar situations to you. There may also be local business networking groups that you can join.

Simply opening up to your loved ones when you feel stressed could be a big help too, and you might benefit from speaking to a professional counsellor if you are struggling to find ways to cope.

If you feel you need urgent mental health support, it’s really important to seek help immediately. Online resources include mental health charity Mind’s crisis page, and you can contact the Samaritans by phone, email or online chat. You can also contact local NHS urgent helplines.

Business insurance from £5 a month