Contractors' IR35 advice 'should come with a mental health warning'

Strategies and policies that contractors self-impose to help keep IR35 at bay are potentially harming their mental health and wellbeing.

Avoiding being part of a team, or shunning team-building activities, as an IR35 adviser has recommended, is often par for the course for contractors to head off being ‘part and parcel.'

But having restricted access to teammates, and even HR -- a unit PSCs try to bypass to help cement their outside IR35 status, can come back to bite contractors, warns Nixon Williams.

'Where to turn'

“When times get tough, it can sometimes be difficult [for contractors] to know where to turn for help,” says James Lawton-Hill, a director at the accountancy firm.

“Contractors have less professional support around them…[and less] access [to] the services offered by the firms they work with, which can make them vulnerable to workplace stress.”

Holiday pay and sick pay – cited in the Adams and Kelly IR35 cases as signposts to IR35 – are similarly off-limits to bonafide contractors, the Institute of Directors points out.

'Stress'

“These factors have a real potential to increase work-related stress and can therefore have a negative impact on individuals’ mental wellbeing,” the IoD wrote in a report this month.

And the sheer nature of an independent B2B engagement, potentially between a single-person consultancy and a big-name company, further intensifies what contractors can be up against.

“Trying to impress in a contracting role, a freelance project or growing their own business…[can put the] self-employed…under a lot of pressure,” says Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of the Samaritans.

'No-one they can talk to'

She added: “Often they may feel that they have no-one they can talk to about their professional worries. This can lead to stress and problems with mental health.”

These exact symptoms were spotted on Monday in a Deloitte study of fathers who work flexibly, with 37% suffering negative health effects from trying to balance work with parenting.

While contractors might not relate to employer-sanctioned ‘home days,’ PSCs and ‘flexi-fathers’ can both suffer from ‘out of sight out of mind’ syndrome, which lets mental anguish continue unchecked.

'Double-edged sword'

“When it comes to workers’ mental wellbeing, remote working is a double-edged sword,” explains the author of the IoD’s report Kamile Stankute.

“While potentially facilitating an improved work-life balance, it can also lead to feelings of isolation and can blur the boundary between work and leisure. [And] it’s often the visible signs of stress that employers are able to pick up on, and without these it can be trickier to keep track of workers’ welfare.”

In the report, ‘Managing Mental Health in Changing Business Models,’ a firm which contributed highlights the value in something contractors often forego -- visibility that lets others intervene.

'Unusual quietness'

The report says: “One of the interviewees cited a specific case of a staff member experiencing mental health issues where it was the visible signs of changing behaviour – including unusual quietness and increased amount of time spent looking at their phone – that enabled the leadership team to spot that something was wrong and to trigger a conversation with the affected employee.

“The managing director of the company where it took place commented that they would have not been able to pick these signs up as easily, if at all, if the person was working remotely.”

More positively for contractors, there is a piece of freshly issued advice designed to help with mental health – which, for once, can also actually help combat IR35 too.

“Don’t say ‘yes’ straight away to new work,” says Nixon Williams in a series of tips to help beat the blues, co-authored with the Samaritans, but indirectly echoing best-practice advice by IR35 expert John Hill about ‘other work that crops up.’

'Wellbeing tips'

The remaining ‘wellbeing tips’ for contractors, drawn up between the accountancy firm and the charity, in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week, include:

  • Pace yourself

If you’re working in an office environment, remember that your inbox will always be full. So, don’t try and clear everything in a day.

  • Send/Receive. Again?!

Avoid constantly checking your emails. Turn off alerts and check them every few hours so you can get on with your work. Email is not an objective or an outcome!

  • Stroll or, if not, socialise

Instead of emailing another person in your office, get up and talk to them or schedule a meeting. If that proves difficult because they are in a different location, try a phone call, Skype or FaceTime meeting instead to boost your social interaction.

  • Eat, stop, refresh

Make sure you have a proper lunchtime, take breaks regularly and have a routine for stopping work at the end of the day. It’s easy to let these things slide when you’re trying to impress, but it’s important to try and maintain a good work-life balance.

Editor's Note: The charity Mind offers advice and guidance on how to be mentally healthy at work, including techniques on how to cope with workplace stress or anxiety, and where to get support. 

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Written by Simon Moore

Simon writes impartial news and engaging features for the contractor industry, covering, IR35, the loan charge and general tax and legislation.
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