Contract work pressures will come and go but, ContractorUK readers, your mental health isn’t replaceable

It’s a uniquely turbulent time for the UK economy, and the pressure on businesses caused by COVID-19 shows no sign of letting up, thanks to increasing infection rates and a government largely playing catch-up.

With limited government support available for most contractors (whether you’re umbrella or limited), many independent professionals are facing the prospect of more uncertainty regarding their contracts, future earnings and way of working. 

Perfectly on cue, Saturday is World Mental Health Day. And with a contractor workforce that’s endured the Loan Charge, the on-off then on again of IR35 reform, plus the pandemic, this important day is not before time, writes Joanne Harris, technical commercial manager at SJD Accountancy.

'Help me'

Combine all these contractor sector-specific pressures with the current economic difficulties, and it’s little wonder that loneliness, isolation from working alone and remote worker and associated family issues are increasingly the subject of many a contractor’s LinkedIn posts. Threads on the business networking site seem to be less ‘help me find work,’ and more just plain old, ‘help me.’

In our day-to-day, we too have seen a detrimental effect on the state of mind and wellbeing of independent ‘strivers,’ who, according to a recent study, are almost twice more likely (than 9-to-5 staff) to struggle with mental health issues directly because of their atypical  employment. So it’s essential on Saturday, but beyond too, for contractors to prioritise their own wellbeing and seek advice and guidance as soon as they suspect it’s needed.

Ongoing industry fears around COVID-19

A survey by us reveals that a hefty two-thirds of contractors are worried about the effects of COVID-19 on their business. Oh, and if that’s not bad enough, even more --  68 per cent -- continue to be concerned about the upcoming IR35 reform from April 6th 2021. No wonder a petition which has attracted more than 4,000 signatures in just 24 hours calls for the new off-payroll framework to be shelved until the covid-19 crisis is resolved.

So, as is the case for many PAYE workers, the current climate for contractors is particularly tough, but it got worse thanks to the chancellor’s Winter Economy Plan offering very little comfort for limited company owners -- and their SME clients.

Furthermore, contractors have already been forced to deal with several other issues that predated the coronavirus pandemic, like the 2019 Loan Charge – a Treasury/HMRC policy which has been linked to the suicides of seven contractors. So at least half a dozen people have found the mental health effects of a tax rule so damaging, that they have taken their own lives and are no longer with us.

The loan charge has drawn criticism from MPs, lawyers, professional bodies and those affected, many of whom face bankruptcy. A report compiled by a group of MPs in 2019 suggested that almost 40 per cent of people facing the loan charge had seriously considered suicide, highlighting the severity of this tax policy and the unique impact it has had on people’s mental health.

IR35 changes spell further uncertainty

With less than six months to go, it’s essential for contractors to prepare thoroughly for the complex and potentially career-changing off-payroll rules, and to ensure they’re fully educated on what the legislative changes mean for their current and future contracts.

But that might be easier said than done given the stress it involves. For those worried about being determined inside IR35 post-April 2021, we’d say -- you are not alone. Actually there’s an abundance of resources on the websites of ContractorUK, SJD Accountancy and other trusted, impartial sources, to help you determine the best method of progression for you.

One thing, though, that’s worth stating because it often gets lost in the ether. It’s important to remember that it is the responsibility for determining the IR35 status of an assignment that is changing, rather than the rules around what determines IR35 status. If your assignment has been assessed as outside IR35 prior to the reforms and there are no changes to your contract and working practices, this should remain the case after the reforms. However, communication is key and it is worth speaking to your end-hirer now about how they will manage the changes. Just take that already-scrunched up stress ball with you for the conversation!

We know there are lots of businesses out there that haven’t yet fully grasped what the April 2021 off-payroll rules will mean in practice, which has resulted in some ‘blanket bans’ on PSCs being issued. But there is still time for education and contractors can also play a key role in helping to ensure the businesses they work with understand the new rules and what is required of them.

Samaritans research

We work very closely with the Samaritans. They have been our chosen charity partner for the last two years, because like us they understand the importance of helping contractors to consider and prioritise their mental health and wellbeing.

We run regular workshops with them to help our teams understand more about mental wellbeing – to support each other as well as contractors on our books.

According to Samaritans research, its phoneline volunteers say that callers are generally more anxious and more distressed than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety, in particular, has increased among callers month-on-month, even as the coronavirus lockdown has eased. Many callers, who are worried about the virus, also mention other related issues, such as isolation, mental ill-health and joblessness.

Arguably just as much as other parts of the economy, the financial implications of the outbreak of COVID-19 are present within the contracting sector, with some contracts being cancelled outright, or postponed. So Samaritans would like to remind people and contractors -- please make a point of checking in and supporting anyone who might be struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

At a time when looking after our mental health and connecting with others is more important than ever, the suicide prevention volunteers through ContractorUK would like to share useful information to help people spot the signs that someone isn’t okay. Specifically, anybody worried about a loved one, friend, colleague or acquaintance can find a wealth of resources and advice on supporting those who are struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts on the charity’s website.  

Final thoughts

No longer working in silos, the contractor and freelancer community needs to inspire action to promote the message of good mental health for all, while also helping to build more awareness of what to look for when it comes to mental health struggles, particularly among those like themselves who work independently and therefore sometimes alone.

Contracting has always been a career choice where mental wellbeing needs greater consideration because of the typically remote set-up. Therefore, World Mental Health Day on October 10th is the perfect opportunity to shine a light on the importance of encouraging positive mental health and wellbeing among the freelancing and independent business community. Contractors, please play your part.

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Written by Joanne Harris

Joanne joined the Optionis Group in 2009 as an account manager, working closely with our agency partners. After developing an interest in the technical aspects of the role, she took the opportunity to train as a chartered accountant. She is now fully qualified, and a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).
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