Stressed out. Burnt out. Most people's mental health has taken a pounding since the world was turned upside down, and a lot of contractors are now running on empty. We examine the effects of burnout and share some advice on how to tackle it.

Contractors with niche STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) expertise are highly sought after in today’s labour market and many people choose this route for the flexibility and autonomy it offers. But working as a contractor can also lead to stress and exhaustion for the same reasons. When we asked contractors whether they had ever experienced burnout, more than three-quarters (76%) said they had in a LinkedIn poll. A survey by contractor body IPSE echoes our findings. It found that the average freelance worker takes just 24 days’ holiday per year, four fewer than UK workers’ statutory annual entitlement.

Why is this the case? Flexibility to move onto a new project is mostly an advantage, but uncertainty around whether this contract will materialise or you’re going to be signed up for longer with your current client can lead to sleepless nights. When it came to reasons why contractors don’t take as much holiday, IPSE’s survey revealed that 60% worry about future periods of little or no work, 57% don’t want to lose money when they could be working, and 46% don’t want to refuse new projects. On average, freelancers would like to take 38 days off a year, 14 more than they already take.

This reluctance to take a break from work could mean many contractors are at increased risk of burnout. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised this as an occupational phenomenon, defining the term as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Some of the factors listed by WHO in its definition of burnout could arguably be more severe among contractors: feeling mental distance from an employer; unclear job expectations; not aligning with a company’s values; and stress about deadlines – to name just a few.

“Self-employed workers are often more susceptible to burnout than permanent workers,” says Andy Chamberlain, director of policy at IPSE. “For instance, freelancers don’t have annual leave or holiday pay, and can therefore find themselves without the funds to afford a week or two without earning an income. Furthermore, unlike full-time employees, contractors can’t rely on colleagues to complete projects when they’re on holiday or out of office. Instead, they have to keep on working, if they want to complete a project in time – risking their own mental health as a result.”

Look for forward-thinking companies

And while some forward-thinking companies will offer access to wellbeing or other benefits to their freelance workforce, this is not always the case. But it is something to consider when choosing your next client. Permanent employees often access perks such as gym membership, employee assistance programmes and counselling as part of their compensation package, all of which can help workers deal with heightened stress. They also have the security of knowing they have rights such as paid sick leave, or in some cases private medical insurance to fall back on, if they need to step away from their role.

Book time out to unwind

So what strategies are available if you feel that familiar build of stress? “There are many tips that contractors can adopt to avoid burnout,” suggests Chamberlain. “One such method is being firm with clients and booking out time in the diary to unwind. This will help stop freelancers from letting work overtake their life, by ensuring that they have a few hours a day or a week to spend on something else.”

Often, being aware that you could be at risk of burnout is a valuable first step: if nurturing activities such as taking exercise, eating well and getting good quality sleep are falling by the wayside, this could be a sign that stress is about to overwhelm you. At this point, small changes, including taking a walk during a phone catch-up or rearranging hours with a client could make all the difference. Some organisations may offer access to mindfulness apps such as Headspace or Calm (or invest in them yourself for a small monthly fee) – these can help dampen the ‘noise’ our brains produce when we’re highly stressed. From a financial perspective, putting aside your own pot of holiday pay or money for a reward will give you something to look forward to without worrying about the cost.

Factor in small tasks and realistic goals

It may seem counterproductive but formulating a plan or schedule can help manage the overthinking that tends to come with high levels of stress. This could be short term items such as how long you intend to devote to focusing on a particular problem, through to longer term planning around how you might decompress when a particular project is over. Having a plan will ensure that small tasks don’t get missed and therefore heighten stress, while realistic goals will help work feel more manageable. Separating work and home life may feel more of a challenge if you’re in a hybrid or remote working situation and operating from a home office, but it’s important to embed rituals into your day that draw a line between working time and home time. Closing email apps, building a ‘commute’ into your day (which could even be a walk to the supermarket), or turning off notifications are all workable strategies.

Alongside tactics contractors can introduce to prevent burnout, support from employers could also play a vital role. IPSE campaigns for organisations to offer the same levels of support for their self-employed colleagues as those on permanent payroll – this could include extending policies such as shared parental leave and parental pay to freelancers or allowing them access to savings schemes or private medical insurance, so they can build up cover for sick days or periods without work.

Our clients rely heavily on the talents of our contractor community. For more support on contract work or finding an employer that’s right for you, contact us today.