When people decide to go self-employed, they usually cite benefits such as being the master of their own destiny, earning more money and having more freedom. One thing that isn’t always high on the list of considerations, though, is the impact on their health.
Staying healthy in a world moving faster than ever is tricky enough when you’re working nine-to-five. When you’re juggling an entire business alone, seeking out customers, promoting yourself and juggling all your personal responsibilities, eating some fruit seems like a pretty menial consideration.
That said, your health – both mental and physical – are still of vital importance, even when it feels like the world is spinning too fast to get a handle on them. In this article, we’ll be exploring the different areas you need to consider, plus a few tips on how to keep yourself in top shape.
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If you work in an office, chances are you’ve taken at least one sick day over the past year. With all those different bodies circulating in a room, the common cold plus other nasties are certain to do the rounds. You might have even been off longer with a more serious physical health issue, for example, a broken limb, torn ligament, or a surgical procedure.
Physical issues are easy enough to speak to your place of work about: “Boss, I’ve got appendicitis, I won’t be in for a while.” But what if it isn’t an external or visible health matter that stops you feeling okay to work?
Everyone is affected by mental health as well as physical health. Considering how many hours business owners and freelancers put into their working lives, it’s unsurprising that workplace and working environments have an effect on our mental wellbeing.
Searches on Google for the term ‘mental health’ have shot up by nearly 40% in the past two years, with ‘depression at work’ seeing a rise of almost 30%. It seems the public are waking up to the topic of mental health and opening up to discussions around this, especially when they are potentially correlated to work.
What does mental health mean?
Sometimes phrased as emotional health or wellbeing, mental health affects the way you think, feel, and behave. Around one in four people in Britain will experience mental health challenges in their lifetime. This can range from common mental health issues including anxiety, stress, and depression, to rarer forms such as bipolar and schizophrenia.
According to the Mental Health Foundation having good mental health means you’re able to make the most of your potential, cope with life, and play a full part in your family, workplace, and community.
Whether you’re experiencing good or challenging mental health is something only you can be aware of. We all have periods of feeling sad, angry, or irritated by our work environments and working life – however, for sufferers of mental health issues, these feelings can run a lot deeper and last more than just a few hours or days.
How can businesses support mental health?
Mind – a registered charity supporting mental health awareness – found that 30% of employees disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed”. One of the first steps a business can do to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health is to openly talk about it.
If you’re an employee of a small business and feel that you’re experiencing a mental health issue, the best thing you can do is make a connection with your boss, or a member of staff who you feel comfortable discussing it with. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing the issue face to face, consider sending an email or writing a letter expressing the issue at hand.
According to Mind, a good message to send out to employees is that mental health will be treated in exactly the same way as physical health. If an employee breaks their arm and is out of work for a month, an employee experiencing a mental health issue will be treated with the same empathy and discretion.
The Equality Act 2010 is in place to ensure that businesses don’t discriminate against people with mental health issues, and protects those with a mental health issue when applying for jobs. The Equality Act is there for a reason and to give reassurance – remember this when discussing mental health issues with an employer.
But I’m my own boss – what can I do about mental health in the workplace?
Make time for yourself. Do you have a good work/life balance? Are you taking the time and space your brain and body deserve? The New Economics Foundation researched wellbeing and found that the five key elements to a healthier mindset involved connecting with people, being active, taking notice, learning, and giving.
If you feel that as a self-employed person you are experiencing mental health challenges, speak to your GP. If this isn’t an option, make time to speak with a friend or family member who might be able to help guide you to a supportive solution or assistance.
Actively taking steps to make your business more mental health aware can not only save you money in absenteeism, but put yourself as a front-runner in breaking the taboo surrounding mental health conversations in the workplace.
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You probably imagined that with the freedom to plan your own schedule, you’d be fitter and healthier than ever. You dreamt of starting the day with an early morning jog, perhaps fit in a lunchtime swim, and with no office biscuit tin to tempt you, your diet would improve too.
But then reality bit and between hitting deadlines and multi-tasking as marketing manager, finance director and ops controller, finding the time for healthy eating and exercise fell by the wayside. And now you’re mainlining coffee, counting Jaffa cakes as one of your five-a-day, and a lack of fresh air has left you paler than the cast of Twilight.
An unhealthy lifestyle is bad news for freelancers. With no sick pay or duvet days, it’s crucial that you stay fit and at the top of your game. Here are some healthy habits you can get into to boost productivity and maximise your success.
You already know the rules. Eat regularly. Choose the healthy stuff. Go easy on the chocolate and crisps. Get your five-a-day and drink plenty water. It really is that simple.
Get Your Zzz’s
Burning the midnight oil once in a while isn’t a problem – but if you’re pulling all-nighters on a regular basis, you need to stop. A lack of sleep can lead to irritability and a lack of concentration – so get some rest.
Enjoy the Fresh Air
If you work from home, it’s easy to go all day without leaving the house. But natural daylight triggers the feel-good hormone serotonin which is crucial for your emotional wellbeing. A breath of fresh air will also give you an oxygen boost, helping you stay alert.
Socialise in the Real World
The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, particularly if you work from home every day and only interact with clients by phone or email. So get out and meet people. This could be as simple as seeing a friend for lunch, or joining a networking or social group in your local area.
Finding the time to exercise can be tough but it’s important for good health. And the great thing about working from home is that you have more time to fit exercise into your routine. Without the morning and evening commute, you’ve probably gained at least an hour a day. And because you’re not tied to a 9 ‘til 5 working day, you can take advantage of off-peak membership at your local gym.
Try including these activities in your daily routine and see the difference it makes to your wellbeing and productivity. Got a healthy freelancing tip? Post it in the comment section below.
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When you spend the majority of your working day staring at a computer screen, or reading pages of hard-copy text, your eyes can start to feel the strain. Is this just a drawback of desk-based work? Or is there something that can be done about it?
Here a few tips you can try out at home to stave off eye strain.
The Workout: Eye Exercises
One of the main reasons why we suffer from eye strain in the workplace is because our eyes aren’t getting enough exercise. In the history of humanity, it has never been a natural trait for us to stare at an object just a meter away for such long periods of time. Our eyes aren’t biologically developed to handle such a scenario. It’s like sitting still for too long a period – it leads to stiffness, and ultimately muscular degeneration.
Here’s a selection of possible exercises for you try out:
- Side-to-side – Pretty simple. With your head still, switch your vision back and forth from far left to far right, like watching tennis without the swivel of the head
- Up and down – As above, but… up and down
- Diagonal to diagonal – As above, but… well, you know
- Eye-rolling – Roll your eyes 360 degrees clockwise and then anti-clockwise
- Scan the horizon – Whatever inanimate objects are in your vicinity, follow their outline with your eye. The important thing is to make your eyes follow their outlines and keep them moving
- Blinkety-blink – Apparently, when studying a computer screen, we blink less than we would usually. Have a crazy blinking session from time to time.
These exercises can be done at various times of the day to suit you, so make the most of your ‘natural breaks’ during the working day. The number of repetitions is down to you, but generally the more the better. Here some other suggestions:
20, 20, 20 rule
This is a theory that for every 20 minutes of computer activity, you should spend 20 seconds gazing into the distance about 20 yards away.
If you spend your breaks outside of the office, then the glaring sun will do little to ease your eyes during the interval. Put on a pair of shades. (And after that, learn how to suck eggs.) Wearing shades also allows you to perform eye exercises during your break without looking like some discombobulated eye fiend.
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Remember on New Year’s Eve, when you were telling everyone who would listen – and yourself – that this year was the time to finally start getting your money’s worth out of that gym membership? Don’t fret! It’s perfectly understandable that your attendance quickly subsided as soon as the inevitable cold snap kicked in. Maybe next year, eh?
But what if there was a way of living up to that ‘#NewYearNewMe’ gubbins without the need for expensive equipment? Something you can do to look after yourself from the comfort of your own office? Well, you can surely by this point tell where we’re going with this…
It’s well documented that yoga makes you more alert, gives you better sleep and improves your immune system – all tremendously helpful for someone under the pressure of running a business. There’s also some evidence, according to the NHS website, that regular yoga practice is beneficial not only for people with stress or high blood pressure, but also heart disease, aches and pains – including lower back pain and depression.
Sitting down = ‘the new smoking?’
This claim may seem a tad hyperbolic, but research by the American College of Cardiology linked prolonged sitting to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even early death. US-based ‘Doctor to the stars’ David Agus has even claimed that 5+ hours of sedentary sitting is the health equivalent of smoking a pack and a quarter of cigarettes.
If you haven’t got the work/life balance down as a freelancer, contractor or small business owner, you may find yourself sitting at a desk through your lunch break and way past your regular working hours, doing insurmountable damage to your spine over time.
Thus, it isn’t just hairy folks in tie-dye, Hollywood celebs and Dhalsim (that stretchy guy from the Street Fighter games) who reap the benefits of the ancient discipline; the business world is beginning to catch up.
“Just standing up or doing some stretching or physical activity every 30 minutes greatly increases blood circulation and will aid productivity” writes veteran CEO and small business trainer Melissa Thompson.
It may sound bizarre, but clearing out a bit of space in the workplace for staff to strike some poses could seriously boost productivity.
“Yoga’s meditation and breathing exercises help to silence the noise and clear the clutter, letting you be more mindful, alert and focused” says Thompson. “As yoga helps you better concentrate and focus, it also opens the mind so the creative juices and energy can flow.”
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Working long hours is a sure-fire way to get ahead in your career.
A glance towards Wall Street where, for decades, junior bankers have slogged it out in the rat race, forgoing their lives for a slice of that sweet success pie, proves that if you really want something, you’ve got to put the hours in. Right?
Not in this decade.
A study, carried out at the University of Padova in Italy last year, has shown workaholism to be detrimental to employee’s health, family life and performance in the office. The study found that compulsive overworking leads to exhaustion, which affects focus and performance and often leads to depression and loss of cognitive function. In Japan they even have a word for so-called salarymen, those working for large corporations – Karōshi literally translates to “death from overwork.”
The efforts employees put into work must be followed by periods of physical and mental rest to ensure optimum health and functionality, otherwise their work will inevitably suffer and they will actually become worse at their job. Workaholism is also associated with increased sickness absences – lack of rest inevitably affects the immune system.
Don’t believe us? Let’s examine the facts.
1. It’s dangerous for your health
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) identifies overworking – working more than 48 hours a week – as one of the greatest hazards at work. Adults working more than 11 hours a day were found to have more than 67% higher risk of developing coronary heart disease than those working eight hours.
2. It kills productivity
Fifty percent of employees are less productive as a result of stress. A recent survey has found that 68% of safety reps state stress as being the biggest concern in the workplace. This is particularly prevalent in jobs with high responsibility, such as central government and healthcare, where the expectation is often placed on working long hours.
3. Increased chance of alcoholism
People who work long hours (50-plus hours a week) are more likely to develop an alcohol-abuse problem.
Luckily, more and more businesses are taking note and adjusting their policies accordingly. Binge working is no longer in-vogue and increasingly more companies offer flexible working as part of their package – work/life balance is gaining greater focus.
For the business culture to shift to one of healthy work-life balance, employers and their employees must remember that workaholism – now grouped together with alcoholism as a dangerous modern addiction – leads to inefficient and ineffective workers.
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Working whenever you want is one of the greatest things about being in our sector. You have as much freedom as you desire. However, working at different times of the day compared to a regular 9-5 employee can have an adverse affect on our maintaining harmony between work and play, not to mention our sleeping patterns.
Sometimes we’re up burning the midnight oil, sometimes we’re awake at 5am working on a tight deadline, and what with family commitments and relationships thrown into the balance, making sure we get the 7-9 hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation can be hard to come by.
Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi and Bill Clinton claim(ed) to get by on less than four hours, whereas Bill Gates, Arianna Huffington and Jeff Bezos need between 7-8 hours kip each night. Whilst it’s clear that some may be able to function on less than the recommended amount, are the majority of us getting enough to run businesses successfully?
The need for sleep is controlled by our own internal body clock. Known as the circadian rhythm, it “regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day” according to the Sleep Foundation.
Sleep for success
If chronic illness isn’t enough to encourage you to sleep better, think about the effects that a lack of sleep could be having on your business.
Tiredness and irritability aside, productivity isn’t going to be at its highest if you’re about to nod off at any given moment. Inc.com state that “The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.” How can you ensure a peaceful nights rest over the coming months?
Kill the caffeine
Caffeine has a half life of between four and six hours. This means if you’re knocking back a large coffee (200mg caffeine) at 3pm to get yourself out of the post-lunch slump, half of that will still be buzzing around your bloodstream at 9pm, potentially making it harder to nod off.
It might sound like we’re teaching a Grandmother how to suck eggs but cutting down on caffeine can seriously help your sleep. A morning cup of Joe is fine, but anything after that could majorly impact your REM sleep, leaving you feeling groggy and sluggish the following day. And guess what? You’ll probably pump yourself full of more caffeine to get over that feeling and the vicious cycle begins.
Switch off the tech
“Blue light at night, businesses owner’s delight” is not how the famous proverb goes. Engulfing ourselves in artificial light before sleepytime can be damaging to our circadian rhythm.
Technology emits blue wavelengths – known as blue light – that during the day keep us alert and upbeat. At night time, this blue light still stimulates us and suppresses “the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms” meaning that we don’t get the proper signals that send ourselves to sleep.
Putting down your tech a few hours before bedtime can help improve sleep. Why not read an actual book instead of a tablet, or a newspaper instead of an App on your phone? Firing off that important work email can also wait until morning, too.
Nail a routine
It can be hard to have a consistent routine whilst freelancing or running your own business. More often than not you’re fitting in work around other commitments and adhering to clients’ needs. But, giving yourself a set bedtime and rising time each day will help set a consistent internal body clock and allow for a more fulfilling night’s sleep.
Choose a time where you naturally feel tired. Personally, I’m very content sleeping at around 10.30pm and rising around 6.30am, whereas others may benefit from a 1am bedtime and sleeping until 9am.
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Getting away and changing your surroundings is a cathartic and energising experience for many – but when you’re self employed, the days of taking holidays can seem far removed.
A UK-based study shows one in four freelance workers take no annual holiday at all. Of those who do, 45% take their work with them. Crunch’s Safety in Numbers research in 2018 found that the self-employed were taking less than 14-days holiday a year. Scary figures.
If you’re self-employed, taking a holiday can feel like a self-harming exercise that loses you work and makes you look unreliable. This couldn’t be any further from the truth, of course, and you always need to remember to take care of yourself before anything else. It isn’t selfish to take care of yourself, after all.
If you’d like more information on holidays and how to take them when you’re self-employed, check out our “Holidays when self-employed: Can you get away with getting away?” article.