Prioritising my mental health has come at a cost - literally

5 November 2020

No one really enjoys a job interview. They can be unpredictable, embarrassing, and no matter how many times people tell you, ‘You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you,’ – they never fail to turn even the bravest amongst us into quivering wrecks. And yet every day they continue to happen, so we bite the bullet, take the plunge and focus on all those other metaphors about climbing mountains and knocking down walls.

Except not all of us do, not all of us can. Metaphors don’t work when it comes to mental health.

Leaving university

When I was in my final year of university, I started to really struggle with depression and anxiety. It got harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning, more and more scary just to open the front door. So, when my studies came to an end and I finally had to step out into the big wide world of work, I couldn’t. It was too much, it was too scary. It didn’t matter that I had the qualifications and the experience because I couldn’t even face the interviews. 

And the interviews are really just the tip of the iceberg. The corporate speak, the rigid 9:00 to 5:00 work schedule, and some industries’ hesitancy to station offices outside of major cities, immediately present barriers for people living with mental health problems. Like many others, these barriers were too much for me, and after years of dealing with the shame and loss of confidence I felt from not being able to face them, I eventually turned to self-employment. 

Self-employment: weighing up the pros and cons

Being self-employed  made it possible for me to earn a living at a time when I was struggling to even leave the house. Being able to choose my own hours, take days off when needed, and work remotely gave me a flexibility that full-time employment wouldn’t provide. At least here I could dip my toe back into the world of work at my own pace and ensure my mental health remained a priority. 

My mental health remains a priority today, though thankfully not out of the same level of necessity. I can safely say my mental health would not have improved so much over the past few years if I hadn’t gone down this route. I am now in a better place than I have been at almost any other point in my life, and I cannot see how I would have progressed this far if I hadn’t had the freedom and flexibility of self-employment. 

I am, however, incredibly aware that this flexibility and freedom comes at a cost, literally. Minimal career progression, lower-levels of income and lack of pension or insurance schemes for the self-employed has left me, like many others with similar stories, financially worse-off. And, as much as I am grateful, I know that for the hours I put in I still don’t earn nearly as much as someone in full-time employment would – nor do I have anywhere near the same level of job stability. When you’re self-employed and rely on work from others to keep paying the bills, it’s very difficult to plan for tomorrow. One misstep and what might previously have been a reliable source of income can suddenly disappear.

A better system?

In a perfect world, the flexibility of freelancing would be available to those in full-time employment. If the pandemic of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that every one of us has another life going on in the background, and regardless of targets and deadlines, family, security and most importantly health have to come first. Perhaps the first step towards helping those who struggle on a daily basis with illness, whether mental or physical, is in recognising that at the end of day we’re all only human. Just remembering and understanding that could go a long way.

With that in mind, I have one final point: I’m one of the lucky ones. When I couldn’t work, I had someone to lean on for support. When I couldn’t get out of bed, I didn’t have to worry about how I would make next month’s rent or how my benefits might be stripped from me for not making that day’s appointment at the Job Centre. So, yes, the employment and benefits system needs to change and I know looking into some of the things I’ve mentioned here could help many people, but this has to just be the start, just the tip of yet another iceberg, and metaphors won’t work here either.

Find out more about our work on the mental health income gap here.

If you would like to share your story like Lydia, join our Research Community here.