I’m the boss of me – mental health and self-employment

An image of Harry Truman's desk sign saying 'The Buck Stops Here'

Image http://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeontheedge/ used under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

‘I’d love to be my own boss’. No hassles, no one breathing down your neck, no working when you don’t want to; it seems like a wonderful chance for freedom. Mark Brown asks: what’s being self-employed really like? (This article appears in the Spring 2013 edition of One in Four)

Our current government wishes to foster a more entrepreneurial cultures and is suggesting that self-employment is one of the routes people can take away from claiming benefits. In an environment where traditional jobs can be few and far between, is self-employment a viable option for people with mental health difficulties?

Claire Jones has been through the experience both of starting a business and self-employment. She’s also an Occupational Therapist by trade and experiences mental health difficulties,so has seen the question of self-employment both from personal experience and with an OT’s eye for what help, support and adaptations people need to succeed.

“The big advantage of self-employment for people who have mental health difficulties is that you are the expert in what your own capabilities are,” she says. “You are the person who knows what time of the day you’re best working at, how many days a week you can work, whether of not there are things coming up in your particular timeline that mean you might need to take some time out for work. If you’re able to able to plan your time, accommodate your condition and do that with a minimum of support from outside I think that self-employment can be great.”

“My plan was to have an NHS career but that hasn’t quite worked out and I love what I do now”, she says.  During her own process of recovery from mental health difficulties, Claire was very involved with creative activities: “Not just my own, either. I got really enthused by other people doing them. I got together with a bunch of people and founded an art shop, where we would collect things that people were making and sell them.” By selling drinks and cakes; “essentially we built our own day centre and funded it by selling paintings and things. It wasn’t a viable business model, it didn’t go on forever but that was a really critical turning point for a lot of people who have gone on to do great things in mental health.”

During that period she also became involved in learning and practising complementary therapies and had a period of self-employment founding and working in the shop and “a kind of simultaneous period of self-employment learning and developing skills in complementary therapies and body work which then went on for much longer than the shop.”

The Big Question

For Claire, the biggest question is “whether or not you can make a living doing what you want to do and what you feel able to do.” She makes a distinction between self-employment selling your time and skills directly to someone else and setting up your own business to create something that people will buy: “Entrepreneurs are people who develop things to sell, whether that’s a new service, a product or things that you make. If you’re selling your time it is always dependant on you being available to give that, there is no way around it. You are only able to sell the time you have available. If things are going to effect the amount of time you have available – like having appointments at the hospital, periods of time where you really have to prioritise self-care, other demands on you like caring responsibilities or whatever – all of this cuts into the potential number of hours of your time that you can have to sell or promote what you do. On the other hand, if you create a business that is creating a thing, there’s a point where you can in theory step back from that and that thing can continue to be sold. Personally, I like to sell my time.”

What are you selling?

Whether selling your time or selling things, you’ll need to work out exactly what it is you’re selling and who is going to buy it. Unlike working for someone else, you’ll have to find your customers and you’ll have to make difficult decisions about what you need to actually carry out your business or to sell your time. Says Claire: “First of all identify what you need then find how you can accommodate that need. I think you need to have a lot of self awareness. You need to be able to ask yourself some quite searching questions. You need to be far enough along in your recovery journey that if you find yourself say ‘it’s not the right time for me to do this’ or ‘I just don’t think I’m able to do this’ that that’s not going to be experienced as a massive failure.”

“One of the big things for a lot of people with a mental health difficulty is that it becomes increasing difficult to cope with – in quote marks – ‘everyday normal life’, like administrative tasks for instance. It can be very, very difficult for people to do things like answer the phone, answer letters and interact with the world. Obviously, if you’re self-employed this is really important to do. There are different things you can do, like using a virtual PA service to answer your phone. During a time of crisis you can have your phone on divert and they deal with and you pay for that. Or making arrangements to conduct business in the way that you feel most comfortable doing.”

Think, learn, plan, research, get help

So, how can you work out whether self-employment or starting your own business is right for you? In the end, says Claire, it comes down to knowing yourself, knowing what you’re going to be selling and knowing whether there’s a good chance of making more money or having a better, more interesting or more balanced life from your business activities than you could from following other courses of action.

Says Claire: “If you are employed, your employer has various responsibilities under the Equality Act. If you disclose a disability to them they have a statutory duty to make reasonable accommodations for you including finding you alternative work, providing you with aids and equipment or adaptations to your working pattern – flexitime, working from home, whatever – in a way that fits around your difficulty. When you’re self-employed essentially you’re asking yourself to make accommodations for yourself. So it’s a lot harder to work out how to do that without somebody to sit there and work it out with you.”

Whether becoming self-employed or starting your own business, there’s a lot you’ll have to learn and a lot of work you’ll have to do before you get paid. “It’s really important to know where to get support, says Claire, “so check out your local job centre; is there any body down there that’s sympathetic? What’s it like? Are you on the Work Programme; is there a provider near you that has got classes that are useful? What about your local voluntary sector; what are they doing? In my experience there are some great vocational rehabilitation services up and down the country but they’re few and far between and the likelihood of you finding someone at your Jobcentre who can help you to do this is quite low.

“If you’re on the Care Programme Approach, there is a section around employment and opportunities and what your aspirations are and where you are.   So, if you decide to try self-employment this really should be a focus of all of your health and social care team. This is your goal. I don’t know how many Community Psychiatric Nurses or Care Coordinators genuinely have enough time to do any of this work with individuals and I’m very sad to say that. They might be useful people to help you find people that can help you but it’s not likely they are going to have the time to sit with you and take you through the whole thing.” Claire used Occupational Therapy services to help her in moving forward. “Occupational Therapists are really great at vocational rehabilitation and there are independent OTs up and down the country. If you can, get funding to pay for this either through your local health services or through a local charity. I would really recommend those services.”

Don’t just look to mental health advice says Claire: “There are loads and loads of opportunities available all over for people that want to become self-employed, mainstream opportunities. If that’s OK for you and you feel able to join in with those that’s probably where you’re going to get the best business support. It might be worth doing those to get a real measure of what the skill levels involved are to stay in self-employment. You can get free advice from your local council on how to pay your tax, how to keep your books, how to market your business. You will be able to find that stuff but it may not be within the sphere of mental health.

“If you’re got any friends that are either self-employed or interested in becoming self-employed it can be great motivation to support each other and say ‘OK, I’m going to to go and find out about tax, let’s have a conversation in a week and talk about what we found out’. It can be great if you can find somebody who is willing to share that journey with you. It doesn’t have to be a professional; anybody, a family member, a friend – if it’s somebody in a similar situation that’s brilliant.”

You must also consider the financial implications of going into business. Says Claire: “I’m not sure I’d be able to do what I did now.” Constantly changing rules around benefit entitlements mean that it sometimes isn’t clear whether being self-employed will change your eligibility for benefits. When Claire was starting the art shop and selling therapies she made use of the DWP permitted work rules: “You could do sixteen hours a week of work and you could maintain your income support and your housing benefit and your council tax benefit. That has changed now. The landscape is much more challenging now and I think you do have to be quite savvy to navigate it.”


Useful links

Citizens Advice Self Employment Checklist: A great guide to everything you need to consider before becoming self-employed http://bit.ly/YzHeey

Disability Rights UK has a number of useful up-to-date fact sheets on topics like claiming in-work benefits, Access to Work, and other useful schemes. They also have advisors who can help http://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/how-we-can-help/benefits-information

From 18 February 2013, as well as people claiming Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants in the Work Related Activity Group aged 18 and over who are receiving support from Jobcentre Plus can apply for New Enterprise Allowance support, which could total up to £2,274 to starts their own business. (Though not if you’re engaged in The Work Programme) https://www.gov.uk/new-enterprise-allowance

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