The Great Resignation isn’t just away from employment.

Why we need to get serious about investing in and supporting freelancers.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

The pandemic affected us globally in many ways, and whilst its effects are both ongoing and yet to be seen, especially in the case of its impact to mental health, one of the most significant changes it forced was our relationship to work. Many of us have been reconsidering what work means to us, how we want to work, and who we’re working with.

In employment, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people choosing to step away from roles which aren’t right for them, away from employers that aren’t supportive, behave badly, or just don’t motivate individuals in the role, and we’re seeing significant challenges in organisations struggling to hire people in to roles which are underpaid and undersupported.

This is not only a shift in the employment market. Recent data from the UK government is seeing people leaving self-employment and freelancing too, across a range of levels of seniority. In the last two years, there’s been a 31% drop in senior level freelancers, professional occupations saw a 15% drop, entry level roles saw a decrease in 25% of people filling self-employed ways of working.

In fact, the number of self-employed people working for themselves has shrunk from 3.5 million to 2.9 million between the start of 2020 and the start of 2022. That’s over 600,000 people walking away from self-employment.

The reasons behind this shift are plentiful — and include challenges such as changing legislation and complexity around IR35, changes in NI and Corporation Tax rates, continuing uncertainty around the economy, and for many of our community who have moved back into employment, a simple desire to have some more security.

For many, the reasons are simply exhaustion. Being fed up with how freelancers can be mistreated, forgotten, disrespected and dealt with as nothing more than ‘human resource’. As anyone who has been self-employed, dealing with issues like late payments, ghosting, overburdensome contracts, dropping rates, dealing with rejection, and lack of support and investment in freelancers — it can all start to get a little too much.

This shift in people away from independent work should be a wake-up call to both government and industry — especially the creative industries.

If you feel concerned about not being able to hire people in perm roles, imagine not being able to find talented people to fill those seats temporarily, or not being able to bring in specialists to augment your team’s skillsets, not being able to build a team for a project you are about to run, or outsource particular tasks to people brilliant at the job on demand.

Many sectors, the Creative Arts sector, Advertising and Marketing and Film and TV sectors, for example, rely upon being able to hire in skilled workers to build a team for a period of time, to deliver brilliant work. Over 50% of the creative industry is freelance. Freelancers are the secret super power of many agencies and production businesses. If you need to supercharge your client work with something you don’t have in house, find a brilliant independent specialist, and get the job done.

A huge proportion of businesses rely upon freelancers being available and capable, and if they’re not — who you gonna call? Because if the talent isn’t there, your projects aren’t either.

This wake-up call needs addressing in two ways:

  1. Policy changes which address the lack of support for the self-employed, access to tax breaks for healthcare, training, parental, bereavement and sick leave, changes in legislation which make it less complex for employers to support freelancers without risk of IR35, and constructive conversation between government, the self-employed and employers on how we start investing in small businesses, as part of the UK’s economy.
  2. Employers changing their mindset on what freelancers are to their business — not seeing them as overflow or outsourcing, but a critical and valued part of their extended team, supported by onboarding, fair and timely pay, respectful communication and contracts, feedback and community, and training and development.

Leapers tries to play a small part in this.

We’re providing direct support to individuals who are joining and leaving the self-employed workforce, and trying to make it more supportive and sustainable by providing that network of community.

We’re part of ongoing conversations with cross-sector working groups who are aiming to tackle the gaps in support and structure for the self-employed.

And we’re working with agencies who want to work better together with freelancers, either by helping them provide signposting, resources and support to their freelancers, or developing their own internal policies and communities of freelancers who they can turn to and build relationships with.

It’s our fifth anniversary this year, and in many ways, it feels like we’ve made so much progress, yet at times, it feels like things are going backwards too. We can’t do this alone, we need to take a shared responsibility as an industry for investing in the now and the future of independent talent — else we might just find ourselves without anyone we can call upon.

Matthew Knight is an independent strategist, ex-head of strategy and innovation at Carat UK, and founder of Leapers, a project supporting the mental health of freelancers and the self-employed. www.leapers.co

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Matthew Knight

Matthew Knight

Chief Freelance Officer. Strategist. Supporting the mental health of the self-employed. Building teams which work better.