Dealing with the solitude of self-employment

Working by yourself has many perks, but it can get very lonely, too.

Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to beat the feeling of isolation.

Rachel Balchin, founder of Bulldog Accounting, has been working from home since setting up on her own in August 2017. “After a hectic and stressful office, it’s a relief. I do not miss the politics and the pressure,” she says. What Balchin does miss is the training and mentoring of staff.

Claire Bartlett moved her Arden Bookkeeping business into a shared office last November. Before that, she had worked from home for two years.

Thinking back to the early days of her self-employment, Bartlett recalls she found home-working quite isolating. “I am someone who really enjoys the office banter so it felt very strange to suddenly be on my own all day. I also missed having people around me to celebrate the highs with. When I won a new client or completed a challenging task, I’d have wanted to tell someone, but there was no one there!”

Quite a few home-workers feel this way. In fact, according to the Safety in Numbers report from online accountants Crunch, almost half of the self-employed miss the social aspect of working with other people. Another survey shows that nearly 40% have actually felt lonely since becoming their own boss.

We are social animals

These figures aren’t surprising: being on our lonesome for prolonged periods of time isn’t something that nature has intended for us.

“The saying ‘no man’s an island’ is very true, we need people around us to survive and thrive, we get our energy from being around others, sharing stories and bouncing around ideas,” says Michelle Minnikin, chartered business psychologist at Insights Business Psychology.

Jenn Fenwick, career and leadership coach at Rebel Road Coaching, points out that human beings are social by nature. “As infants we see the world through our social relationships, it’s how we learn to interact, to become self-aware.”

But we need social interaction at any age, for our mental and physical well-being.

Fenwick says: “Studies show that having strong relationships can be as good for us as a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and not smoking – we are happier, healthier and even live longer.”

At work, water-cooler socialising improves productivity, according to several studies. “That’s because social interaction drives creativity and innovation, which in turn have a positive impact on our results,” says Fenwick.

How loneliness affects the mind and body

In the long term, loneliness is dangerous to our physical, emotional and mental health.

“It’s been proven to raise the levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which can lead to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and depression,” Fenwick says. Studies have also shown that prolonged social isolation can lead to accelerated cognitive decline and dementia.

Often, we self-perpetuate the problem.

Minnikin says: “We can get trapped in a cycle of loneliness, which leads to depression, which leads to withdrawal from others. You start saying ‘no’ to invites, and soon you no longer get asked.”

Of course, we each have different needs. Some of us go stir-crazy working completely alone for a week; others don’t mind. But loneliness is something that is likely to affect more and more people.

“In our increasingly ‘connected’ world, where much of our communication is via technology, the quality of our social connections is decreasing,” says Fenwick.

The UK government has actually recognised that loneliness is a growing problem and a potential “national health issue”. In January this year, Tracey Crouch was appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness to tackle social isolation already affecting nine million Brits.

What you can do to feel less isolated

“I have a dog – a bulldog, of course – who keeps me company,” says Balchin. “She mainly snores by my desk but we go out for walks and the occasional coffee, too.”

Also, she doesn’t work from home all the time. “I sometimes work at clients’.   I get the social aspect of an ‘office’ day but without the feeling of a daily grind. I’ve also joined local networking groups – the small business community in Hertfordshire is really supportive and friendly – and chat to other self-employed people online.”

Face-to-face networking events will get you out of the house, but otherwise they are not the best use of your time if you don’t get anything else out of them.

Minnikin says: “You need to find your tribe – either link up with inspiring people who can help you raise your game, or go to events where you can definitely meet prospective clients. And if you can’t find what works for you, host your own event.” She suggests using #LinkedInLocal for this, a meet-up concept that allows you to connect with your LinkedIn network offline.

“Working alone together” in a co-working space on some days of the week will not only make you feel less lonely but could also be an important source of new business referrals.

“Or, you could set up your own co-working group, where everyone takes it in turns to host other co-workers in their home,” Minnikin says. “It’s a new concept that’s started in Scandinavia.”

Creating a work/life balance

With time, you may want to move into a shared office space. “I have the best of both worlds now,” says Bartlett. “I have a catch up in the kitchen over coffee in the morning but then go to my office and close the door when I need to concentrate.”

To avoid “cabin fever”, Fenwick recommends setting clear work-life boundaries, too. “Give time to your interests and meet others with similar hobbies. Group exercise classes provide great opportunities for social interaction as well as health benefits.”

She adds: “Remember that loneliness is not a permanent state, it can be changed with a bit of effort. Check in with yourself regularly, acknowledge how you are feeling, then decide on the two things you can do to feel more positive. And don’t be afraid to reach out to people and tell them how you are feeling – there’s huge power in a conversation.”

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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