Running your own business or freelancing from home sounds great on paper. You avoid the stress and hassle of an office job, no commute, office politics, or colleagues reheating fish in the microwave.
Instead, you have more time and flexibility to work when it suits you, fit other interests around your job, it's easier to juggle family commitments, and there should be more opportunities to create a healthier lifestyle.
But what’s it really like working from home as a freelancer or small business owner, and what impact does this way of working have on health and wellbeing?
How many freelancers and small business owners are there?
More and more people are turning their backs on traditional employment to go freelance or start their own business. In 2018, there were 5.7 million private sector businesses in the UK– 2.2. million more than there were in 2000, according to a briefing paper from the House of Commons.
And according to IPSE, the number of freelancers has grown by 46 per cent since 2008 and there are approximately two million freelancers in the UK. Nearly half (43 per cent) of freelancers are women, and there’s a rapid increase of the number of self-employed mothers. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of mothers working as freelancers doubled and now around one in seven people working for themselves are mums.
Technology means it’s never been easier or cheaper to start your own business, and people in their masses are realising there are more flexible options than the arguably archaic 9 to 5.
From Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Working Week to Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method, there are hundreds of popular books, as well as podcasts and blogs, that inform and inspire those embracing the self-employed lifestyle.
The working from home routines of freelancers and small business owners
Before embarking on a self-employed career, many of us might think it’s all long, leisurely lunches and spontaneous trips to the beach when the sun comes out. But what is it like in reality?
Two-fifths of the freelancers and small business owners PR Unlocked spoke to work from home five days a week and a fifth said it varies week-to-week. A minority work six or seven days a week (4% and 1% respectively), 16% work three days and 15% work four days.
Two-thirds (66%) have a dedicated workspace in their home, but just over a third (34%) don’t. For freelancers and small business owners who don’t have a home office, they said they work from their dining room or kitchen table, on the sofa, in bed or from a garden office. One respondent converts their bedroom into an office during the day and back into a bedroom in the evening. Another freelancer we spoke to lives and works on a boat, so the spaces are multi-functional. Listen to the Dreamers & Doers podcast to find out more about freelancing while sailing around Europe.
When it comes to taking long, leisurely lunches – it turns out a lot of freelancers and small businesses didn’t get the memo. Over a third (35%) eat lunch at their desk and 3% don’t take a lunch break at all. Just over two-fifths (41%) take at least a 30-minute break away from their place of work, and 21% take at least an hour lunch break.
And in terms of being active, a quarter (25%) said they make time to exercise every day or most days when they’re working from home, 37% get active some days and 16% at least once a week. However, 22% of self-employed people working from home never find the time to exercise.
Are you sitting comfortably? The importance of posture and movement when working from home
While working from bed or the sofa might sound like a comfortable option, it’s difficult to sit in the right position or get proper support for our bodies. And a sedentary lifestyle with minimal physical activity is also harmful to our health and wellbeing.
Kerrie-Anne Bradley is a Pilates teacher and owner of Pilates At Your Desk who specialises in posture and rehabilitation.
Kerrie-Anne said: “Sitting incorrectly puts undue pressure onto our hips and lower back. It creates imbalances throughout the body. Those of us sit like a cashew, for example, where the bottom is tucked under and the upper back and shoulders are rounded forward are at more risk of facing issues like back and neck problems, and tight hip flexors. Sitting like a cashew tends to happen when we work on a bed and sofa. Basically, where the laptop isn’t at eye-height and you are less able to sit up on your sit bones (the boney bits under your bottom).”
Prolonged sitting has been linked to a number of health concerns, including increased blood pressure, obesity, high blood sugar, cardiovascular disease and cancer. From a muscular-skeletal perspective, sitting badly can cause pains in the neck, back, shoulders and hips. It can also negatively impact your posture, strength, flexibility, and mobility.
So how can people who freelance or run their own business and work from home make sure they’re not putting their bodies at risk?
“To keep our bones stacked in the right way we should sit with both feet flat on the floor and pointing forward, knees tracking our feet, sitting on top of our sit bones," explains Kerrie-Anne. “Our thighs should be at a right angle to our pelvis, ribs over hips, shoulders wide and down, and neck in line with your spine.”
Kerrie-Anne added: “We should also try to move every 30 minutes. This doesn't have to be leg-over-head stuff, it can be a walk to kitchen, squats while you wait for your coffee, or lunges while you’re waiting for lunch to cook.”
Isolation and mental health for freelancers and business owners
If you’re stuck in a job working alongside colleagues who you don’t get on with, the thought of working on your own at home might seem like bliss. But if we go for long periods of time without seeing other people, it can start to negatively impact our mental health and wellbeing.
Over a third (38%) of self-employed people who work from home regularly have days when they don’t speak to or meet other people during working hours, and 40% sometimes have days where they don’t see or speak to anyone else. Only 22% of the freelancers and business owners we spoke to said they try to meet or speak to other people most days.
As a result of working from home, 53% said they had felt unproductive, 49% isolated, 47% lonely and 36% stressed. Only 15% of the freelancers and business owners we surveyed said they hadn’t experienced any negative feelings.
Some respondents specifically said they felt out of the loop with what’s going on in their industry, missed having colleagues to bounce ideas off, and wanted people to share problems with.
The majority (80%) of freelancers and small business owners find it difficult to switch off from work, with only a fifth of saying they didn’t.
David Price, CEO of Health Assured, said: “Sometimes it’s nice to be away from the buzz of an office. Less noise, fewer distractions and distance from the typical office politics are welcome changes. But working remotely or by yourself takes you away from the support systems that employed, on-site staff enjoy. If you have a problem— work-related or personal—you won’t have anyone to turn to. Trying to make the effort to see someone every day can help with isolation. Go outside, get some coffee and chat with a friend.
“When you run a small business from your bedroom or spend your days working freelance in your kitchen, you also run the risk of turning your home into a place associated with work. It’s hard to relax and unwind at the end of a workday when you’re sitting within the same four walls that you’ve spent eight hours working hard in so try to create a specific space for working in.”
A lot of self-employed people don’t just work from home all day, every day. A quarter (25%) of those we spoke to for the PR Unlocked survey said they sometimes work from co-working spaces, and over half (55%) work from coffee shops, libraries or other public spaces. Over a third (34%) sometimes work from clients’ offices and 13% work from other freelancers’ or business owners’ homes.
David added: “Remote workers also tend to be online more, and work longer hours, than on-site staff. They can often worry about being seen as shirking by staying home. However, putting yourself under too much pressure can be catastrophic for your mental health.
“Set limits—and stick to them. Use calendar and time management apps, make sure you take breaks and don’t worry too much about presenting the best face at all times. As long as you’re getting your work done, you’ll be fine.
“As negative as all this may sound, many business owners thrive when given the opportunity to set their own schedule. If you prepare for the potential mental health risks and follow the advice above, you’ll find lone working a much more pleasant and smooth experience.”
Freedom and flexibility: The best things about being your own boss and working from home
Although self-employed workers should make the effort to look after their health and wellbeing, it’s important to remember the advantages of this way of working.
The majority (83%) of freelancers and small business owners said one of the best things about working from home was no commute. Over half (54%) said getting to fit in household chores to their day, and a further 54% said they appreciate getting to take breaks when they want.
Nearly half (48%) said they’re more productive, a third (32%) said they get to fit exercise into their day and a quarter (26%) said they eat healthier.
Some freelancers and business owners we spoke to added the flexibility to work around children, look after their dogs and other pets, avoiding office politics and working around their health were all great things about working from home.
How to develop healthy habits and routines when working from home
What freelancers and small business owners say about working from home
Squarespace web designer and trainer, thewheelexists.com
“At the moment I mainly work from home Monday to Thursday, and on Fridays I run a popup coworking session in Manchester so I get to work and chat with other freelancers. My working day starts at 12pm, which is something I've been trialling since the start of the year as I'm much more of a night owl than a morning person. I use the time in the morning (when my brain is still warming up) to do house chores, life admin and prepare lunch. This has stopped me from just eating cheese on toast!
"I've always hated most exercise, with one exception: surfing. So last year I decided that despite living in the landlocked Peak District, I was going to try and surf at least once per month, and it made such a difference to my wellbeing and fitness. My partner and I had talked about moving to the coast at some point in the future, but after he also got into surfing we decided to go for it and move this year.
"I've always wanted to live by the sea and feel like a better version of myself when I'm there, and I know that being able to surf much more regularly is going to have a big impact. It will take more time out of my schedule, but I think it will set me up for the day and I'll probably be more productive as a result.
"The beauty of being freelance is that I can change my timings around; I'm hoping to add surfing to my morning routine but it will depend on tide times and conditions so I'll have to be a bit flexible. I'll still be travelling back to Manchester every so often to deliver training and catch up with the friends I've made through Freelance Folk, so it feels like I'll have the best of both worlds; coastal living but also spending time back in my favourite city."
Joana Veiga Ferreira
Digital marketing consultant, JVF Marketing
“I tend to work from home about half of the time, I’m a part-time lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, so some days I'm on campus and will also do my freelancing from there. In the summer months, I mostly work from home as there’s no teaching, so I've had to develop lots of habits to keep me healthy.
“Firstly, I have a separate working station. I don't have a home office as there aren’t enough rooms, but I have a section of my living room dedicated to work. I don't believe in working in bed or from the kitchen, I think it confuses home and work and isn't particularly helpful for motivation, concentration and productivity.
“Apart from that, I think taking regular breaks is vital. I use the Pomodoro technique and it works wonders! You work for 25 minutes flat out and take a 10 minute break. You do that about four times, and then take a longer 30 minute break. Those breaks are just long enough to get up, walk around, make a cup of tea. Enough time to take your mind off work so you can get back and be 100% focused. Since using this technique, I tackle tasks much quicker, especially those admin tasks that we all hate!
“Getting out of the house is important. A lunchtime walk, a mid-morning yoga class, an afternoon walk around the shops. I tend to run errands during the week at moments when it's not busy.
“I use Wunderlist to keep track of my to-do list. And at the end of the day I'll go through my list and tick off the things I've done, move things around if I need to, and create a plan for the following day. By doing this, I know I can now switch off because I have a plan. I know what I've achieved today, I've prioritised things for tomorrow, and I'm much less tempted to check my emails incessantly!”
Visual designer, margheritabaldi.com
“I usually do yoga to start my day and like the 30 Day Yoga Journey with Adriene as it keeps me motivated to do a lesson a day and watch my progress. I reward myself with breakfast after yoga, which helps to keep me motivated. During my working day my main break is lunch. I love cooking fresh and healthy food, it relaxes me and keeps me away from the computer. I usually take one full hour of lunch break eating on a different table from the desk where I work.If I don't have time for a walk in a park, a phone call with a friend cheers me up and is time out from the isolation of the home-office.”
“Finishing the day with a clean break is one of the hardest things to do as a PR freelancer. You may not think it when you start out as a freelance, but that commute you used to despise, was actually a damn good barrier between you and the working day – even in the age of smartphones and the ‘always on’ mindset. If your papers are only five paces away from the dinner table, the temptation to tinker is there and if a client knows you you’ll answer a call or email late into the evening then it’s really hard to say no the second and third time. Your effectiveness suffers and worse still your friends and family are never quite sure whether it’s the work you, or the ‘you’ you they are getting at any given time. Let clients know that you stop work at a certain time and try to make it a routine that you get away from your home both physically and mentally at that time. And maybe, even leave your phone behind. Or at least turn data off!”
Marketing, brand and media manager at Aventis Solutions
"My advice isn't just for home workers, but for everyone - create a ritual, create a routine which means you get that people interaction and actually leave the house at some point. It might be a quick call to a friend or relative over lunch, going out for a drink after 'clocking off', going for a walk, yoga, the gym, or a class."
Creative consultant and events manager, betternotstop
“My advice for other freelancers and small businesses is to only work 'normal' office hours, close your laptop and have a clear finish to your work day. For me, that's preparing dinner and eating - I don't work after that. But it could be sitting down and writing a plan for the next day, eating away from your desk area and going outside for a walk at lunchtime and listen to a podcast.”
Marketing consultant, Goodness Marketing
“I try to exercise every day: run, gym or yoga. But the thing that keeps me most sane is walking. I know that if my head feels clogged up, getting outside, having a change of scenery and walking will reset me. I have my best ideas when I do this.
“This seems like a small thing, but I struggle to focus on work if things around me are messy. Because I work predominantly from my kitchen table, I make sure in the evenings the kitchen is clean and tidy - no clutter on surfaces. So, in the morning I can just clear away breakfast stuff and get on with my day.
“It also helps to have a good selection of herbal teas and healthy snacks that are easy to grab, because I'm lazy and would choose a biscuit over having to cut a carrot! If it's ready prepped, I'm much more likely to make a good choice.
“Oh and when my Fitbit nudges me to move, I actually listen to it! I might just do a few burpees, practice handstands against the wall (I'm rubbish at it but I like it) or run upstairs a couple of times.”
Independent IT consultant, Considered IT Solutions
“Routine is really important if you’re a small business owner working from home. I’m getting there but a it’s a big area to sort. When I was employed, I always went for a lunchtime walk but don't do that anymore. I like to try and mix the week up and even going into the city centre is useful as I wander around and walk to station. A personal target for me is sorting routine for both fitness and also making time for my own projects. On another note a simple action for me has been putting the Fitbit back on and going on networking events like Freshwalks where it’s possible to meet others in business while exercising.”
“A big recommendation from me is walking. Itend to exercise inside the house first thing, work, then do a walk around lunch time. You tend to see the same people out and about so it's an opportunity to talk to people if you feel the need. Or pop into a local shop for some human interaction. Also, don't eat your lunch at your desk. Prepare something on a plate, eat it at the dining table and watch the news or something to take your mind off work. Don't go on the computer in the evening (set a time limit, e.g. after 8pm). Don't sleep with your phone next to your bed. Put it in a different room overnight.”
“I always block out Monday lunchtime for a yoga class which sets me up for the week and try to run to clear my head when possible. I also have a friend who’s self-employed too, so we schedule “catch-ups” to help motivate each other and talk through any issues/dilemmas we’re having. It’s amazing how telling someone you’ll complete a task you’ve been putting off for ages kickstarts you to actually do it.”
“Make sure you exercise and book in time into your diary as you would a meeting. I run, do circuits, Pilates (I’m also a Pilates teacher) and spin classes. It doesn’t always go to plan every week, but I generally try to plan my meetings and other work commitments around it.”
How do you find working from home?
If you're a freelancer or small business owner, we'd love to hear about your experience. Do you love or loathe working from home? Do you make an effort to exercise? What tips would you give to people about to go self-employed?