Why your payment policy needs to be part of your mental health policy

The Leapers Research Study 2020 underlines the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to addressing mental health in the creative industries.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


If you are finding lockdown harder this time round you are not alone; pandemic fatigue is not a myth. Research published last week by Ipsos Mori found that six in 10 people are finding it harder to stay positive, a figure which rises to seven in 10 amongst women.

This growing mental health emergency has been placed into sharp focus by research from Leapers, the community which supports and promotes the mental health of freelancers. The research is something of a canary in the coal mine for the creative industries, revealing a need to take a much more holistic approach to mental health and shift from managing the causes of stress to identifying and tackling the root causes.

Matthew Knight, Founder of Leapers and an independent strategy and innovation partner, believes that it's important for the industry not to view 'mental health' as an isolated issue, but rather as key to the general performance of the business. He explains: “No business can perform well without its most valuable resource, its people, and currently whilst most of us are working remotely, work is becoming even more transactional and impersonal. Days are getting longer, tasks are being completed, little interpersonal or social interaction exists, and no happy moments of serendipity.”

It’s a somewhat unforgiving remote working landscape which he believes makes intentionally creating environments where human interaction and interpersonal time is proactively invested in business critical. In practice, this means creating the space for teams to spend time together to connect, not just to work. As well as giving individuals and teams the opportunity to design their working days and times around the new challenges of remote working.

of respondents cite late payment is causing stress and anxiety
of respondents want their clients to take some sort of responsibility towards not negatively impacting their mental health
of respondents cite chasing late invoices as a key stressor

Beyond Wellbeing Wednesdays

The research reveals that companies need to take a far more holistic approach to mental health, one which extends well beyond the one-off initiatives and ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ the creative industries have been historically known for. In fact, the research points squarely to payment policies as one of the key levers to better safeguarding the mental health of suppliers. 

“Late payment is a huge issue for small businesses and freelancers. FreeAgent data shows only 53% of invoices were paid on time in the last 18 months, which shows it isn't just a COVID issue, and late payment debt stands at around £23.4 billion owed to SME. Over 75% of our panel say this causes them stress, and whilst it might not be the most significant concern for all, it just adds another thing to worry about and deal with,” explains Knight.

It’s a state of play which demands a step-change in how businesses approach mental health. Far from simply encouraging workers to ‘build resilience’, the pandemic offers a collective moment of reflection to tackle exactly what behaviours and systems we are collectively encouraging people to build resilience from.

“We need businesses to tackle the causes of stress not alleviate the symptoms. For freelancers, this means at least paying invoices on time, shorter payment terms, better communication, good onboarding, more feedback and respectful behaviour,” Knight adds.

Mental health is the ‘second pandemic’

As we embark on the new year, the tensions of COVID, from isolation to the lack of boundaries between home and work are being felt across the industry, As Knight explains: “The impact of COVID is unique to each individual but there are some common themes: increased uncertainty around work, lack of financial support from government for those who are limited company owners, as is required by many clients, many creative industry businesses were forced to close i.e. TV and film, entertainment venues, etc, lack of human connection and opportunities to work from anywhere but home,” he explains.

Knight also highlights the blurring boundaries of work and home as a key stressor. Pointing to the pain points of longer hours and more transactional communication, homeschooling for freelance parents (there's no furlough option for freelancers), and of course for freelancers unfortunate enough to fall ill with COVID, there's no sick pay, or even paid leave to rest.

For freelancers these additional pressures are combined with the ongoing concerns of IR35 and Brexit and a double-dip recession. “It makes for a challenging context,” says Knight who explains that emotionally, these pressures manifest as increased anxiety, failing confidence, lack of motivation and lethargy, and just exhaustion.

“From a human perspective, this is unhealthy, and chronic ongoing stress is physically and mentally damaging. From a business perspective, it leads to poorer quality of creative work, and burnt out teams don't help anyone. Those working in the creative industry already have a higher incidence rate of mental health challenges and as an industry, we are not doing enough to support employees, yet alone those we don't employ, but rely upon.”

Unsurprisingly, freelancers have been better equipped to deal with challenges of remote working and isolation more than most, as it is not just a COVID issue. But even those who were fine with a little bit of time alone back in March last year, are struggling with almost 12 months of ongoing restrictions.

Ditch the digital presenteeism

Knight believes that to create more healthy working environments companies need to be much clearer on outcomes and expectations, rather than leaning towards digital presenteeism. He urges companies to create an 'opt-out' approach to mental health, proactively encouraging healthy habits, counseling support, and time off as a mandatory rather than 'available'. “Treat all of your people with the same level of support and care, regardless of contract,” he adds.

This is particularly important for the creative industries where freelancers are the lifeblood of the industry and the force behind some of its most impactful and meaningful creative output. Notably in the past 12 months, Leapers has actually seen increasing numbers of people moving away from self-employment and freelancing.

As Knight explains: “The past 12 months has not been easy on those without support, whether it be financial support from the government, clients to support income, or the lack of emotional support for mental health. If we don't start to take supporting our freelancers seriously, there will be a collapse in our industry's ability to access great talent and do brilliant work”. It is a strain felt acutely in the creative industries, where recruiters report that heavy cuts at the height of the pandemic have left companies scrambling for freelance talent at extremely short notice.

Social media fuels imposter syndrome

The research also points to self-promotion and marketing as a stressor, posing the question, with employees being physically disconnected, how can freelancers be better protected from that creative crisis of confidence which comes from ‘comparing and despairing’ about that great life they aren’t living on social media? “When you're freelancing, you're not only a talented craftsperson, you also have to be a marketeer, a salesperson, the accountant, the operations and project manager. It's a whole load of additional skills required to run a business, and self-promotion comes with challenges for many,” explains Knight.

Top of the list is that omnipresent feeling that perhaps you are just not good enough. “Just because you're great at your job, doesn't mean you might always feel like it,” explains Knight. “Imposter syndrome is a huge issue for many in the creative industry, and indeed, social media fuels comparison to those who are often only presenting their best selves,” he adds.

He believes that tackling this is complex, but it starts with not working alone. He explains: “Buddy up with others to share your work, get feedback from peers and clients, allow others to be your cheerleaders, and share the little wins which all show movement towards building up a successful career. Winning awards or big new clients aren't the only successes.” Reminding people that it is vital to recognise great feedback from a client or someone reaching out to work with you. “It helps to be part of a community where you feel you can share the small things or any concerns you have, rather than letting them run around in your head, and over time, this confidence builds up until self-promotion doesn't feel dirty, but rather a moment of pride in your work,” he adds.

It's these moments of pride and shared celebration, which can provide a much-needed moment of connection in a working environment in which it is all too easy to feel we are alone together.


Key Stressors: Working Habits

1              Being too busy/ high workload   83%

2              Periods of time without work     82%

3              Long working hours and tight deadlines 72%

4              Lack of boundaries between work and personal 67%

5              Irregular Schedules / Lack of structure    64%


If you are struggling with your mental health, you are not alone.

For individuals. Leapers exists to support the mental health of the self-employed. Visit Leapers’ website to join our peer-support community or access our free resources and guides on working well when working for yourself. 

For organisations. Leapers is here to support you supporting others. WorkWellWith.us is a portal which employers can offer their freelancers to signpost to support, or join our new community for employers who to take steps towards becoming Freelance Friendly

There are also fantastic resources available for all businesses, no matter their size, from Mental Health at Work which brings together a number of leading charities, specialists and industries to centralise techniques and toolkits to help your business be more supportive.

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Mental Health