Each year, Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May 2020) seeks to widen the conversation around mental health – and with the current period of uncertainty and isolation, it’s crucial to maintain those conversations and stay connected.
Here, we talk to Matthew Knight of Leapers about what this year’s theme, ‘Kindness’, means to him, and how we can maintain positive mental health under challenging times.
What does kindness mean to you in relation to maintaining positive mental health?
Kindness means being gentle – to others and ourselves. Not giving yourself a hard time or setting unrealistic expectations, not comparing yourself to others. It’s all too easy to be hard on ourselves, so finding ways to be kinder to yourself is an important first step.
It also means being gentle to others – starting with nothing more than listening. It’s very easy to feel like you have to give an answer, or advice, if someone says they’re struggling – but oftentimes, people just want to talk, and kindness for me is letting them do so without telling them ‘what to do’. It starts with empathy and recognising that different people need and want and feel different things.
Many of our members are self-employed freelancers, what advice do you have for anyone who is new to freelancing?
When you start freelancing, it can be a huge shock to the system. It’s steep learning curve, as you move from being a specialist at your craft, to becoming a business owner who also needs to do the accounts, the marketing, sales, take out the bins, all the stuff at home too – and then you start to notice the things you’ve stepped away from, such as the support of a team around you, access to training and resources. It can make you feel quite isolated –physically and emotionally.
So that’s suggestion number one: join a tribe of people who are on a similar journey to you, groups like Leapers, organisations like the Society of Authors, or even WhatsApp or Facebook groups of people working for themselves locally. You’ll benefit from their wisdom, but it also becomes a support network as you continue to develop your work.
Secondly, don’t forget to put you on your to-do list. It’s easy to focus on the tangible work and things that need to get done, but if you’re not prioritising rest and wellbeing, you’ll struggle to keep doing your best work. Even 15 minutes a day of reflection can help.
And finally, make sure you’re putting in solid foundations to work well. Plan ahead when it comes to finances, actively design healthy working habits, ensure you have a strong support network, invest in positive working relationships with others and don’t forget your own professional development.
As someone who has been working from home for a long time, how do you manage to stay connected with others? What is important to you when it comes to working in isolation?
It’s important to make a distinction between working on your own and feeling isolated. Many people (especially many of my friends who are writers) really cherish time alone, and likewise, we can feel isolated even when we’re in a busy office or coffee shop. Before the pandemic, the advice to many freelancers was ‘join a coworking space’, but just sitting in a big room with other people doesn’t mean you’re feeling more connected. It’s important to focus on meaningful connections, rather than simply being around people.
Right now, whilst we’re working apart, it’s important to focus on the human aspects of our relationships with others, not just the professional parts. That means taking time at the start of calls to check in with people, share how you’re doing, see how they’re doing. It means actively socialising, even when you don’t feel like it.
As an introvert, I’m really bad at forcing myself to pick up the phone or socialise with others, so personally, I’m having to make myself check in with people more frequently, have more regular conversations, and not just keep head down with work, or parenting – so in lots of ways, it’s a positive to make us think about how we can work well from home.
Tell us about Leapers – what is it and how does it work?
Leapers is a project supporting the mental health of the self-employed.
We’re a peer-support community with thousands of members, all working differently, and at the heart of our community is a free and open Slack group, not unlike the kitchen in an office, where we come together, see how others are doing and chat. Those who are new to freelancing benefit from the experience of those who have been doing it for a while. Those who are feeling low have people to chat to, including online counselling support, and those who are doing great can celebrate their wins with a larger team.
For those who aren’t members, we create tangible content, resources and tools to help establish and maintain good habits for working well, such as our downloadable ebooks, a podcast and tools like Manual of Me – and we also work with those who hire the self-employed, to guide them towards ways of working well with others.
For anyone who is struggling with their mental health at the moment, what do you suggest?
Recognising that this isn’t a normal situation is important, and redesigning how you work can help. Don’t feel like you need to be doing a 9-5, be aware of your energy levels, journal how you’re feeling and look for patterns you can work around – while also remembering that routine and structure may help you now more than ever.
Start with the basics: try and focus on a good sleep routine, eat well, drink lots of liquids (less caffeine, less booze, more water), exercise regularly and spend time outdoors where possible. Lots of us are feeling lethargic at the moment, and it can be tempting to just have another hour in bed, but having a routine in place and making sure you’re switching off at the end of the day will help.
And most importantly: share how you’re doing. Don’t suffer in silence, connect with others and talk about it. Even if you feel you’re doing okay, talking about it will make it easier for others to open up too.
If you’re really struggling, there is help available. You can speak to NHS on 111, or if you feel at risk call 999. You can also speak to Samaritans on 116 123 for free at any time.
- Join Matthew Knight on Wednesday 27 May for a free online session on how to work well from home as part of our ongoing SoA @ Home Festival – Sign up here
- Read our latest guide for free – Mental Health for Creative Freelancers – created together with the Association of Illustrators and the Association of Photographers
Matthew Knight is an independent strategist who helps businesses figure out what to do next, and an advocate of improving support for mental health of the self-employed. Since founding Leapers in 2017, Matthew has worked with a wide range of individuals and organisations on wellbeing and the future of work, across the private sector, charity and government, and Leapers has been featured on the BBC, Guardian, and Mind UK. He lives in West London, with one cat, two daughters, and a significant caffeine habit. You can say hello at www.thinkplaymake.co