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Progress: How to survive the Covid storm when you’re a sole trader

WORKING from home in an uncertain economic climate is tough for everybody, but for entrepreneurs who run their businesses alone, this has been a particularly testing time.

Studies show that half of Britain’s freelancers were already feeling isolated before lockdown hit. Those without colleagues to connect with in the toughest times have had no one to bounce ideas off when businesses need to be pivoted or difficult decisions made.

‘It has been lonely, challenging and at times exhausting. I have felt angry, frustrated, sad, hyper, happy, motivated, flat… the list goes on,’ says Katie Roberton, a sole trader who runs ceramics business Outlandish Creations (outlandishcreations.com). Dealing with the mental health fallout from running a business alone in a pandemic is a considerable task. Although everyone’s situation is different, our wellbeing experts have advice for those who have struggled the last few months.

Loneliness and exhaustion

Isolation can seriously damage your health as well as your business. According to research from Brigham Young University, it can increase the risk of premature death by almost a third.

The government’s own study of self-employment found that entrepreneurs and freelancers find it a particular issue, with 30 per cent of respondents saying that isolation or working from home is a problem for them, and a quarter saying the thing they missed most about office life is their colleagues.

In lockdown, many sole traders have found the problem even more intense. Those who live alone have had no one to bounce ideas off, while those who have families have felt the pressure of carrying struggling businesses at the same time as homeschooling children.

‘I’m absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally,’ says sole trader Jen Packer, a book designer at Fuzzy Flamingo Design, who has two children under four and suffers with autoimmune arthritis. ‘I’ve managed to pack my working week into nap times, evenings and weekends and kept my business going with the same average earnings.’

Leah Steele, who runs wellbeing consultancy Searching For Serenity, says many business people are now struggling; working longer hours in an attempt to soothe their fears over the impact of lockdown and the economic slowdown.

‘Anecdotally, I’m seeing an increase in people working overtime and not taking breaks,’ she says, adding that, for some, the end of the day stretches further and further into the evening.

‘We are all dealing with a ridiculous amount of stressors, pressure and change right now,’ Leah says. Fortunately, even as sole traders, there are steps we can take to mitigate this and avoid burnout.

Make time for connection

If you’re running a business from home, it’s easy for your day to bleed into your evening without speaking to anyone.

Experts say that setting up the work day so it includes opportunities for meaningful connection can help with the isolation problem.

Online coach Maddy Shine suggests scheduling in times for ‘in-person’ chat’ if you live with others. ‘As humans we need that contact and so I spoke to my housemates in “family dinners” every single night,’ she explains.

Alex La Via, digital wellbeing specialist and founder of Live More Offline, also suggests replacing digital contact with human contact where you can.

‘Build in a few screen-free breaks for downtime activities that truly nourish you, whether it is exercise, meditation, connecting with a friend or going for a walk.’

Photographer Carla Watkins, who lives and works alone, has been running virtual lunch breaks and virtual co-working sessions to help her to keep connected. ‘I’m still sane, just about,’ she says.

Penny Williams, a make-up artist at Blush Beauty, says joining up with fellow make-up artists to do product chats live on Instagram ‘helps me keep up momentum’.

Separate work and leisure

Managing the tendency to procrastinate is also vital if you are to get your work done and leave time for leisure. Gemma Ray, author of Stop Procrastinating And Start Living, swears by a ticking mechanical timer and the use of the Pomodoro technique, which encourages you to work on one sole task for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break.

‘While there are many digital apps that help with the Pomodoro technique, I have found that a simple £2 mechanical timer works so much better. With a digital timer you can override it or stop it. You can’t do that with the mechanical timer and I find the ticking noise quite soothing. It’s not a noise for an open-plan office but definitely a noise that keeps me on track working from home,’ she says.

With competing demands on your time, sole traders should focus on their top priorities to ensure the work gets done.

Cat Archer Underwood, who runs Brands for the Brave, says she decided that to drop all work not related to her top three priorities when lockdown hit.

‘This way, I could free up brain space by saying no to things that didn’t contribute to those priorities without spending ages thinking about it and without getting FOMO or guilt that I should be doing more,’ she says.

Don’t dismiss self care

When life is busy, it’s easy to leave your own wellbeing for less pressured times, but Abigail Barnes, author of Time Management For Entrepreneurs, says self-care can be quick.

‘Life is busy and every day is a never-ending to-do list of business and life activities and obligations,’ she says. Abigail relies on the ‘eight-minute secret’, a set of activities based around movement, mindset and meditation, spending eight minutes on each activity.

Good nutrition will also help you to get through long, busy days. Daisy Connor, a sole trader who runs vitamins group City Supplements, says she relies on a few quick ingredients to keep herself going.

‘Working all hours alone at a computer can feel lonely and concentration suffers,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to spend ages preparing lunch for one.’

Natural whole yoghurt, fresh fruit or frozen berries, ground seed mix with flaxseeds and homemade trail mix are good when you can’t be bothered to cook, she says, as well as eggs, crackers, nice bread, hummus and cheese.

‘Tea naturally contains L-theanine, good for calm and concentration.’

Seek help when you need it

Whether it’s a chat with a friend, a trusted mentor or a business coach, or even some online interaction, becoming overwhelmed isn’t good for your business or for you.

‘We are all dealing with a ridiculous amount of stressors, pressure and change right now but we have to work at a pace and in a way that is sustainable over the long-term and pay attention to the bigger picture, if we want to stay on the right side of burnout,’ says Leah.

‘It was tough… I needed outside help’

KEISHA EHIGIE’S bleakest moment in lockdown came early on, when she was recovering from the birth of her son a week before. The Nigerian-Jamaican entrepreneur runs a subscription box of books (imaginemestories.com) to help children cultivate diverse libraries and, despite a worldwide pandemic and a newborn, she was determined that her subscribers would not miss a month.

‘That was my own fault, really, but it was really hard,’ she says. ‘I’m amazed I got through it.’

Keisha, from Essex, runs the entire business herself, but being a sole trader in lockdown has made her realise that she needs more help. Awareness caused by the Black Lives Matter protests have increased interest in her subscription boxes, which has increased her workload, but she has also acquired a helpful mentor who has helped her to see the positives of not working entirely alone.

‘The workload has been very, very tough, and this has made me realise that I need outside help,’ she says.

‘I’ve only had my mentor for two weeks but it’s been really helpful. He’s helped me to realise that I’ve been living week to week and I want to free up time but I need to stop trying to do everything myself.”

Keisha, who has two young children, says that without her support network and her husband she would never have got through the period.

‘Sometimes you just need someone to speak positivity in your life. Even when I couldn’t see my friends in lockdown, regular calls were so important.’

‘Structure made things easier’

AS FOUNDER and editor in chief of The Homeworker Magazine (thehomeworker.com), Louise Goss is responsible for all aspects of her business, from commissioning to production.

‘It can get very stressful at times,’ she says. ‘Sole traders have to wear all the hats and spin so many plates. It’s been really important to me to have people I can talk to on a regular basis

‘When you are working on your own all the time your inner critic takes over, so I have to work really hard to balance that out. I’ve been learning to celebrate my own achievements.’

Louise (above), from Northamptonshire, says she’s learned the practice of selfcare in recent years: ‘I always have to know how I’m feeling.’ Over lockdown she found that ensuring there was at least a loose schedule for everyone, including her two young children, helped the family to feel balanced.

‘Structure has made things easier,’ she says.

‘It’s hard carrying it all alone’

RHIANNON ABBOTT switched from her job in local government to run The Epsom Bakehouse (theepsombakehouse.co.uk) back in 2013, gradually moving from bread delivery to in-person breadbaking classes.

As a sole trader, she found it stressful when lockdown hit and she was unable to carry out her usual activities and also had to homeschool her young children.

‘Running your own business can be a bit lonely, and even if you have a family member at home, they are often not the best sounding board because they aren’t in the same business,’ she says. ‘It’s hard carrying it all alone.”

Rhiannon has found salvation in online networking groups, including her own bread-baking community Facebook group, which has 10,000 members. She is also in specialist online business groups for those with businesses in the food and drink industry.

‘They’ve been so supportive as I’ve switched my business online,’ she says. ‘It’s been a lifeline to have someone to bounce ideas off.’

Business has boomed since lockdown thanks to many people turning to baking as a pastime.

‘I’ve just had to keep going and keep going and keep going, but I think I’m going to have to take a bit of a break now,’ she says. ‘It’s important to know when to take time out.’

THIS WORKED FOR ME!

Five sole traders share their tips and tricks for coping when going it alone

Get it all out

Lottie Clements (above) who runs the Cosy Canine Company (thecosy caninecompany.co.uk) says picking up your pen just before bed can make a difference. ‘I did a brain dump every night. Lockdown sent my brain into overdrive at times, worrying about Coronavirus, my friends and family and whether my business could survive. So, I wrote down everything going round in my head. It meant I could get some sleep and function the next morning.’

Be realistic

Sam Chetwood (above) who runs mobile children’s shoeshop CeCe & Me (ceceandme.co.uk) says that she had to adapt to doing less than before during lockdown because she was homeschooling two children. She says: ‘I didn’t put pressure on myself to do everything that I usually do. Something had to give… fortunately that something wasn’t my sanity.’

Find like-minded people

It is easy to go into your shell when work is hard and you are carrying it alone, but finding an online support group can build your momentum. LinkedIn trainer Jennifer Corcoran (above) of mysuperconnector.co.uk, says: ‘I joined a local mastermind of female business owners in Devon and we spur each other on every Monday,’

Use your calendar

Virtual assistant Amanda Holly (above) says she has used her online calendar to help her wellbeing. ‘I have motivated myself by blocking out hours in my calendar, including time out and breaks, so that I don’t get panicked or do too much at once. Also it is a great way to remember to take breaks and to finish at a reasonable hour! This has been key in keeping me on track without burning out.’

Focus on one thing at a time

Mindset coach Ivana Poku (above), who runs Mumsjourney, (mumsjourney.com), says that even as a sole trader who wear many hats, she finds that single-minded focus is important. She explains: ‘With multi-tasking, we usually do less and it also creates unnecessary pressure which then leads to mental health issues.’