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Health and Contracting

Scouring the internet for a topical spark of inspiration, my attention was drawn to one particular forum thread. The foundation of the debate lay within the relatively taboo realm of mental health.

Various areas were discussed, encompassing general health, CV gaps, discrimination, how to cope, and so on.

The debate was sparked by BBC’s Panorama programme, who recently sent an undercover worker, Adam Littler, into Amazon’s warehouse in Swansea where he worked as a ‘picker’ whilst filming with a hidden camera.

It transpired that the type of pressured workload endured by the ‘pickers’ could induce stress related illnesses, according to Professor Michael Marmot, an expert in the effects of stress.

Furthermore, a study recently concluded that stress has become the number one cause of long-term workplace absence, and psychological problems (including stress, anxiety and depression) are behind one-in-five visits to a GP.

Health, whether mental or physical, can cause a substantial worry and burden for anyone. But what about this coupled with the angst of professional considerations?   

Specifically, the problematic situations that contractors could face.

As a legitimate contractor, there are no safety nets or employment rights to protect you from such unforeseen circumstances. This was a fundamental theme throughout the debate.

For example, an inexplicable, lengthy gap wouldn’t be perceived as a particularly attractive trait in a contractor’s CV as a result of an absence. But what the forum debate also covered was the variety of ways in which this could be dealt with.

If asked about the gap, a viable yet allusive explanation could be ‘personal reasons’, which is unlikely to invite interrogation. On the other hand, some contractors will conceal an illness-related gap with faux anecdotes of training or travels.

But could opting for the best policy of honesty lead to discrimination or unwarranted stress?

The issue of a gap in a contractor’s CV due to an inability to work for health reasons created conflict amongst the debaters.

One user drew reference to the difference between a CV gap because of a physical injury or recovery from a broken limb, and a CV gap due to clinical depression or other mental health issues. This included an individual’s speculation that a mental illness is more likely to reoccur, potentially leading to an increased likelihood of discrimination from an employer.

However, this was met by an opposing, viable point that, whilst depression is perhaps more of a delicate subject, people can – and often do – injure the same limb more than once or suffer implications of sustaining the initial injury which is equally as likely to mean time off.

In this respect, discrimination should never have to be encountered if the reasoning for a contractor’s CV gap is clear.

As mentioned, because contractors are not ‘permies’, they will not benefit from any statutory rights or benefits from employers.

As a consequence, if there ever was any degree of discrimination exercised by a client, it would be unlikely to be dealt with particularly sensitively.

For example, a contractor is required by a client to provide a particular service. If a contractor could no longer provide a service, a termination of their contract would be relatively understandable, regardless of the circumstance. The same situation would be applicable for any other reason a contractor may become unable to provide a service; not just health reasons.

The general consensus of the forum users was that these risks were part and parcel of the contracting ‘profession’. All contractors take the leap from PAYE employees to pursue the greener grass and take the risks that will hopefully pay off in their self-employment. Whilst this situation may be harsh, it was generally accepted in the debate that this could be a burden contractors effectively sign up for, especially if they claim to be outside IR35.

A silver lining could emerge from the undesirable potential of being unable to work however, as this situation highlights the good business case for having a credible, unfettered substitution clause in a contract regardless of IR35.

Coping with stress is essential to deter a circumstance like this. ‘Life coach’ Suzy Greaves says one of the key skills to managing workplace stress is knowing how to say no.

The principle of saying no to a contractor will more than likely be met incredulity at the thought of turning down a contract. But Greaves explains, “I’m constantly challenging clients who say they have no choice but to overwork.

“I believe that saying yes can win you brownie points in the short term, but if you take on too much and fail to deliver, it can be a disastrous long-term strategy.”

This sentiment from the life coach is particularly notable to contractors and should be a general value in their working practices. Accepting any contract that comes your way will be great initially, but the phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’ is likely to imminently come into play and bring with it negative implications.

Being self-employed shows a significant degree of independence; therefore it’s understandable that a contractor may exert themselves more than they perhaps should to earn a living. But precautions and preventions will undeniably pay off in the long run.

By Amy Hinchliffe

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