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Silent Struggles of the Self-Employed

Claire Vokins shares her experience of being self-employed throughout the pandemic and the struggles this has brought with it – and why it’s so important that we’re honest when someone asks how we are

How are you?

How many times have you been asked that question over the last 10 months or so?

How many times have you asked it?

How many times have you asked with the expectation that someone may just say, “Yeah, I’m good, cheers, you?” And you’ve been relieved at that answer.

How many times have you responded the same way? But wished you had said how you really felt?

And how many times have you put the phone down, or gone home, or shut down Zoom and worried, and been stressed out and wished you didn’t feel like you are failing – failing at business, failing at parenting while running your business, failing at giving yourself a break?

Trust me, you are not the only one.

In an industry where we trade on image and promote the fact that gardens and gardening is great for mental health, it is doubly hard to admit that life right now may not be Instagram worthy for everyone.

This is my story. I want to put this out because I want to remove the falseness of “everything is ok”. I want people to feel confident in reaching out, to be able to ask for a chat, for advice and, most of all, to not feel so isolated in their situation.

In an industry where we trade on image and promote the fact that gardens and gardening is great for mental health, it is doubly hard to admit that life right now may not be Instagram worthy for everyone.

When the first lockdown began, I read the guidance, checked my business against it, made a few adjustments and carried on working. For the first few days, I felt guilty. I live in a part of London that is busy, on a road that has traffic 24/7. On the first few days of driving to jobs I didn’t pass any vehicles for miles. It felt surreal, and unreal. Add to that the guilt of being able to work and the constant fear of being pulled over by police to explain myself, I found myself driving and crying.

This feeling subsided over a week or so and for the rest of lockdown #1 I actually enjoyed myself. My guilty feelings turned to feelings of privilege. I was outside everyday working in gardens and enjoying myself.

Smugness kicked in a little as well. I live alone, I’m not the most sociable of people, so I wasn’t really missing anyone, and I normally work alone. Life had prepared me for this, I was rocking it. Lockdown is easy, right?

Summer came and things were still ok, but clients were beginning to ask for less hours. They were home more now and wanted to do their own gardening. I wasn’t too worried, but I could sense an ominous cloud on the horizon.

A large proportion of my clients have their own businesses – large, successful businesses. But as with many businesses, large and small, a financial impact had to come. First it was slow; as I said, the odd reduction of hours here and there. Then came the emails, explaining that COVID-19 had affected their income and they were sorry, but they needed to make savings somehow. So, the cleaners, the dog walkers and the gardeners were cut.

I will be brutally honest here. My first initial thoughts on these emails was this: “Right, so you get rid of me, but you keep the two Range Rovers, the Smart car, the hybrid and the motorbike.” I was initially angry and felt let down. But then I began to realise, it’s all relative. It’s like asking me to sell some of my whisky to pay for council tax. I’d rather cancel Netflix!

The first of these emails came around October and they were mainly from the clients whose income was from their own businesses, who are the majority of my clients. The clients who are employed (so either working from home or furloughed) have remained.

However, the financial impact on my business was enough to create problems. By the time the end of November came, I had missed two rent payments – I was in trouble.

Earlier in the year, I had looked at what may have been available to me from the government. Due to various circumstances, I had fallen through the cracks. I was and still am one of the excluded. I also checked benefits calculators and if you do these without experience on how to answer in the right way, you find you may only be entitled to £40 a month, so what’s the point? In essence, I was stuck and there was no financial assistance available.

…the financial impact on my business was enough to create problems. By the time the end of November came, I had missed two rent payments – I was in trouble.

In the meantime, I had people saying that I must be really busy! All these people discovering gardening during lockdown, I must be snowed under. No – the time poor people are now time rich and have time to do their own gardening. And when all they have to do is go onto Twitter or Instagram and watch garden designers showing them what to do (no charge), why would they need to employ a gardener?

I spent Christmas alone, which is normal. I made myself go out for walks where I could. But the panic and feelings of failure were there. My sleep was all over the place. I spoke to some contacts and some jobs have started to come through and I have been offered some help.

I also swallowed my pride and began the process to apply for Universal Credit. I used to work in this part of public sector about 20 years ago and I hadn’t realised how much it has changed and for the positive. I had been dreading doing this, because of how people used to be treated when involved in the benefits system. It took away your soul, it encouraged you to stop working in order to make sure you got the most out of the system. I don’t want my business taken away from me, but what more can I do?

The good news is this – the system now helps. Firstly, it’s pretty simple to navigate and all the people I have spoken to so far have been immensely helpful, understanding and have empathy. One lady even told me that last year both her and her husband had been made redundant on the same day, and that she too had been through the system. She understood. It seems (with the help of my work coach) that I will be helped. My rent will be paid, and my arrears likely backdated.

My work coach has helped me re-frame some of the points on the system. It asks if I will be available for interviews immediately; my honest response is no, because I have to maybe move clients around etc. She then pointed out that if a new enquiry comes in and I make an arrangement to visit, then surely that is an interview. She was of course right. In re-framing to fit the work I want to do, I was able to change my answers in the assessment forms, which then gives the potential to have more financial assistance.

Looking forward, I feel more in control. I’m not worrying so much if a job is cancelled due to bad weather, I know I’ll be ok.

The relief has been immense. It means my business keeps going. It means I still have a roof over my head. And as more business comes in, I inform the UC team and they adapt my payments.

I have also reframed my way of thinking on UC; it’s not a failure to apply. I have paid my taxes. I have not applied in 28 years of my working life. I’m viewing this as a savings account I forgot I had.

Looking forward, I feel more in control. I’m not worrying so much if a job is cancelled due to bad weather, I know I’ll be ok.

It’s also given me the opportunity to look at how I work. I’m building a new website. I’m going to be focusing on more ‘distanced’ gardening pursuits, utilizing Zoom (and similar) to add extra services to my remit. So, things will get better.

Back to the Insta-worthy lives of people in our industry, though. I know that I am not the only person going through this. I have spoken to professional gardeners, landscapers, garden designers. Whether they are juggling home-schooling with trying to work or losing income and wondering when the next job is coming. I know of business owners who have had to quit and work for someone else now.

The problem is, I didn’t know these people were struggling until I asked them: ”How are you? I genuinely want to know.”

Learning I’m not the only one has helped. I feel less isolated for a start.

So, lets shrug off the Instagram image every now and then. Drop the fake smiles. Before asking people “How are you?”, be prepared that actually that person may want to talk, not just give the ‘fake’ answer. Most times people will answer openly if they feel you want to listen and you don’t know how much you will help that person just by listening. Conversely, if you’re being asked how you are, maybe respond with, “Do you want the honest answer or the public face answer?”

Our industry can be so good for the recipients of our work, but we need to look after ourselves too.

So, I ask again, “How are you?”

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for your testimony, I think it’s very brave of you to be public and honest about your experience through this pandemic. I’m sorry if I’m being to forward but in the downtime and if you are able to get financial help, is learning a program like Sketchup something you are interested on? Sketchup is a great way to create 2D and 3D design ideas for your garden projects for your clients and this can be a great new service you could provide…I’m not sure if this makes sense to you, I’ve got an online course in SketchUp for garden designers and landscapers and I would enroll you for free if you think this is somethings that can help you out…let me know. All the best Catarina (from Portugal)

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