Adam Gates, a Principal in Odgers Connect, examines the ways in which independent consultants can maintain their wellbeing once the safety net of the corporate world is no longer such a comfortable reality.

Nowhere is the world of work changing more rapidly than at the professional end of the so-called ‘gig economy’. Highly-skilled and experienced professionals are leaving the confines of the corporate world and going it alone. As liberating and entrepreneurial as this may seem, it does throw up a number of challenges that often go unnoticed.

No safety net

Devoid of the usual trappings of being part of a large multinational corporation, how do experienced independents manage their wellbeing when the safety net is gone?

Independent professionals who are self-employed value their autonomy. They have the freedom to innovate and express their own views. They have influence beyond their own role and can compete with other companies and people. All factors that lead to an increased sense of wellbeing and purpose.

This is not to say there aren’t challenges working on the outside of corporate life.

"As an independent, you are walking away from the security, guaranteed income and often generous benefits packages of corporate full-time employment."

It can be daunting and at times stressful. Now it’s up to you to earn enough to replicate your previous salary and benefits. And that is not easy. It can often lead to stress and a reduced feeling of wellbeing.

Independence movement

Despite the potential personal downsides, the supply and demand of independent professionals are steadily increasing.

"Harvard Business Review estimates there are 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe who have left the corporate world to set up on their own."

A recent report by think-tank IPPR found that almost a third of people working in professional careers in the UK are now self-employed.

Professional developments

In professional services, management consulting is seeing the highest rise as clients demand more flexible and cost-effective solutions.

Why are consultants at senior levels in consulting firms embracing the gig economy? Well, as they reach senior level, the job shifts from delivering projects to client and business development. This is not always attractive, despite the financial incentives. So, people are leaving, disillusioned with corporate life. They want to improve their work-life balance and take control of their career. A survey by IPSE reported that the top three reasons to go independent were a better work-life balance, control of work and maximising earnings.

Supporting the self

Finding positive wellbeing in your independent working life is essential. This includes everything from health and happiness, stress-free working conditions, freedom of expression, a strategy of self-discipline, planning and positivity.  

Without these elements, life as an independent can rapidly become isolating and stressful, with potential negative mental and physical health implications.

Baruch Harris is a US-based independent consultant to the life sciences sector and former McKinsey consultant. He reports that being based in Boston, at the heart of the biotechnology hub, has increased both his job satisfaction and his wellbeing.

“I tend to travel less because of proximity to my clients. More importantly, I am hired for my specific expertise and tend to be much more focused on value-added activities.

“The distractions and pressures of internal politics, while not completely absent, are less impactful and much easier to manage or extricate me from.”

In the UK, Tracey Barr, an independent consultant to the National Health Service, the world’s largest public healthcare system, has joined a network for female entrepreneurs.

“It’s a community of like-minded women, and we each draw on each other for business advice and support. We have monthly business breakfasts, lunches and workshops where we meet. It creates a sense of belonging, an alternative structure to a corporate.”

Alumni networks are also an increasingly important way for independent professionals to maintain contact with peers, share learnings on best practice and combat “industrial isolation”.

A good place

Without a corporate office, it is essential to find places to work to avoid feeling unsettled. That might be a client’s office, shared workspaces or a well-set-up home office.

“Working as an independent consultant means you have to take full responsibility for your own health and wellbeing, and this is a very positive thing,” says Andrew Simmonds, an independent consultant, executive coach and former Managing Partner at Accenture.

“You generally have more control over your own time and more freedom to organise your lifestyle in the way that’s best for you. Because I control my own diary, I spend less time in stuffy meeting rooms and am less exposed to the stresses within corporate environments.”

“I’m also acutely aware that my success depends on what I do myself (there’s no corporate machine working on my behalf) so I can see clearly the link between my energy levels and the results I achieve. Maintaining those energy levels is vitally important to me, and that means good nutrition and lots of fresh air and exercise.”

This sentiment is echoed by Wayne Henderson, a former Booz & Company Principal, now an independent consultant who lives in Australia and the UK. Henderson feels it is ultimately about control. “You make the decisions; you have the freedom and flexibility to decide what you do, and this can be incredibly liberating. It often has a good outcome for your mental wellbeing.”

Planning ahead

Inga Umblija has been an independent consultant since 2007 and is currently delivering a major programme across the Nordic region. “Planning for pay gaps is key,” she says. Umblija has learnt to save money as a buffer to carry her through quieter periods, otherwise, she says she would never take a day off. “You have to look at it over a year and plan downtime.”

Last year, she took a month off, devoting much of it to yoga. “That would be hard for a full-time employee to do,” she adds.

A different kind of success

Life in the professional gig economy can be fraught with anxieties, but it can also be liberating. It is ultimately a choice. Independents must pursue a different kind of success to that of their full-time counterparts, based on individual wellbeing maintained through a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

"Our work and our legacy are core to our sense of purpose, and the opportunity to have freedom of choice can enhance our mental and physical wellbeing."

Humans need attachments and a plan. We need routines, we need interaction and purpose. Having self-discipline and the courage to embrace the independent life can deliver a real sense of wellbeing, and happiness. It is a journey that is not without its challenges. The independent’s life has to be managed skilfully, with that in mind.

This article is from the latest ‘Well Working’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.

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Adam Gates

Adam is a Principal in Odgers Connect in London. He supports clients across a range of public and commercial sectors and with a specific focus on the retail and consumer industries. Prior to joini...

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