Lone Wolf – Self-employment in health and safety
18 months ago, Nick Bell shared his thoughts on the world of self-employment in health and safety (in an article called ‘lone wolf’). With his three year anniversary fast approaching, on 1 September 2017, he reflects again on this career path.
Up and Downs
I’ll start with the good news. I’ve had no IT meltdowns (which remains high on my worry list), existing clients ask me back, while new ones seek out my services. This means that I have a steady stream of work…which leads onto less good news.
In the original “lone wolf” article, I said “I’m personally content giving up occasional evenings or a day on the weekend”. Work is now gobbling up most evenings and one or both days of my weekends. The time is frittered away sorting out receipts and invoices, booking hotels and trains, writing or tweaking training material (or articles for the SHP!) etc. Sundays can be spent in transit to a hotel for a Monday morning start. I have achieved an effective work-work balance.
Different business models will obviously place different demands on a consultant’s life. Someone who sets themselves up as a trainer will have a completely different working pattern to someone who can review and write documents whenever or wherever they want.
Ideas I have discussed with other self-employed folk include only taking on work within a certain travel time from home or ring-fencing each Friday to do administration.
Healthy self-employment may require a relaxed outlook: “Next month looks light: it’ll probably fill up and if not I’ll enjoy some time at home”. I struggle to reassure myself with this sort of self-talk. In addition, the self-employed need the discipline to properly evaluate and programme in all the time and costs it takes to do a job, and the self-confidence to reflect this in day rates or fee proposals, so they can jealously protect some personal time.
I’ve concluded it’s probably helpful to be clear about what you want out of self-employment, including the lifestyle you do or don’t want, decide what risks you are or aren’t prepared to accept, then develop a business around this. Therefore, your whole business model can be driven by the lifestyle you want, rather than your lifestyle (and state of wellbeing) being an accidental bi-product of your business.
Focus and Flexibility
The past 18 months has reinforced my belief that it is much easier to find work by offering a focussed service. Most of my work involves training and advising construction clients and principal designers, helping them to develop the insights and systems they need to comply with CDM 2015 in a sensible and proportionate manner.
That business model, however, guarantees that I will be on the road. I have been flexible, and moved away from that core business, to take on opportunities closer to home. This included undertaking fortnightly construction site inspections for a few months and I’ve been supporting a large client for an extended period with statutory compliance and project management processes.
I have also been flexible with the clients I work with. My typical clients are architects, high end developers, higher education institutions etc. Recently, seemingly by coincidence, I have been providing CDM-related training and advice to several companies who build and operate on-shore power stations and district heating schemes.
This highlights the benefits of the broad experience one develops as a consultant. As an insurance risk consultant, I undertook one-off surveys at various industrial sites (such as waste management). Since going self-employed, but as an associate for and with the support of bigger organisations, I had enough of a grounding to be able to deliver training and audits on power generation sites. Now, in my own name, I am being approached to offer CDM-related support in this sector and have enough experience to pursue these opportunities.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to develop a satisfying career (and lifestyle) delivering the same, core services to the same, core profile of client.
Credibility is everything
Any consultant knows they are only as good as their last job. This is even truer for the self-employed. My work comes entirely through word of mouth, repeat business or reputation. Building, and maintaining, a reputation takes time.
Writing articles, delivering CPD talks, active involvement in professional bodies or local chambers of commerce etc. can provide added stimulation and learning opportunities. For me, they are a way of supporting a profession to which I feel a debt of gratitude. Some folk are very active on social media. These techniques all provide networking opportunities and, potentially, business leads.
One of my recent highlights was taking part in an expert panel discussion at Safety & Health Expo 2017 which came about as a result of an earlier article. These are voluntary contributions, and being self-employed this means paying to do a talk. It’s worth investing the time and money.
In short, self-employment continues to be a stimulating career path, but I’ve learned that after the initial panic of finding work, the next challenge is finding a balance.
Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. Through his on-going PhD, Nick is examining how worker engagement can be used to improve health and safety performance.