Hi! Hope you’re well! So sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check in again on my payment. It’s been six weeks now since I sent my invoice and still haven’t been paid. I hate to burden you with this, but I tried to contact the accounts department and I got an out-of-office and there’s no number to call. Any help would be super appreciated :). So sorry again. Thanks so much!!
When I first started freelancing, I knew that raising invoices, keep track of expenses and filling out tax returns were part of the deal. I was aware there would be a lot of admin to do and a bill to pay to HMRC. What I was completely unprepared for, however, was freelancing’s emotional tax. The psychological toll of chasing late payments, explaining why I can’t work for free and biting my tongue when a company treats me unfairly.
It’s one thing to fill out an invoice template, it’s another to have to ask to be paid the money you’re owed for work you’ve already long completed. As an individual freelancer chasing payments from much larger organisations, it’s not a case of dashing off a stern email. Instead, I spend countless hours trying to write messages that won’t make me come across like a nuisance. The mental gymnastics of this process is so exhausting that I recently started limiting my invoice chasing to one hour per week. I do this because chasing a late payment isn’t just annoying, it effects my ability to do my job properly and my mental health. With over 15% of the UK’s workforce now self-employed, the psychological impact of poor payment practices is negatively impacting the health of the entire freelance sector.
Last month, the author and journalist Eleanor Morgan tweeted that she was ready to give up freelancing because of the impact payment issues were having on her. She wrote that she was losing sight of what she loved doing because of the “demoralising churn of unanswered emails and chasing money.”
“The whole ecosystem is fucked.”
Over the phone, Morgan tells me that in the 12 years she’s worked as a journalist, she’s rarely been paid on time. Morgan, who is a widely published journalist in top international publications and a two-time author, has struggled to pay her bills and worries about money constantly. She says that while the amounts of the individual invoices she’s chasing may not be that high, the effect is cumulative because the culture of late payment is so pervasive. “Being broke is utterly draining,” she says. “It’s hugely emotional.”
On top of the anxiety the money worries cause her, she says actually chasing the payments she’s owed feels like a behemoth task. Wording an email to an accounts department needs to remain neutral enough as to not risk losing the client, but at the same firm enough to actually stand a chance of being actioned. “We get ourselves into such a self-lacerating mindset,” she says. “You’ve done the work and then you have to strike the right tone between saying that you’ve done your bit and that you need the money now.”
Morgan describes to me a scenario that I myself know all too well. As a freelance journalist, she will land a commission to write an article for a media outlet and then it won’t be until the piece has been published that’s she able to invoice for it. This practice, known as payment on publication, is widely criticised by freelancers for causing further and unnecessary delays to payment.
But it’s not just journalists like Morgan and me who face late payment issues. Like many people who launch a new venture, Marissa Conway left a full-time role to freelance as a consultant in order to fund her business idea. “I knew it would be tough when I went freelance, but I didn’t realise how unstable it would be,” Conway, co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, tells me. She says it was uncomfortable talking about money. “When you go into a contracted full-time role, you discuss your salary at the beginning and maybe negotiate once a year for a raise,” she says. “As women, we already have a more difficult time negotiating and then as a freelancer, you have to do it constantly.”
Conway tells me that chasing a late payment makes her feel very vulnerable and like she’s asking for a favour. “Chasing £200 was sometimes the difference between whether I could buy groceries,” she says. This was made all the worse by feeling completely alone in the process. “As a freelancer, you’re the only one advocating for yourself,” she says.
According to the Association of the Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), the average freelancer spends 20 days a year chasing payments and that 43% have not been paid for their work at all at some point in their freelance career. The Federation of Small Business estimates that 50,000 small businesses close each year because of late payments, costing the UK economy £2.5bn each year.
The real impact of late payment, however, is a lot higher than the cost to the economy. “Irregularity of income isn’t just a practical problem for freelancers, it’s an emotional drain,” Chloé Jepps, Head of Research at IPSE tells me. Jepps’ research has found that nine out of 10 freelancers worry about their finances, with one in three losing sleep over money-related worries. “Late payment and irregular income are a serious source of stress and anxiety for freelancers. It’s unacceptable that the UK’s almost 5 million freelancers are still suffering because clients aren’t paying them on time,” she adds.
Morgan, who is also an assistant psychologist, says that the feast and famine of freelancing is psychologically very difficult. “Our brains hate grey areas,” she says. “We’re wired to resolve cognitive dissonance.”
Or, as she puts it: “The whole ecosystem is fucked.”
In the UK, there are laws that are meant to protect freelance workers. The Late Payments of Commerical Debt (Interest) Act gives freelancers the right to claim a fixed fee, plus interest, for overdue payments. The problem, however, is enforcing this legislation. Freelancers are often nervous about retaliation as the power dynamic of challenging a larger company feels like David against Goliath. In my own experience, issuing a late payment fee might expedite the overdue payment, but the fee itself is often ignored.
In situations where payment is disputed or severely overdue, the next step typically involves a third party, such as the small claims court or a trade union. These options incur fees, red tape and lost time and many freelancers chose not to pursue them because they feel too aggressive. Experts say the current recourse systems are failing freelancers, with the FSB finding that “existing policy interventions have had no discernible effect on tackling problems around the UK’s poor payment culture in the last 5 years” in its report into the economic impact of the UK’s poor payment culture.
In 2017, there was a glimmer of hope when the government opened the Office of the Small Business Commissioner to tackle late payments. The public body, under the leadership of Paul Uppal, reclaimed £5.25 million in unpaid invoices. This service was free for freelancers and small business owners and the office had a 100% success rate on the cases it pursued. In October, however, the government sacked Uppal over an alleged conflict of interest. No successor has been announced, leaving freelancers vulnerable once again.
In the absence of fit-for-purpose legislation, freelancers find support amongst each other. Facebook, Slack and WhatsApp groups serve as protection for the self-employed. In these digital whisper networks, freelancers share war stories and warn each other of the most egregious offenders to avoid. They also come to these spaces in desperation, with nowhere else to turn for help. One such group is Fuck You Pay M£, a Facebook group set up by activists Seyi Akiwowo and Gabby Edlin to help women and non-binary people get paid. The members support each other by sharing rates and offering up advice for dealing with non-paying or late-paying clients. “No one has got anything to lose by knowing what others are getting paid,” Edlin tells me.
As a member of the group, what I see come up over and over again are stories of the emotional work women have to do in order to get paid. A member will post about a company asking them to work for free and the rest of the group will rally behind her, helping her craft an email explaining why that’s problematic and will then spur her on to send it. Conway, of the Center for Feminist Policy, says this is symptomatic of gendered power dynamic to chasing payments. “There is a deep level of conditioning for women not to rock the boat,” she says. “As a result, I’ve struggled to do put a pound sign next to my worth.”
“Chasing £200 was sometimes the difference between whether I could buy groceries… As a freelancer, you’re the only one advocating for yourself.”
Edlin says that by sharing these experiences, we stand a chance of changing bad payment cultures from within the communities most affected by them. “We’re socialised to believe that we’re not supposed to talk about money,” Edlin says. “But the people who say that do so because they don’t want you to ask.”
In her book, Open up: the power of talking about money, Alex Holder unpicks the complexity of our emotional relationship to money, making a case that by talking honestly about it we can change the role it plays in our lives. She says this is especially important for freelancers, who face a double-standard when they ask for money that is owed to them. “I hate that by chasing I can be made to feel ‘grabby’ or ‘impolite’ yet I’m just trying to get paid,” she says. “Why do I feel like that when I wouldn’t think of my landlord as grabby if they chased me for unpaid rent?”
Too many freelancers leave the sector because its payment mechanisms are so debilitating. Undoubtedly, the freelancer’s emotional tax disproportionately affects those who’ve been conditioned not to talk about money the most. The social taboo of feeling uncomfortable having a conversation of money is so ingrained that many of us don’t even have the vocabulary to express the impact it has on our livelihoods.
This is crystalised for me when Holder tells me about a recent experience of calling up a finance department to inquire about a payment that was 40 days late. “The person I spoke to said ‘I know this is frustrating’, that language really upset me,” she says. “Missing a bus is frustrating, but not being paid isn’t just a frustration, it affects everything.”
Anna Codrea-Rado is a freelance journalist who written for international titles including the New York Times, the Guardian, VICE, the Paris Review, New York Magazine, WIRED, Quartz, the Atlantic, the BBC and others. She is the founder of FJ&Co, a platform for freelance journalists which gives them the tools, resources and community support they need to make a sustainable self-employed living. In 2019, she launched the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign, calling for fairer pay conditions for freelance journalists and was shortlisted for a National Press Award for her work with FJ&Co.