Self-employment was never mentioned in my careers guidance at school, and when I graduated, there was very little emphasis on working for yourself – it was all about applying for jobs in big organisations. The world’s changed a lot since the 90s, but there’s still very little societal understanding about what it means to be a sole trader, and what challenges we have faced, particularly during the pandemic. When you meet someone for the first time, and they ask you about work, they don’t really know how to relate when you talk about being self-employed. I don’t ask people what they do for a living any more.
I never expected to retrain as a Group Exercise Instructor at the age of 39, much less find myself teaching classes via zoom over the past 18 months, but certainly, working for myself has meant I could arrange my hours round the needs of my family. I particularly wanted to be there when the children came home from school. Even though they are teenagers now, I think that time when they return after their busy day, have a bit of toast and a drink and (sometimes) tell me what they’ve been doing, is really important for us all.
Teaching exercise classes three times a week is obviously good for my own physical health but in a job like mine it’s easy to overdo it. In February this year, my dad died of secondary brain cancer, and a few weeks later, I sustained a serious back injury, which was probably exacerbated by the grief I was feeling. There is no compassionate leave or sick pay, and although I took a bit of time off, I felt under pressure to get back to work, not lose any more money and provide continuity for my customers.
In the early days of the first lockdown I suddenly had to work out how to use zoom (I’d never heard of it before March 2020), buy the necessary equipment, and explain to everyone (most of whom are retired) how we were going to be able to continue exercising together, remotely. I did lose a number of customers, who just didn’t want to exercise via my website or learn how to use zoom. However, many loyal participants did take the plunge, and are still enjoying live-streamed lessons in our online community.
The stress of the technology letting us down, people not knowing how to use it or being disgruntled did really get to me, on top of having to make sure my children were accessing their online lessons. Like many of us, I started to feel more isolated, even though my attendance numbers were up and the business was starting to do well. It was at this point that I joined Community, to have a sense of belonging to something concrete, and to feel that someone was on my side. I have always been politically active but hadn’t realised that there was a union for the self-employed. It’s good to be part of something bigger.
I have never earned enough money, as a sole trader, to pay income tax and I often feel bad about this, but I do remind myself that my work enables me to put my family first, whilst making a positive difference to other people’s physical and mental health, and the fact that Fitness with Alison is still going after five years – and a pandemic – is something to be proud of.
If you are a member of Community and need help or advice, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0800 389 6332.