Working from Home with
My Personal Experience of M.E.
I first realised something was afoot with my health when I was struggling to get out of bed as a 2nd year International Business Studies student – and I know what you’re thinking, that students spend most of their time in bed, hung over and sleeping through lectures – but that was just not me! I ended up quitting my course, something which was completely out of character, because I knew something was wrong, I just couldn’t understand what.
I spent over a year living back at home, struggling to get over the endless infections, aches and fatigue, and feeling as though I was living at the local clinic, before I was sent to a consultant and finally had my M.E. diagnosed. I was 20 years old and felt incredibly low. My friends and peers were all off at university having fun, getting on with their lives and careers, and I felt as though mine had been put on hold. Not one to dwell, I dabbled in some alternative healing, finding homeopathy and reflexology to be really quite helpful in bringing me up to another level, before deciding that, no matter what the consequences to brain, heart and body, I was going back to university. And this time, I would study something I was actually interested in!
So, at the age of 22 I embarked on a three-year honours degree in English and Archaeology. At first it couldn’t have been more difficult. I was home after five days with an incredibly painful kidney infection which was shortly followed by gastroenteritis and acute bronchitis. I missed the vast majority of lectures (with the blessing of my very helpful and understanding tutors) but always got my work in on time (earning me valuable brownie points!). The whole ‘adventure’ was a fairly isolating experience but I can honestly say I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. By my third and final year, I was able to attend around 50% of lectures and seminars and felt as though I was starting to fit in to the university community – all too late to really matter but at least I had finally got my degree! Without M.E. it would have been much less of an achievement. A degree these days has little recognition, with the vast numbers of graduates being churned out each year and the lack of jobs to make use of their skills and knowledge, but I will always be extremely proud of mine.
Since leaving university I haven’t been well enough to work full time, though I can manage part time, especially now that I have the flexibility of working from home. It really is the only option for me and fits in perfectly with being mum to two-year-old Alex.
The last couple of years have been very challenging in terms of trying to work and look after a very energetic and boisterous toddler, but it has all been worth it – even though my health has deteriorated in recent months. M.E. is all about achieving a balance – a balance between what you want and what you can do. You know that you will have to sacrifice things from both sides but it really is your only choice.
My Personal Experience of Working from Home
When my university studies came to an end, I always knew I would need a little time to rest and recuperate before finding some work. Full time work was out of the question, but since I had been ill for so long and had little work experience, pursuing agency work was my only realistic avenue. Not unexpectedly, part-time work was scarce and I spent the first ten weeks working from 8.30am until 4pm every day in an insolvency office before my body gave up and I had to take several weeks off. I then took on a range of short-term positions – having a varying degree of success depending on the length of the day, location and nature of the work. Needless to say, the office-lackey job I went for, where they expected me to lug huge files around all day, lasted merely a few hours, but other less strenuous jobs such as reception work, which often came part time, enabled me to more or less complete two or three week assignments with only minimal sick leave.
It was only after I started working for my sister-in-law and her husband that I had the chance to do something which my health would tolerate. Working 15 hours a week and in such a relaxed environment suited me perfectly and I stayed with them throughout my pregnancy. Alex was born on 16th June 2004 and though the labour was exhausting I was looking forward to six months of paid maternity leave!
I envisaged getting some part-time work at some stage after my maternity leave finished, but was in no real hurry as Christmas was fast approaching. I definitely wanted to work, rather than staying at home full time with Alex, as I knew my brain would need something to test it beyond how to change a nappy, I had even done a Sage accounting course during my maternity leave as I thought there would always be part-time opportunities for accounts work in a small business environment.
But that’s not how it happened!
My step-dad, who was also in between jobs at the time, came across an advert for a position which had my name written all over it. I applied and was accepted for an interview but then heard nothing for weeks. On the morning when the interviews were due to take place I received a phone call asking me to attend. A little flustered about getting there (driving is not always an option with M.E.) and having no childcare arranged, I had to get my partner to drive all three of us. He begrudgingly spent an hour and a half sitting in a car park entertaining a tired, grumpy seven-month-old whilst I was put through my paces.
Thankfully, I got the job and am still happily doing it now. I work promoting the importance of language and cultural skills, helping businesses and individuals in the West Midlands to access language skills and services. My job entails writing for and maintaining a website, writing newsletters and articles, doing promotional work, exhibiting at university careers fairs, meeting people involved in languages and attending events. Apart from the events and meetings, I do all of this from the comfort of my own home, sitting in the spare room at my desk, surrounded by toys and debris from a two-year old whirlwind. I can work from bed if I use the laptop, I can work when I want more or less, so long as I make up my 24 hours each week, and this is the kind of flexibility an M.E. sufferer needs, because you can never tell when you will have bad days or when these will turn into bad weeks.
Working from home may be the only solution if your health is not up to the demands of travelling to and from your workplace each day and taking on the stresses and strains of a job, even if the hours are part time.
If you feel that your health will allow you to take on some work, especially if you can do this work from home, then you need to consider what kind of opportunities are likely to be suitable for you.
Generally working from home implies some sort of service business – perhaps in the fashion and beauty industry, office services, some sort of writing activity, arts and crafts, light assembly work, teaching or telephone selling. Many roles in the IT and internet sectors can be done from home as can some secretarial work, design, accountancy, auditing, journalism, typing and consultancy.
If you are lucky enough to have an existing employer, consider if you could continue working for them but from home instead of going into the office. Or perhaps a previous employer would be willing to employ you to take on light duties from home. It is worth contacting people just to see what is available.
If you have skills in a certain area, such as IT, consultancy or copywriting, and have enough energy and enthusiasm, you could set up your own business. Or you could consider taking on a franchise opportunity, but beware of big capital layouts in the beginning, especially if you are not wholly committed or feel you will be well enough to take it on.
In your search for homeworking you will probably come across online opportunities such as affiliate programmes, internet surveys and getting paid to surf – tread very carefully with these! In my experience they only yield minimal rewards and you do need to do your research first. It is also important that you protect yourself online, so make sure you are running updated virus protection and a firewall before you enter any such websites, and do not disclose any personal or bank details until you are sure the site is secure. If in doubt, leave it well alone.
Whatever you decide to do, you will need to plan things out carefully to make sure your idea is viable both economically and health wise! Talk to your bank manager or an accountant if you are unsure of any of the legal or financial implications.
A lot of working from home opportunities, such as becoming an indexer or proofreader, will require you to study and take a qualification before you can begin, so you must consider whether the cost will be worthwhile in the long run and ensure that the concentration and time spent on the study will not be detrimental to your health.
Changes in the Way We Work
Employers now know they must offer employees more flexible working options to fit in with modern lifestyles and family commitments as well as ensuring they are fair towards people with disabilities.
A report published in 2005 claimed that the British workforce was throwing fewer ‘sickies’ because of the growth in flexible working. ‘In Sickness and in Health’ stated that allowing an employee to choose which hours in the day he or she works and whether to work from home reduced absence levels because people were better able to run their personal lives alongside paid employment.
According to the Office of National Statistics, more than 2.1 million people work from home and about 8 million spend at least some of their working week in the house instead of the office.
Some forward-thinking companies have realised that a lot of their work can be done at home and now advertise flexible working options. Recently many technology companies have done this, so it certainly seems as though the general trend is towards a more flexible way of working, which should benefit us all.
The internet, high-speed broadband and e-mail have made it even easier to work from home and enabled many jobs that once needed to be done on site, i.e. at the office, to be done remotely.
You do need to be aware of the laws of using your home as a workplace; for example, there may be tax implications or changes required in your mortgage or insurance, but I’ll explain these later on in the article.
If you’re thinking of working from home, remember you’ll also need to invest in some equipment such as a PC or laptop, phone connection, broadband connection, mobile phone, printer and fax machine.
Don’t be lured in by ads with small print which offer you a seemingly large amount of money in return for you stuffing envelopes or making paper-mâché flowers (who on earth wants these anyway?).
I looked into this kind of homeworking when my M.E. was first diagnosed but found you usually had to pay up front for resources, the money was ridiculously low and the work almost impossible to complete correctly, and thus payment was not guaranteed. I’m not saying there aren’t genuine opportunities out there from newspaper and magazine advertisements, but it’s so difficult to tell the bad from the good that you’d be well advised to steer clear of such opportunities.
Beware also of offers in spam e-mails about homeworking opportunities – you’d be surprised how many of these I’ve received since agreeing to write this article!
The best thing about working from home, especially when you have M.E., is undoubtedly the flexibility. There is no travelling to and from work each day to tire you out before you even get to your desk, and nobody will mind if you wear your pyjamas or sit in bed with the laptop.
On ‘off’ days you are more likely to be able to stay in bed and do the work when you feel better – meaning you don’t lose out with ‘sick days’ but are still able to get the right amount of work done. Of course, different types of work will allow for more or less flexibility in when you choose to work, dependent on the nature of the job, whether there are deadlines or if you have to make a lot of phone calls at certain times of day. So make sure that you are very clear on this before you agree to take on any work.
Working from home fits in much better with family commitments. And you’ll probably find that the spare hours and spare energy (if there is such a thing with M.E.!) you have from not having to travel to and from work can be much better spent listening to your children read or relaxing with your partner.
If you work from home you can claim a proportion of your household expenses against tax, though you need to have records to support this claim, and remember that if an expense only relates partly to your business (e.g. telephone bills) then the cost should be apportioned accordingly. Phone charges relating to business calls and internet access charges can all be stated on your tax return if you are self-employed. In my own personal experience, having taken advice from the self-employed helpline and worked out and apportioned the costs, the amount of household expenses I could claim back worked out at around £20 per year and for that amount I just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork – but don’t let that put you off claiming what is rightfully yours!
Working from home does have some disadvantages, notably a lack of human contact and interaction. You can feel left out and distanced from what is going on in the ‘real’ world or work. If you can manage it, you should try to get into the office or meet with work colleagues once a week just to keep you ‘in the loop’. Perhaps work colleagues would be prepared to come and visit you just for an hour a week to keep you up to date. Some people will tell you that working from home can leave you feeling trapped by the same four walls but then hey, you’ve got M.E, so you’ve pretty much written the book on this one!
If working from home is going to be successful you will need to be very focused, self-motivated, disciplined and structured, keeping certain hours for ‘work’ and others for ‘housework’ and ‘rest’ – which you will inevitably need!
Working from home can carry a cost. If you work from home regularly you will need to inform your insurer. Some insurers will consider you ‘high risk’ if you keep expensive equipment, such as laptops and PCs, on site, thus making it a potential target for thieves. Others may consider the risk to be lowered by you being at home all day, as you are less likely to get burgled. If your business involves anyone visiting your home, you would need to be covered by public liability insurance in case they should trip and hurt themselves. You should also inform your mortgage lender if you are working from home, as you may be liable to pay a higher interest rate. In the vast majority of cases, where you are just working from one room in your house and the rest of the property remains clearly residential, it should not make a difference to the mortgage lender. There is no general rule of thumb, but the best advice is to keep your insurance company and mortgage lender aware of your situation.
Fitting in with Family Life
Working from home seems like the ideal way to combine earning a little money with spending time with your family. But you do need to get the balance right. Overdoing it on either account will be bad for your health.
Don’t forget that if your partner goes out to work, he or she will need time to assimilate to the home environment when returning each night, whereas you have been working at home all day and are most likely already relaxed.
If your children are at school or nursery, remember to save some energy each day to go and collect them! Or better still, get someone else to help out with this.
Don’t think that because you are at home all day you can do the washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning as well as a day’s work. It’s much easier to ignore a mounting pile of ironing or a two-inch layer of dust on top of the TV if you’re out at the office all day, but try to resist temptation and leave chores or get someone else to help. Remember it is your work which earns you a living, not doing the housework!
If you are going to work for yourself, you will need to register with the Inland Revenue as ‘Self-Employed’. They have a Newly Self-Employed helpline where advisors can help you to complete the process and answer any of your queries.
People who are self-employed pay National Insurance Contributions (usually by Direct Debit every four weeks) and are required to complete a self-assessment form at the end of every tax year, which calculates how much tax you need to pay. This is much easier if you do it online, as it saves time and allows you to see how much you owe immediately.
For more information on becoming self-employed, visit the HM Revenue & Customs website.
Sources of Further Information
Most banks and building societies have free literature for small businesses and people setting up on their own. When you next go into the bank, ask for any leaflets they have which might be useful. Register with local employment agencies, because you never know when they might have a vacancy for homeworking.
Scour internet job sites to get some idea of the kind of vacancies available and in what industries.
Ring past employers or friends who have their own businesses to see if they need anyone to write letters for them, do the invoicing or send e-mails for a few hours a week.
The Home Business Alliance has some useful information and links to help you with working from home. It’s well worth spending some time researching sources like this first before dashing into anything.
PeoplePerHour is a UK-based company that provides a website for the advertisement of freelance work.
All that leaves me to say is good luck! If this article has inspired you to work from home, I wish you all the very best. I would love to hear how you are getting on, so if you would like to chat about working from home or any other M.E. related stuff please do drop me an e-mail (address at the top of page). Please take a moment to read Working with Chronic Illness by Beckie Melvin.