Claire Stevenson had never been made redundant before. When an email came in March, warning her that her job as a PA was in danger, it came as a bolt from the blue. At the time, she was having dinner with her brother and his wife. She read the email but chose not to mention anything, privately wrestling with a feeling she describes as “shellshock”. Claire says: “I was holding everything in, and pretending I was OK and not concerned about it.” After the news was confirmed, pretence gave way to raw emotions and unanswered questions, that ultimately demanded lifestyle changes Claire had never previously imagined.
Things changed quickly. She’d been in her role for six years, and prior to that had worked in a variety of industries. Having always been in work, now for the first time she found herself changing job through circumstances outside her control. She says it was a daunting prospect, complicated initially by a range of see-sawing emotions.
“Some days I’d feel quite low”
After a couple of days she was extremely calm about it all, a feeling she believes was brought on by the realisation that lots of people were in the same boat. She believed the decision to make her redundant reflected worsening economic circumstances, it wasn’t to be taken personally. However she knew that other people would be looking for work at the same time, adding another challenge to an already anxious time. Claire says “I had the concerns of ‘will I get another job’, because obviously a lot of people had been made redundant.”
At first Claire felt that lockdown only made things more difficult, but she later came to believe that it offered a chance of hope. By setting herself up as a remote PA, Claire believed a shift in direction might help her chances of finding work. She began to imagine herself as a freelance executive assistant, though she had never previously envisaged herself as a freelance, “I’ve always liked being employed, I never wanted to be self-employed, I like the comfort and the safety of being employed, and losing that was definitely the hardest bit.”
Swinging back and forth between anxious uncertainty and positive hope was quite a difficult experience. Claire says, “some days I’d wake up quite positive, some days I’d wake up and feel quite low” – she emphasises the word, letting it hint at the extent of difficulties she obviously felt during a period of rapid change.
Setting up as a freelance
Claire talks about the value of support from the people close to her, particularly her boyfriend – and also a friend who needed help with horses and with holiday lets. Bookings for these were being quickly delayed or cancelled and the friend needed help in dealing with clients. Claire and her boyfriend moved into the friend’s beautiful house, “we were supportive for each other”, Claire says, “coming together and helping each other out actually helped me during the lower days”.
Initially Claire planned to take on short-term contracts, but things moved in a different direction when her former employer offered her one day a week. “That was amazing for my confidence”, she says, “as it ended lingering fears about whether the redundancy had been personal. This, along with one day a week assisting with her friend’s horses, helped pay for accommodation, and bought enough time to allow Claire to start setting herself up as a freelance. Not having tried freelance work before, she was unsure where to begin. How would she find potential employers and how much should she charge them?
“In some ways, life is better than before”
For the first time she found a need to ‘price’ herself, “which is a weird thing to do”. She began by seeking advice on appropriate market rates. At first she was uncomfortable quoting a figure to prospective employers, but her initial squeamishness fell away the more she believed her day-rate represented her value. “It’s strange”, she says, “that things back then that I was very nervous and uncomfortable with I’m actually now more confident and happy about.”
Eventually, the one day a week with the horses became two days. And the day a week with the previous employer, and one day a week with a new employer, meant that all in all Claire had gone a long way in restoring her income, giving her “sort of a reason to get up in the morning”. Looking back on the turbulent days of early summer, Claire says an important first step was to “stabilise” by remembering she had strong experience and skills. She says an essential part of her strategy was keeping busy.
“I still have good days and bad days”, Claire says, comparing the recent months to a queasy rollercoaster ride. What advice might she give to others in a similar position? “Do whatever you can to make it work. Building a portfolio makes sense. I’d never wanted to be self-employed but now that I am, I’m able to do things differently. When I was employed full-time I remained at my desk at home, even in quiet moments when there wasn’t much to do. Now, I feel more in control of my time and what I do with it. I’ve learned to become more robust. In some ways, the life that I have now is better than before.”