On the face of it, freelancing seems like a mental health dream. Freelancers don't have to cram their lives in around uncompromising office hours. They can live and work according to their own rhythms.
Night owls can wake and work late, rather than yawning their way through early starts. Larks can get everything done super-early, and spend the afternoons winding down. And on hot days like today, freelancing is absolutely unbeatable (I'm writing this from a sunny garden and feeling disgustingly smug as hashtags like #stuffyoffice start appearing).
But there is a dark side to freelancing. Insecurity, isolation, that 'going nowhere' feeling as employed friends celebrate promotions...it's not all lie-ins and gardens. Behind those sun-drenched #freelancelife posts hide myriad mental health challenges, including:
- Lack of security: There's no reliable wage slip, no sick pay, and no guarantee that the work coming in will cover the bills going out. The challenge and dynamism of this seat-of-the-pants lifestyle can be exciting, but vulnerability and anxiety are always waiting in the wings.
- Isolation: We all need semi-regular face to face interaction, if only to keep our brains calibrated to 'human'! And nobody is better placed to spot the deepening patterns of mental ill health than the people who see you every day. If you're not working around others, it's perilously easy to tumble into mental-health rabbit holes, with neither colleagues nor a dedicated HR support system to pull you out.
- Lack of structure: Without a pushy boss, working up the self-discipline to beat deadlines isn't always easy. Stress and self-recrimination are common for procrastination-prone freelancers. What’s more, if you're feeling depressed, the lack of external structure to your working life means that there's nothing to stop you from sitting and stewing while deadlines fly by and clients drift away.
- Increased workload: There's a huge unpaid workload attached to freelancing. Alongside what we're paid for, freelancers typically have to keep their own accounts, do their own taxes, spend untold hours pitching for work, negotiate their own contracts, draw up (and, regrettably, chase!) invoices, and maintain their own brands. It's a lot, and the pressure can be tough.
If you recognise some of these issues in your own freelancing life, you are far from alone. But there are a few things which could help:
- Take (productive!) advantage of your time freedom: Time-freedom is not the same as free time. That's a lesson all freelancers learn the hard way! Filling up the unstructured hours with Netflix and naps leads to panic when the deadlines come racing up. But, if you're disciplined about it, you can use your flexibility to nourish your mental health. Make sure you're getting your work done – but also structure your time in a healthy manner. Take breaks to prepare nutritious meals, go for walks, or cool off an overworked brain. Getting that fabled work-life balance isn't always easy, but freelancers have a better chance than most at achieving it. For more tips, have a read of our 7 ways to put the ‘free in freelancing.
- Look after your physical health: Yes, it's boring, but what's good for your body is good for your mind. If you're numb with depression or paralysed with anxiety, it's frustrating to be told that you need to eat broccoli and go for a run. But that doesn't mean that it's not good advice. The basics – good nutrition, good sleep, exercise – are the foundations upon which emotional equilibrium is built.
- Practice gratitude: Gratitude can make an astonishing difference to your state of mind. Science says so! Rather than ruminating on your freelancer failings, instead thank yourself for the flexibility, for the guilt-free lie-ins, for the variety in your work. If it's a really bad day and you're struggling for gratitude, go smaller. Do you have somewhere to live? Are your teeth intact? It doesn't really matter what you're grateful for – it's the act of searching out and acknowledging good things (however small!) which makes the difference.
- Schedule breaks: Freelancers quickly get into the habit of saying 'yes' to everything. Remember that your work is only as good as your mental state. Never taking a break puts your mental state at risk. So schedule breaks and learn to say 'no'.
- Keep in touch: The solo lifestyle is a big freelancing draw, but it's still really important to maintain a human support network. Apart from anything else, it sometimes takes another perspective to show you when you're spinning out and in need of help. For more advice on keeping loneliness at bay, read our blog on avoiding lonely freelancer syndrome.
- Seek help: Never, ever be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. You may feel like you're too broken to be fixed, or that you're unworthy of help. That's not true. There’s all kinds of help out there - don't be afraid to pick up the phone.
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