To celebrate May being mental health awareness month, we’re looking at the challenges faced by freelancers… and how to survive them.
When you’re looking into the life of a freelancer from the outside, it can seem idyllic. No boss breathing down your neck, flexible hours, and the ability to make your own schedule. Who wouldn’t want to do that? So when you quit your job to finally work on the project or career you’ve been planning for years, there normally follows an intense period of euphoria… by the crash. You might put too much pressure on yourself and burn out or feel like you’re being ruled by Murphy’s Law.
Freelancers are predicted to make up to 50% of the workforce by 2020, so it’s vitally important that awareness is raised about the mental health challenges that we face by taking our employment into our own hands. As a 2004 Australian study put it, “overall, self-employment was found to be associated with relatively few mental health benefits,” but why is that? What are the biggest challenges as a freelancer, and how do you make it a success while, most importantly, staying sane?
As someone who’s been through possibly more than my fair share of mental health challenges, here are three of the biggest issues to be aware of when you’re considering going down the freelance route. If you’re already a freelancer, then now’s a good time to check in with yourself. Are your habits healthy, or are you heading towards a breakdown?
1. Self-Imposed Pressure (It Isn’t Always a Good Thing)
When you’re at school, college, or your job, putting pressure on yourself to achieve is rewarded. High grades, pats on the back, and promotions are all the results of being self-motivated. Here’s the thing though: before, there was always someone there to tell you when to stop, whether it was teachers, guidance counselors, parents, bosses,or team-leaders. If you burned out, you could take time off and get paid for it. Even if there wasn’t someone to tell you to go home at 5pm and stop working, chances are that too many long nights would have been noticed.
Freelancing, though, is a lonely life. Even if you’re founding a business with a partner, there isn’t that constant impetus of other people around you. As motivational speaker and salesperson, Jim Rohn said that you’re the average of the five people you spend most time with. So what happens when you’re not getting that motivation everyday, and you slash your work circle to only a few people? If the person you see most is your business partner, or another freelancer, then they will be experiencing the same doubts and pressures as you. It could very quickly turn into a feedback loop of pressure and stress.
One way to lift the amount of pressure you’re putting on yourself is simply to see more people. Try to find people who will be a different influence on you. Perhaps people who have been there already and understand the pressures, but no longer succumb to them. This could mean working from co-working spaces or attending conferences. As a freelancer, you’re not alone in your feelings — even though at times, it can feel completely the opposite.
Journaling is another way to help relieve the pressure you put on yourself. Often you’d give advice to a friend that you wouldn’t take yourself. Simple things such as “you’re doing too much” or “this is good enough.” Writing them down in a journal can give yourself enough distance to realise that, actually, you need to relax. If you feel anxious or depressed, journaling can allow you to analyze those emotions and tackle the cause of them.
2. Burnout — It’s Time to Learn Better Time Management Skills
Hand-in-hand with self-imposed pressure, burnout amongst the freelancing community is incredibly common. There are many causes of this, but one of the main ones is the inability to refuse work. When you are starting out, there’s a tendency to take on all the work which comes your way, since there’s no telling when it might dry up. Suddenly, you’re going from knowing where your next paycheck is coming from to not knowing when it might stop at any moment. Many freelancers report feelings of guilt whenever they’re not working, even if they’re on holiday or spending time with their friends and family.
A study conducted in 2005 on freelancers “found a more specific pattern of health problems in freelancers: chronic strain and a reduced ability to relax.” The ranks of freelancers have continued to increase regardless of the risks to mental health; meanwhile, further studies have continued to show that it can be hard on mental health. A 2016 Swiss study of “non-standard employment” conditions identified high job insecurity and financial difficulties as the most common stressors. The consequences of these stresses were “sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, a high prevalence of antidepressant drug use, and ‘presenteeism,’” a term for continuing to work in the face of illness or other factors that warrant a break.
So why aren’t freelancers taking breaks? As one article puts it, time-off when you’re a freelancer costs you money. If you get sick, you’re eating into your savings. Often the simplest thing to do is just to keep working, which results in a poorer standard of working and risking not recovering.
Your only real asset is time, so a vital part of freelancing is learning time management skills. Set up rush fees, late invoice payment fees, and make it clear to your clients that your time is valuable. If you’re a founder and working on your own time, then treat yourself like you would an employee and be strict about taking time off. Creating a clear routine around which you work, and sticking to it, will keep you both productive and sane. Time tracking apps are perfect for this, as they’ll help you stay accountable both with your on time and your off.
3. Rejection, Learn to Deal With it and Learn to Reject
Does anyone like rejection? Often, fear of rejection is what holds people back from becoming freelancers. Without the filter of a boss, any rejection comes directly to you, and you can’t help but take it personally. After all, commitment to your work and passion is why you’re doing this, so rejection is never going to be easy. Often, though, rejection isn’t the end of the world — and it certainly isn’t something to be afraid of. It sounds corny, but if you’re never rejected, you won’t have a chance to grow in your industry.
Rejection can lead to depression, so finding the positive in that no is vital. Sometimes, it’s even the better thing to do. Some clients are even better off saying no, as they can be more trouble than they’re worth. Which is also why saying no is crucial to your mental health. If you think a client is going to cause you stress, anxiety, or depression, then walk away without feeling bad. There’s no point jeopardizing your good clients by taking on a bad one and losing your mental health in the process.
Rejecting ‘experience’ work is also important. This is a mistake I made early in my own freelance career, and it’s something which is a pretty universal mistake. Taking work that underpays you just because it’s good for your experience, so early on, is going to cause nothing but issues — as well as the fact that this means your client probably doesn’t respect your time.
The good news is that learning to deal with rejection strengthens your mental health, so it’s not something to be afraid of. Just like when you experience physical pain, rejection causes your body to release a natural painkiller. Take every bit of rejection as a learning curve, either to strengthen your self-worth and know that you’re valuable or as a learning process.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, there are plenty of resources for freelancers. Zen Founder, run by Dr Sherry Walling, is dedicated to helping Entrepreneurs “survive and thrive.” There are also Chrome extensions to keep you focused, and apps like Timing which help you achieve a work-life balance. Expenses like therapy sessions, gym memberships, and activities with friends should never be cut, as they’ll help you earn money by keeping you healthy. Anxiety, depression, and burnout are normal in freelancers, but they shouldn’t be. By staying aware, you can work your way towards a healthier, happier, and more successful life.