The 5 Biggest Risks to a Freelancer’s Mental Health – And How To Deal With Them
We’re coming to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, but mental health worries in the freelancing community are still very much on our mind. We look at five of the most common issues freelancers encounter that can affect your mental health, and share our ideas on how to combat them.
1. Covering bills
A lot of traditionally employed workers worry about stretching their pay to cover all the bills, and this can often become even more stressful for freelancers, who can’t rely on a steady wage. These additional strains of freelancing, particularly when you might feel you have no one else to turn to, can trigger anxiety.
To combat this, try to build up a good client base before you go fully freelance by taking on projects in your spare time. With the security of your “regular” job behind you, you can begin to make a name for yourself in your field without the pressure of needing work – not only do you build your reputation and your clients, but you also get some experience in freelance working: estimating how long it takes to complete a project, identifying any additional skills you may need, and practising time management.
If you’ve already taken the step towards becoming a full-time freelancer and are struggling with supporting yourself, using freelancing sites such as Smartsociates is a great way to find work, as it removes the sourcing and networking aspects of going it alone. This can also nudge you to extend your range – maybe you billed yourself as a graphic designer, but see a project posted for a children’s book illustrator and the client likes your pitch. It can be a great confidence boost to be picked out of numerous bids as just the right person for the job. In the UK, Universal Credit can top up your earnings if you’re struggling as you start out.
2. Time Management
Meeting deadlines and handling your time becomes much more important when you’re working for yourself: if you’re late, your payments are delayed, and you might worry that clients will leave bad reviews or dissuade other potential customers. You may find yourself dealing with multiple projects at once, and it’s not uncommon for them to have deadlines close to each other. It can feel stressful to juggle all your projects, and as deadlines approach it’s easy for the pressure to make you feel that you can’t handle it.
Third-party apps such as Monday.com can give you a bright, easy format to track upcoming tasks – but a budget whiteboard can work just as well. Projects can often seem overwhelming, and so breaking them down into smaller tasks can make them much easier to tackle. Listing all these smaller tasks can also prevent you from worrying where to start: ticking off smaller tasks not only allows you to see how productive you’ve been, but also builds your confidence for approaching those that are more in-depth. Remember to factor in your other chores that will take up your time – if you need to take a meeting with the bank at 9am, your working morning will be shorter. Above all, be realistic with your daily goals: an unfinished list can leave you feeling deflated, and struggling to fit too much into one day will cause burnout. If unexpected circumstances do derail your plan, write it off, let clients know as soon as possible if deadlines will have to be pushed back, and take time to recover before returning to your work. It’s better to ask for more time than to return a shoddy product.
It can be tempting to take on as much work as possible, particularly at the beginning. After all, you might be concerned about not having the same popularity next month, or destroying links by turning people away. Some debut freelancers have also picked up a mindset that they need to be “grafting”: working long days hunched over a laptop, where being busy is a marker of how successful and in demand you are. The truth is, the most successful freelancers work smarter, not longer.
Try to avoid working hard for the sake of it. Identify projects that you are confident in, that you can see through in a timely manner while meeting the client’s specifications. There’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself or branching out into something new, but make sure you’re in the right frame of mind for the task – don’t take on more than you can handle because you feel obliged to.
If you are feeling that you’ve taken on too much to cope, consider breaking projects down into smaller manageable tasks – and include time away from work to keep yourself focussed. Set yourself rewards for completing tasks that take you away from the computer: send off the first draft, and take twenty minutes to walk the dog; complete final revisions and have an hour’s break for dinner. You’ll often sleep better if your work is completed before you go to bed, so instead of setting your alarm an hour early, push through and sleep easy knowing that you’re done for the day. But be rational with it: if you’re too tired to focus or you’re going to be up ’til the early hours of the morning and ruin your productivity for the next day, it’s best to know your limits and get some sleep.
Busy periods are unavoidable, but constant stress shouldn’t be the norm. Set yourself working hours, even if they change week to week or day to day. Freelancers aren’t beholden to the 9-5 Monday-Friday working week, so don’t feel obliged to keep to that: if you prefer a couple of 12-hour days to give yourself a long weekend, and that works for you, don’t feel ashamed of stepping outside the stereotype. Similarly, you might find yourself working best in short bursts of a couple of hours a day throughout the week – prioritise your own working style over what you feel is expected of you. Factor in holidays just as you would with traditional employment, and try to keep at least one day a week work-free.
4. Isolation and Loneliness
For some people, working alone can be their dream – or a nightmare. For most freelancers, it’s a mixture of the two: being freed from workplace pettiness and reliance on other members of the team can help their own talents to shine even brighter, and structuring their own working hours is a massive bonus, but it can be lonely without colleagues. Communication with clients is typically through email, meaning a freelancer can go days without verbally talking to another person.
One solution is co-working spaces. Growing in popularity throughout the UK, co-working spaces can vary from a lone desk to an entire office to rent, so there’s something for every budget. Creative Boom has compiled a list of the best co-working spaces across the country, but you’d be surprised at what even small towns have to offer. If you’re not yet at the stage where you can justify paying for office space, there are economical alternatives. Coffee shops have long been the haunt of the freelancer, and for good reason: with free WiFi and charging power, all you need to shell out for is the caffeine. If you’re freelancing part-time as a student, your university library can be a good place to work in peace whilst enjoying the company of other people.
If you don’t have access to public working spaces (or you prefer the seclusion and comfort of your own home), an online support network can strike a perfect balance between companionship and solitude. Connect with other freelancers and workers in your industry on social media – Twitter can be a particularly open and supportive platform. Setting a ten-minute “Twitter break” can also be a motivation without allowing yourself to get distracted for long periods of time, and it can also be beneficial as it widens your knowledge about the industry.
Okay, this one might not seem like it’s on the same level as the others. But physical exercise is not only necessary for keeping our bodies healthy; movement also helps us to manage stress and releases endorphins – and it can be pretty effective when we’re stuck on an idea as well. Office workers have notoriously sedentary working days, but freelancers can get so caught up in working at a laptop that they have even less scope for physical activity – after all, freelancers can hardly do a few laps of the office for colleague chit-chat. Plus, staring at a computer for hours on end is hardly the ideal way to keep yourself motivated and producing your best work.
Physical activity doesn’t have to mean dumbbells and jogs around the park. Take ten minutes every hour to do a task around the house, such as vacuuming or hanging out washing. The break from work can improve your concentration. You could even try more intense bursts of exercise, like jumping jacks or push-ups – there’s no one around to care how ridiculous you look! If you’re even more dedicated to keeping fit, you can take advantage of off-peak gym times by structuring your working hours outside of the regular 9-5.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, there are organisations to help you get back on track.
The leading mental health charity in England and Wales, Mind is often the first port of call for anyone looking for more information or support.
The Mental Health Foundation funds research into mental health concerns, and also provides resources such as podcasts, inspirational stories, and a quiz to see how your mental health compares to the national average.
Mental Health UK provides tips and support for mental health concerns, including mental health and working.
The NHS’ website has further resources on accessing help for mental health difficulties.
Do you have any other tips for protecting your mental health as a freelancer, or is there something else you wish we’d covered? Leave us a comment below, and we’ll try to incorporate it into this article.