Ah self-employment. Flexibility, no annoying colleagues, no commute, no stuffy office. Lovely. According to recent statistics, there are almost 2.2 million freelancers in the UK. This has increased dramatically over the last decade, with COVID seeing freelancing from home soar. If you’re one of the thousands of people who suffer with a mental health condition, this set up can work really well.
Many of us have dreamed of the sole trader life. But like most things, it’s rarely all it seems.
We won’t spend this article moaning on about all the bad bits of being self-employed (honest!). But it’s really important to address how freelancing can affect your mental health, and to know what positive steps you can take if things start to go south.
Recognise when you’re struggling
Is your morning snooze button as worn out as you are? Perhaps your head is fuzzy, brimming with everything you’ve got to do, and you can’t concentrate. Maybe you’re getting crabby with friends and family.
There might be physical problems too, like headaches, insomnia, feeling anxious, or an upset stomach. These can all be signs of mental burnout. Ok, you might not feel that bad – but push too hard and you’ll hit a brick wall.
It’s easier said than done, but force yourself to disconnect and get some rest.
Though it’s cliched (but true) – you’re no good for anything if you burn out. Take regular breaks and days off – and when your laptop’s shut, keep it shut!
Many freelancers find it useful to structure their day to allow for downtime. Go for a walk at lunch time or in the evenings, listen to their favourite music, or have a bath. It’s not skiving, it’s essential. And be realistic – if you’re struggling to manage, talk to your doctor. You’re not being silly or over-reacting.
Bust that loneliness
Considering how many hours business owners and freelancers put into their working lives, feeling a bit cut off and lonely is par for the course. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We’re a sociable species and loneliness is a natural human emotion. Yes, some people are very introverted and absolutely love being alone, but for others it’s rather miserable. Both are fine of course – you are who you are! If you fall into the latter category there are plenty of ways to keep loneliness at bay. You’ll be better motivated too.
Many freelancers take up a new hobby. It’s a great way of meeting new people and enjoying a shared pastime. If it’s working from home on your own that’s not sitting well with you, why not grab your laptop and head to the nearest library or coffee shop with a decent internet connection?
You never know who you might get chatting to, and the silence is much less deafening.
When you started out on your freelancing journey you probably had it all planned out. A leisurely jog in the morning, followed by a nutritious breakfast and lunch, and plenty of time to rustle up something yummy for dinner.
The reality? Intravenous coffee and wondering if two jam doughnuts count towards your five-a-day. We know because we’ve done it too.
Somewhere along the line, the whole daily fresh air, exercise, and healthy eating thing fell by the wayside. But without any sick days to fall back on, it’s so important to stay on top form. Try and cultivate a few healthy habits (go mad at the weekend instead!). You’ll not only be more productive, but your mental health may well improve too.
Recognise when you’re feeling anxious or on edge
A sense of anxiety can come from nowhere for no apparent reason, or it can be due to something more specific.
When we’re anxious, adrenaline floods the body and we feel nervous, edgy, and sometimes emotional. Physical signs of anxiety include muscle tension, sweating, headaches, exhaustion, feeling or being sick, a dry mouth, or needing to go to the loo more often.
As freelancers, a little bit of anxiety might be what we need to kick our butts into meeting that fast-approaching deadline, for example. But too much anxiety can lead to long term mental health problems like depression and panic disorders. It can also affect us physically, potentially leading to high blood pressure, heart conditions, strokes, and other nasties.
We don’t have the ‘cure’ for anxiety, but there is an awful lot that you can do which can at least take the edge off.
The trouble is, if you’re reading this and already feeling anxious, you won’t be in a position to take any of the advice. Panic attacks can make it nearly impossible to focus on anything else, so any other advice is only going to sound exhausting, and unattainable. Sit tight, and ride it out. It will pass.
Once the immediate tension starts to ease back, you’ll have more mental bandwidth to put plans in place to help. Give yourself a structure. Look at what you need to do, and list how you need to do it. It will help you feel more focused and on track when the spiralling starts.
Breathing exercises can also make a big difference by slowing down our heart rate and releasing tension. Close your eyes and breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Repeat until you feel calmer. It might well take a while, and you might feel exhausted afterwards.
Yoga is well worth a go too, as it’s known to relax you, improve your sleep and boost your immune system. It can also help to soothe aches and pains (and depression) which are common in the freelancer community. You don’t even need to turn out for a class if you don’t want to. There are many online yoga courses or even YouTube videos you can try at home in your own time.
Still feeling anxious or panicky? Again, have a chat with your doctor. They may be able to recommend some counselling, medication or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Join a freelancing network
Most freelancers tend to have similar struggles when it comes to mental health. Luckily there are loads of online forums and groups you can join for some company, a good old natter, or even to bounce ideas around.
It’s also a great way to find information about Self Assessment, outsourcing work, or the 101 other things you need to know.
Oh, and one more thing…
Yes, you are good enough. No, your clients don’t hate you. And yes, things will get better.
Visit our freelancer information hub for more guides, tips, and advice.