Freelancer mental health & how to manage it

David Bailey-Lauring
Written by David Bailey-Lauring
on August 14, 2020

According to research, 40% of millennials and 53% of Gen Z’s are now working for themselves. It's more common than ever to be self-employed. 

But how does it affect your wellbeing?

Is freelancing better or worse for your mental health?

Read these statistics from freelancers themselves:

  • 46% of people think freelancing harms their mental health.
  • 61% are working five days a week or more.
  • Only 4% of our freelancers feel their employing clients have their mental wellbeing in mind.

So, in light of these stats, why would we become self-employed freelancers in the first place?

Why do people become freelancers?

Being your own boss is one of the main reasons why people choose to become freelancers

When dreaming about the lifestyle of a freelancer, it can seem idyllic compared to looking out of an office window on a cold, gloomy day. 

There are a plethora of reasons to become a freelancer or self-employed entrepreneur:

  • No employer making demands. 
  • Flexible hours. 
  • Working from anywhere. 
  • The ability to work on your schedule. 
  • More free time for family and hobbies
  • Being the boss!

Who wouldn't want that?

With the flexibility, variety of work and the ability to work when you want - being self-employed can feel like you have the best job.

And it is not only the lifestyle that is attractive for freelancers, or the playground of writers and software/app developers. 

Popular freelancing website Upwork now has the following roles listed (and many more):

  • Customer service
  • Translators
  • Marketers
  • Tutors & Teachers 
  • Sales professionals
  • Photographers
  • Data-entry professionals
  • Lawyers
  • Human resources professionals
  • Business development consultants

These 'job titles' all swelling the ranks of the self-employed and with the USA alone having 57 million freelancers, with 31% of them earning more than $75,000 USD a year.

Freelancing then is a profitable way to make a living doing exactly what you prefer doing and when you need to. It is not considered a side hustle anymore - it is a full-time role that freelancers can live their lives, with family or without.

The demand to become freelancers is not only fuelled by the wish to have a better work-life balance. 

Giant corporations are boosting this demand as they prefer to hire short-term specialists who can deliver on projects quicker.

Hiring and training employees are too expensive when factoring in taxes and employee benefits. 

With one-fifth of companies sized at 1,000+ employees now having a workforce consisting of 30% remote workers, it is evident to all that the demand for freelancing is only going to skyrocket. 

  • In the USA alone, there are 4 million more freelancers than six years ago.
  • In the UK, the number of freelancers has risen by 14% in the past decade.

Source: https://skillscouter.com/freelance-statistics/

However, with the rise in freelance and remote workers has brought an increase in mental health problems.

Freelancing and its impact on your mental health

86% of surveyed freelancers cited irregular income as the cause of their mental health issues

Freelancing can be a highly enjoyable lifestyle once your business has been set up and is in full swing. 

But even when you have attained this business status there are still frequent stressors that cause freelancers mental anguish. 

According to a freelancer survey, the significant anxiety and stress issues that cause mental health issues in freelancers are:

  • 86% cite irregular income
  • 80% state that clients never give the correct brief or clarity on a project.
  • 77% cite they lack the talent to complete a job
  • 71% say that clients' ghost' them (client stops communicating or delays projects).
  • 69% state long hours
  • 66% complain that they feel alone and have nobody to share their stresses with.

For those already suffering from mental health concerns, freelancing only exacerbates the issue. One research study noted that 48% of freelancers found it "lonely;" 46% said it was "isolating."

Alarmingly, a further 25% of respondents experienced "frequent periods of depression." 21% said that the loneliness of home-working had caused them to have suicidal thoughts.

These concerns are not only related to client-project work either. Freelancers also have to worry about their billing, payment, insurance, finances and savings. 

This creates more stress and mental health-related issues. 

It is one of the reasons Xolo was founded - to meet the demands of running a company.

Hand-in-hand with the statistics mentioned above, it is burnout amongst the freelancers that is the most common mental health issue. 

The primary reason for this is the inability to refuse jobs and to stop working. 

When you begin freelancing, there's an inclination to take on any work because:

  1. you need more business experience
  2. you need money to get your business off the ground
  3. you don't know when work will dry up (particularly recently, when freelancers lost work due to the pandemic).

Freelancers are in a heightened state because they panic not knowing when work will dry up.

Many freelancers often convey sentiments of guilt when they don't work; even when they are on holiday, spending time with their family at home or going out socialising.

What are the consequences of not taking a break? 

A study identified the symptoms of these mental health stressors as: 

  • sleep disturbances 
  • depression
  • inability to relax
  • high antidepressant drug use
  • 'presenteeism,' a term for keeping on working despite facing illness or other reasons that justify a break.

So why aren't freelancers taking breaks? 

Well, when you're a freelancer, time costs you money. If you become unwell or take a holiday, you're digging into your savings. 

Freelancers then continue to work, pushing through the sickness barrier. Not only is your health deteriorating, but now the quality of work performed will get worse.

Which is why taking mental health seriously is vital for your work-life balance.

Managing your mental health whilst freelancing

Getting enough sleep, rest and exercise are pivotal for defeating stress

Achieving a suitable work-life balance and keeping burnout at bay is the first step to combatting a freelancers' mental health problems.

As entrepreneurs and freelancers, we live for the “I can do anything” mentality that drives us to succeed no matter what the cost. However, this does put us with a high likelihood to burn out or get easily anxious and depressed.

1# Recognise what's stressing you out

As a business owner, we get sucked into both servicing clients and managing to run our businesses on a day to day basis.

There's not usually one sole factor that is causing you stress - yet if you can determine which of them is causing you to worry more, then you know where you need to change something. 

It could be: 

  • unrealistic deadlines set by clients
  • financial worries when clients do not pay on time
  • managing other contractors over international time zones
  • learning corporation tax and legal jargon

This list is not exhaustive, but if you can pinpoint what is bringing you down, then you know where to make changes to remedy the situation.

2# Take back control of your time

Remember the reason why you began freelancing in the first place? One reason is that you wanted more time to do more of the things you love.

Now is the time to time track where your hours go - and not only what you work on, but your hobbies and social life. 

By doing this, you can identify where your time is going. Maybe you are working too much and need to reduce your client portfolio?

Maybe it is that you are not working enough, and when dealing with client work, feel that you have not enough time to complete projects?

You can also determine where your most productive hours are so that you can work with your clients at your optimal peak.

If you don't know where your time is going, you'll lose focus, and it’ll likely result in more stress. 

3# Set client boundaries

Make your clients' expectations clear by defining what and when work will be done. 

For example, if you will not answer emails or phone calls past your work hours or at weekends, then don't. 

Learn to refuse. 

Just because employers are paying freelancers doesn't mean the freelancer should be considered inferior to the organisation. Nor does it mean that only the freelancer must conduct themselves with professional courtesy.

Otherwise, clients will expect more from you not only putting on more pressure but not paying you as well. 

Most corporations have poor time management. 

Rather than send a request for freelance work two weeks before a deadline, they give two days (if you are lucky). The best way to manage these emergency requests is to make it very clear when you aren't available. 

Underline that you're busy with other clients, that you want to do the job but that they will have to wait. Or, if they insist, add an emergency premium onto the work - they will soon develop better time management skills.

The same with getting work.

Not all potential clients will want to work with you. Going for freelance gigs is both exhausting and demoralising if you don't get one.

Learn to move forward; keep on going until something comes through. The odds are that the client didn't value your work anyway, so it is better to find a client that does. 

4# Talk with other freelancers

Talking with others helps deal with loneliness and isolation. Not only does it provide an outlet to discuss your concerns, but the person you are speaking to is also probably facing the same challenges.

Chatting with others has two benefits:

  1. You will quickly understand you are not alone in your worries about building a successful freelance business
  2. The other freelancer probably has faced your situation before and likely has found a solution and can provide answers.

Ensure you share your experiences with other like-minded individuals - you'll soon note that you are not alone.

5# Taking care of yourself

Getting enough sleep, rest and exercise are pivotal for defeating stress. 

If you do not get enough sleep, then your regular sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) will become distorted. You'll soon begin to suffer from sleep deprivation, which correlates to poor mental health.

The same with eating a healthy diet. 

It can be very tempting to order junk food that provides you with a short-term boost to completing a project deadline, but in the long-term, it will impact your overall wellbeing, not to mention your waistline.

Getting enough exercise and relaxation are also critical for beating burnout. You don't necessarily have to go to a gym - you can go for a run or even sport play as part of a team to interact with others. 

Lastly, ensure you take a holiday or even just a weekend break. If you are suffering from temporary burnout, it is a great way to recharge your batteries and get back on track.

6# Outsource when you can

Figure out what you can outsource to others. 

Although it is tempting to keep all the project fees within your company, there comes a realisation that others can do specific tasks.

Whether hiring a copywriter to assist in your content writing projects, or a developer to take over some monotonous coding; doing a bit less yourself will work wonders for your mental health. 

You can find reliable business freelance partners from various sites. Read how to find the best ones here.

7# See a professional

At times within our lives, there will come a time when we have to admit that we need a little professional help to get us back on our 'path.'

Admitting you have some mental health issues is nothing to be ashamed of. Your mental wellbeing is far much more valuable than the work that is dragging you down. 

Not getting professional help can inhibit your ability to work in the future and thus end up losing more income in the long-term. Better to get a little fine-tuning to put you back on track.

Those with existing mental health concerns should certainly consider a therapist whilst working whether freelance or employed.

Summary

Anxiety, stress, depression and burnout are normal for freelancers. 

By becoming aware you can work towards a happier, healthier and more successful freelance lifestyle. 

Always remember the reason why you wanted to become a freelancer in the first place - the opportunity to have your own business, flexible schedule, better-earning potential and more time to do what you love. 

Just ensure you factor in time to manage yourself, so you don't burn out too quickly too soon.Are you thinking of becoming a freelancer? Then read our 21 tips on what to do first here.

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