The dark side of freelancing: protecting physical and mental health to avoid burnout

Xolo
Written by Xolo
on May 22, 2021

There’s a lot to like about being a freelancer. You set your own hours. You choose your own clients. You work independently, control your workload, and vacation whenever you like. Who wouldn’t want a job with all those perks?

But just like any other career, being a solopreneur — especially if you work remotely from home — has its downsides. There are occupational hazards just like with any other job. And if you're not aware of the inherent pitfalls in freelancing, your physical and mental health will suffer the consequences. Keep reading to find out what they are and what you can do to combat them! 

Sedentary Lifestyle Effects

The new findings on sitting around all day are shocking and even downright hard to believe. ("How can sitting be the new smoking!?") Studies have found that a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to obesity, some types of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even death.

Sitting, reclining or lying down for extended periods drastically reduces your metabolism. It interferes with your body’s ability to break down fats, regulate blood pressure, and stabilise blood sugar levels.

In one particularly alarming study that took place over 15 years, sedentary lifestyles were linked to higher risk of early death even in participants who had begun exercising more. In other words, even exercise won’t help if you sit too much!

Remaining sedentary messes with your mind, too! One study with almost 14,000 participants showed that lack of physical activity and excessive sitting increased the risk of developing a mental disorder. Another study, this one with 110,000 subjects, found a strong link between a sedentary lifestyle and depression.

Clearly, a more active way of working throughout the day can make all the difference when it comes to maintaining your mental and physical health.

Sedentary Lifestyle Solutions

How much sitting is too much?

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have suggested a good rule of thumb: For every hour that you sit during a typical workday, you should stand for at least one hour. Ideally, you should stand three hours for every one hour you sit, but you gotta start somewhere, right?

In an average 8 hour workday, try to stand for 4-6 hours. But don't go crazy at first — especially if your body isn't used to standing that much! Break down the daily totals into smaller increments in which you alternate between sitting and standing. Don’t stand longer than an hour and thirty minutes at a time. Don’t sit more than 30 minutes at a time. A timer can do wonder to keep you on track! 

Design an ergonomic workspace to prevent back and neck problems. There’s ongoing debate about the value of standing desks, but many freelancers swear by them!

Stand on the bus or subway. Do household chores in between periods of sitting. Take phone calls outdoors while you take walk. Park your vehicle a good walking distance away from your destination. Little efforts add up to bit changes. 

The thin line between workaholism and burnout

There are aspects of traditional employment that few freelancers ever miss once they leave. Micromanagement and bad coffee are two examples.

A workplace with a good company culture, though, provides certain positives that freelancing often does not. For one thing, somebody eventually turns off the lights, sends everyone home, and locks up for the day. A freelancer may lose all track of time until it’s 1 a.m. and she realises she never even stopped to eat dinner!

As a solopreneur, it might be more difficult to track your own progress and growth. You can’t exactly give yourself a promotion, so validation might be harder to come by until you start getting glowing testimonials!

You may find you miss the teamwork or brainstorming sessions with colleagues. You may not get as much feedback on your ideas and innovations. Maybe you thrive on competition. Sure, it’s nice to win employee of the month for 12 months straight as a solopreneur, but those are hollow victories.

For all those reasons, freelancing can feel a little disorienting at first. Certain personality types throw themselves into it with a vengeance and soon find themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. Others fire up the laptop and seem to go into an immediate flow state. Both personality types need to learn how to meet somewhere in the middle if they're going to have any longevity as a freelancer. 

How to find balance as a freelancer 

Your days are missing the milestones that a workplace offers. Maybe a brief daily meeting, a monthly team-building exercise, and a yearly conference helped mark the time.

The best remedy for disorientation is to structure your workday and set deadlines for yourself. Set daily, weekly, monthly and yearly milestones to track performance and career growth. They will help you stay focused on your goals and track your progress. Be sure to reward yourself for your accomplishments!

You can set your own hours, but create a start and finish for each day. Schedule each block of time. Establish something that you’ll always do first thing to get the ball rolling. That might be making a task list or checking out freelance job boards. Think of a productive activity, like making cold pitches by email, and commit to doing that whenever you feel unmotivated.

Knowing when to quit is just as important as staying engaged. Yes, you can get a lot done working 12-hour days, but you’re setting yourself up for serious burnout. So be sure to locate your off switch, and use it regularly!

Freelancer negativity and self-absorption

Positive feedback and affirmation at your traditional job probably offset occasional lapses in your performance. When you work alone, there’s nothing to counter your own negativity. You get to just sit around and obsess over all your perceived flaws and shortcomings!

One dictionary defines self-absorption as “a state of being preoccupied with oneself or one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others or the outside world.” You might be thinking of celebrities who post endless bikini selfies on social media, but narcissists aren’t the only ones who are self-absorbed.

Being self-aware is vital to growth and improvement. Self-awareness is a sign of maturity and a positive trait to have. It is a strength, but strengths taken to extremes usually become weaknesses. In this case, a freelancer’s self-reflection and personal insight — without proper context — could become a never-ending internal dialogue of toxic negativity!

It’s a trap that many solopreneurs fall into, especially when they’re just starting out and struggling to build a customer base. They second-guess every decision, question their every move and take every rejection as a signal that the end of the world is at hand. Their confidence, self-esteem and even mental health take a beating at the slightest (perceived) criticism. 

Introspection is good. Navel gazing that distorts reality is bad. An article about self-absorption in Psychology Today quoted the Dalai Lama as saying, “People who have the tendency to use more self-referential terms (I, me, myself) tend to have more health problems and earlier deaths.”

Self-absorption is bad for your career, bad for your relationships, and bad for your health — both physical and mental. 

A solution for the slow-creep of freelancer self-absorption

Arrest every thought. Interrogate it. Is it accurate? Is it constructive self-criticism? Is it specific or more general? Is it something you can learn and grow from? 

Specific self-criticism is helpful: “You dropped the ball by not following up with that lead.” You can work with that and improve for next time.

General negativity in broad terms is unhelpful: “You’re such a failure. Who would ever want to work with you?”

Many freelancers feel this sort of overwhelming criticism when they're first starting out. But the more positive collaborations you have under your belt, your self esteem will become much more resilient! 

Learn more about fighting imposter syndrome as a freelancer.

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The effects of isolation as a freelancer

Social isolation is largely withdrawing from the world and everyone in it. Self-isolating, especially if you’re 50 or older, can take a heavy toll on your health.

Isolation is such a problem, say researchers, that it poses a risk for early death comparable to that posed by obesity, sedentary behaviour and smoking. Poor social interaction raises the risk of heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%.

Even if you like being alone and don’t feel lonely when you isolate, all the experts agree that long-term solitude isn't healthy!

How to fight isolation as a freelancer 

Instead of working from home, make an effort to go where some people are. Go work from your local coffee shop, a coworking space, or maybe even the park if the weather is cooperating. Reconnect with an old friend. Go visit some family members you haven't seen in a while. Join a club or even a workout group. Take up an intramural team sport. It really doesn't matter what you do — all that matters is that you connect with other humans. 

This can be a challenge in the beginning, especially if you tend to be on the more introverted side. But think of it this way: this isn't just to help you. It's to help your business, too! Socialising with others will allow you to learn something new, make an important contact, find some new leads, or maybe just spark a brilliant new idea! Staying socially engaged is good for you and good for business. So don't forget to reach out. 

Depression, anxiety and the darker sides of freelancer mental health 

The good news is that solopreneurs are more physically healthy than their office-based counterparts. The bad news is that they are significantly more susceptible to depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.

In a recent Viking survey of 1,500 workers, half were office-based employees, and the other half were freelancers. About 55% of freelancers reported having depression compared to 30% of office-based workers. Nearly two-thirds of the freelancers reported feeling lonely every day, and more than 60 percent felt stressed by the demands of managing their own business responsibilities.

These numbers are grim but not especially surprising.

There’s no face-to-face camaraderie when you work from home. There’s no one to bounce ideas off. You have to find your own clients and justify your value. Some clients are difficult to work with or vague about what they want. Some are slow to pay. Some ghost you without explanation.

Throw in the lost sense of security from a regular paycheck, and it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety are very real threats unless you play it smart.

Managing your mental health as a freelancer

It’s worth pausing here to say that many aspects of physical and mental health overlap. When your body is healthy, your mind is likely to be, too. When you’re not eating right, exercising or getting enough sleep, you feel crummy all the time. Your brain is sluggish. You’re in a sour mood.

A study conducted at Harvard found that each major increase in physical activity decreased the odds for becoming depressed by 26%. Physical activity, from doing a few loads of laundry to running for 30 minutes, chases the blues away and relieves stress.

Another remedy is building a network of support. Talk to people close to you about how you’re feeling. Connect with other freelancers

If you ever feel like professional help is in order, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with a therapist. The worst thing you can do is suffer in silence.

Learn more about protecting your mental health as a freelancer

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No Exercise, no enough sleep… and a poor diet

Autonomy and freedom are two of the best perks of freelancing. Unfortunately, they make it easier to develop bad habits. If you snack all day or start skipping midday walks, no one will know.

For most of us, the main excuse for not exercising is lack of time. In truth, we have plenty of time. We just don’t manage it well. That’s a shame because regular exercise is nothing short of a miracle cure. Check out these physical benefits:

  • 50% lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers
  • 30% lower risk of early death

Exercise has also been shown to boost mood, confidence and brainpower. It triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins, which interact with the receptors that reduce your perception of pain. Scientists say the positive sensation during exercise is very similar to the euphoria brought on by morphine.

The next time you feel sad, lack energy or have trouble concentrating, do some pushups. Take the dog for a brisk walk, or dance to your favourite song.

There are approximately 80 different types of sleep disorders. The most common is insomnia, an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Sleep has significant bearing on your ability to function. It’s one of those overlapping pieces of health mentioned earlier. Without quality sleep, neither your brain nor your body can recover from everything you put them through during the day.

In the body, sleep deficiency raises your risk for hypertension, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. It also puts your immune system at risk, reduces your reaction time and increases your odds of injury.

Lack of sleep has profound implications for the brain. Based on studies using different methods and populations, researchers estimate that anywhere from 65% to 90% of adults with major depression also have a sleep disorder.

Which came first — the depression or the sleep disorder? That’s a little like the egg-or-the-chicken-first dilemma. Even the experts aren’t sure, but they do know that either problem seems to exacerbate the other.

Quality sleep improves concentration, sparks creativity and makes it easier for you to learn new skills. You’ll be more productive and make fewer errors on the job if you prioritise sleep.

Memory also benefits from a good night’s sleep. Your brain does some of its most important and fascinating work while you’re out for the night.

For instance, your brain sorts and prioritises every random thought or idea you had during the day. It stores time-sensitive, more urgent information in the front of its “file cabinet.” Things that can wait are stored in the back. Some thoughts are tossed altogether. It is a sleep hormone that tells the brain to sort everything out.

If your brain didn’t prioritise your thoughts, you’d think about every notion in your head at the same time. You’d have to consult your calendar thousands of times a day to keep your priorities straight.

For example, you need to remember your wedding anniversary in eight months, but you don’t necessarily have to think about that today. Today, you must remember to schedule a dental appointment, meet a potential client for lunch, and pay bills. Thanks to quality sleep, you’ll soon be crossing those items off your to-do list.

Physical and mental health are also impacted by what you eat. You’re probably starting to see a pattern here.

The list of physical problems caused by unhealthy eating habits is a long one:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Tooth decay
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Osteoporosis
  • Some cancers

Mentally, a poor diet is linked to depression, anxiety, mood swings, Alzheimer’s and eating disorders. Also, your brain uses about one-fifth of your calorie intake. If it doesn’t get the right fuel, you won’t be able to concentrate or get anything done.

Self-care as a freelancer

Schedule regular exercise on your calendar. You’re more likely to commit to it if you’ve blocked out the time. If you’re out of shape, start slowly. Progress gradually. You can find exercise recommendations for your age at heart.org, the website of the American Heart Association.

Many freelancers find that exercising with a partner or in a group increases accountability.

As for sleeping problems, set firm times for getting up and going to bed. Create a serene environment that’s conducive to rest. Ideally, the bedroom should be used only for sleeping or sex. Invest in a quality mattress and window coverings. Stop engaging with electronic devices, including the TV, at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Reading or writing in a journal will make you sleepier.

Caffeine, sweets, nicotine and alcohol can keep you awake or disrupt your sleep.

To be good to your body and boost cognitive power, make these foods staples of your diet:

  • Oily fish like salmon and tuna
  • Berries
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Avocados
  • Dark chocolate
  • Peanuts and other legumes
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Soy products

Be sure to stay hydrated, and reduce your alcohol intake if necessary.

Reduce admin stress with Xolo Go

There’s another thing that prevents many freelancers from sticking with it and succeeding. Admin is the bane of every freelancer’s existence. Record keeping is just one more source of stress, and you have enough pitfalls to dodge.

Fortunately, our experts at Xolo have you covered. We can help everything from cross-border invoicing, to compliance, to expenses and taxation. We take care of all the math, including those uber-complicated VAT calculations. Sign up with Xolo Go today and see how much better we can make your life as a freelancer! 

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