Careers

How to safeguard your mental health when you’re freelance

Posted by
Alix Walker
Published

Growing numbers of women are being lured by flexible hours, working in pyjamas and a healthier work/life balance promised by going freelance. But how does it affect your mental health? 

I’ve worked at Stylist since we launched over eight years ago. The first days of the magazine, huddled away in a bunker, working ‘til the early hours and eating pizza for breakfast were actually some of the best of my life. Mainly, because I got such a buzz from working alongside my tiny team. I was inspired by them, I learnt from them and I laughed so much with them (possibly from sheer exhaustion, but still). 

But after my third child in four years I knew something had to give, and that something was spending two hours commuting every day and committing to a desk five days a week. So, I joined the 4.6 million people in the country who are now officially classed as freelance (forecasters predict that by 2022 50% of the population will be part of the so-called gig economy) and asked my editor for a new role, working from home. Like most people, I was tempted by being able to set my own hours, by no longer having to deal with human breath in my face on the morning commute and the idea of working in a massive sweatshirt. 

So, four months ago I pimped the desk in my new garden office with the requisite succulent and scented candle and became editor ‘at large’. For the most part, it’s great. I play Kendrick Lamar really loudly while I work (the Stylist team are a bit more 6 Music), I fit my work around my family life and I write articles I’m passionate about… no more HR, recruitment, or office politics. 

But there is something niggling me… I’m just not sure that this new way of working is all that great for my mental health. Without a traditional office 9–6, I can feel a bit like I’m flailing in the wind, unsure of my path and unmotivated in a way I never was before. Idea generation, which was always my strong point, is harder when you’re brainstorming with yourself. And while I’m much more efficient without regular pauses to chat with colleagues, I definitely feel the lack of office chat is not great for my soul. Plus I have an anxiety towards my work that I didn’t have before, without the transparency of people’s reactions in person. 

Without a traditional office 9–6, I can feel a bit like I’m flailing in the wind, unsure of my path and unmotivated in a way I never was before

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve known for a long time that busy is good for me; that structure keeps me sane. I am hardly unique in needing any of these things, which is why as more of us go freelance, more solutions are being presented which will help us with each of these issues.

I’m still of the belief that the benefits of the growing gig economy far outweigh the negatives, so I’ve spoken to experts on the possible pitfalls of working remotely and researched the solutions being offered. Here’s what I’ve learnt:  

The lack of human contact

Oh, how lovely it’ll be to not have to deal with the smell of colleague Linda’s eggy lunch. And it is. But it can also be a little isolating. In fact, nearly 40% of people feel lonely after going freelance according to a survey by Aldermore. And this lack of human contact can have very real consequences to our health: loneliness actually compromises the immune system, it causes insomnia, increases your susceptibility to depression and can actually cause poor digestion and health (that’ll be the constant fridge visits then…)

But a plethora of options are available to beat just about every one of these. 

1) Shared work spaces (essentially pay-as-you-go office contracts, where memberships can vary from monthly hot-desking to a fixed fee for a private office). 

These aren’t exactly new but they are becoming more flexible in their pricing structures (useful when freelancing rarely guarantees a set monthly wage) and also extremely targeted, meaning you can pick the one whose culture, members and perks are most advantageous to you and your career.

Obviously you can also work in a coffee shop, library, café etc and a brilliant new app called AndCo has just launched, which matches Londoners with restaurants, cafes and bars which have a spare table for you and your laptop. For a £20 membership fee you get unlimited access to any of its venues, along with free coffee and food discounts. 

2) Curate your own network 

“I think it’s important to have both an online and offline network,” advises Annie Ridout, whose book The Freelance Mum: A Career Guide for Better Work-Life balance, published by 4th Estate, January 2019, is available for pre-order now. “I’ve found it hugely beneficial being part of a closed freelancer’s Facebook group (like The No 1 Freelance Ladies Buddies Agency) where you can share tips and advice, job opportunities and ask questions. The common belief is that the online world causes loneliness and disconnects us from one another but for me, that’s simply not true. I feel really connected to other female freelancers in that group when I post and they respond – or vice versa – and ‘conversations’ begin.”

There are online support networks in most industries, or you can start your own via a straightforward Facebook group. Alternatively join one of the many online networking and support groups (which typically have regular events you can go along to for much-needed in-person interactions ) such as: meetup.com, Southwoodsocialhub.co.uk, Riposte Presents events, womenschapter.com and make sure you go along to events such as Stylist Live (which has various talks cover all manner of work issues) and Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre (the best place to network and meet inspiring women). 

3) Join the conversation

Sometimes not being part of the water cooler conversation can make you feel like you don’t have anything to say anymore, which can lead to feelings of isolation. Make more effort to engage in the plethora of brilliant podcasts, documentaries and books which will make you feel part of a wider conversation, even if you’re not actively engaging in conversation all day. 

The lack of routine and structure

The concept of the 9-5 was designed when we didn’t have electricity. It’s 2018, so surely we, as fully functioning humans, should be able to set our own hours based on when we know we’re most productive? (In fact, 43% of people list having a flexible schedule as the most important reason to work independently). This sounds great in theory, but without the need to ‘present’ to your boss at 9am it’s extremely tempting to start work at 11am, then find yourself cramming until 11pm at night. This does work for some, but for others it can have a real knock on effect on their mental health and sleep patterns (all experts advise going to bed and waking up at exactly the same time as the best practise for a good nights’ sleep).

As for managing said routine when your office neighbour Dave isn’t clockwatching your arrival, well, there’s an app for that. This is an area where technology is really providing solutions at breakneck speed. Here are our favourites: 

1) Timely (timelyapp.com) – a brilliant time management app which allows you to plan your week in sections of time allocated, and then tracks what you’re actually spending your time doing – writing a report or messing around on Pinterest. 

2) Things 3 – this task management app collates all your to-do lists, random thoughts and projects etc into one place.

3) Quire – this one is great for anyone who gets overwhelmed by super-long to-do lists as it manages the list for you in a really appealing, visual way.

4) Toggl – another one which tracks exactly how much time you’re wasting on everything!

5) Freedom – it’s so tempting to flit from work to online shopping when there’s no one peering at your computer screen but you, but this app keeps you focused by effectively locking you out of those sites for a specific period of time. 

6) TeuxDeux – everyone loves a to-do list and this one has a handy function where anything you didn’t get done today automatically rolls over to the next day. 

Constantly comparing your success/failures with others 

I’m prone to comparison at the best of times… everything from comparing my career success to why so-and-so on Instagram has much better houseplants/scented candles/lighting schemes than me. Obviously social media feeds this habit voraciously, and perhaps never more so than when you’re freelance. A combination of procrastination while you’re waiting for new projects, the need to promote yourself more as you’re pitching for work, and the desperation for social exchange when you’re working alone, means freelance workers log in to social media much more frequently.

“Social media contributes to the notion that we are here to be separate, somehow special and unique,” says Katie Abbott, therapist and Founder of Pause Place. “But we must remember our shared space, our unity or else we will continue to feel alone rather than part of a greater whole. Remembering simple everyday pleasures can help with this, the simplicity of cooking, nurturing a growing plant, a walk in the park, writing by hand, creating ways to connect with yourself and others in natural, healing ways.” 

The other possible solution is to curate an online world for work hours that encourages and supports your work, rather than sends you into an online spiral. So, depending on your line of work, it could consist of following companies you admire, inspirational quotes, five-minute exercise videos, meditation tools, entrepreneurs, art and design accounts… essentially anything which motivates you. Save the envy-inducing yoga queen who seems to earn her living doing sun salutations on the beach for your personal account.      

I don’t feel as valued 

Send email to prospective employer.

Refresh email to check for a reply.

Why isn’t anyone replying to my email?

My pitch was awful. I am awful.

I will never work again.

Working outside of the structure of a traditional office where you receive regular feedback from your boss, likely have annual appraisals and have colleagues to share your anxieties with, can have an impact on your self-worth. The other issue is that being paid by invoicing is by no means as efficient as being PAYE. A recent study by PayPal showed that 58% of freelancers in four major countries in Southeast Asia have experienced not being paid for their work (no similar UK studies have been done, but anecdotal sampling suggests similar). And there is a feeling that freelancers should feel ‘grateful’ for being employed, with a survey from 2016 showing that freelancers working in the creative industries lose £5,394 each a year through working for free. Unsurprisingly this attitude can have a real impact on your feelings of self-worth as well as cause anxiety about where your next pay cheque is coming from.

Glenda Marchant, founder of The Spark Initiative, which coaches professional women and men to help develop their self-confidence and self-reliance, has these tips on how to ensure you’re paid what you’re worth when negotiating as a freelancer: 

1) Know your market. What do others in your market charge, and where to you sit in relation to them - i.e. do you have more experience, do you have less, are you an established name in your field, or are you just starting out? With a little research you can create a spectrum of pricing, and this helps to ensure that your quotes are realistic but at the same time, you’re not cheapening your service.

2) Try to separate ‘you the person’ from ‘you the service’. It’s not about self worth - it’s about how much your skills are worth to that particular buyer - whether you’ve been asked to quote for a feature for a website, creating a flower display for a wedding, or six coaching sessions.

3) What skills are unique to you? There are thousands of accredited business coaches out there, but I’m pretty unique in that I was working in the media, running teams of people for 25 years. It gives me an insight that those people coming into coaching from the HR route just do not have. Use this in your negotiation - tell people why you are unique and can therefore justify your price.

4) Don’t be afraid to walk away from an opportunity if you feel you are being undervalued. People talk! If you get a reputation for being the ‘cheap option’ you’ll damage your own brand and you’ll find it really tough to increase your prices as your business picks up.

5) Use a higher rate. I always go into a negotiation at a higher rate then I expect to agree, as it gives me room to manoeuvre. However, you should always know at what point you are going to walk away, and stick to it. It’s great for self esteem as well.

My work/life balance feels even more out of whack 

I requested my new role so that I could see more of my children and feel like I had a more rounded life. Essentially, so that I wouldn’t burn out. Yet somehow I find work more consuming that before, I literally cannot switch off from it. It also makes the lines between work and home very blurred; I feel a pull to unload the dishwasher while I’m working and a need to reply to emails while I’m putting my kids to bed. 

Annie Riddout has some great ideas:

“This is a constant work-in-progress for me. I love my work, so find that it can easily eat into time with family and friends, but I’ve realised it’s so important to step away from it, do something else, and come back feeling refreshed. For a while, I was spending hours working each evening - so I started painting the living room. It meant I couldn’t be on my phone. And I really do need something physical that stops me from being able to check my phone. I also never take my phone to bed. It stays downstairs, overnight, charging so that rather than last minute emails, I now read a novel before bed. I need that time to switch off, and engage with something unrelated to work.

I also find apps/websites like Slack and Trello are great for separating life and work. Kim Palmer, my Clementine co-founder [Annie is co-founder of women’s app Clementine, which uses hypnotherapy to support women with sleep, stress and confidence], and I were Whatsapping all the time - weekends, evenings, holidays - as we were excited by what we’re working on. 

But it was becoming too much for both of us, so we decided to use Slack when we have ideas and need to share them. That way, if I put an idea in, Kim can check it when it suits her, rather than having yet another message pop up on WhatsApp that she feels obliged to check instantly. Trello is great for organising different projects you’re working on under various headers and then adding copy, images etc that can be accessed by clients, or colleagues.”

All of the above are suggestions to avoid the pitfalls that freelance work can have on your mental health but if you already feel your mental health is struggling the first port of call should always be to seek advice from an expert… either visit your GP or call a registered mental health charity like Mind

Images: Unsplash