Over the last decade, the number of individuals becoming freelance workers in the UK rose by 14%. With the pandemic affecting physical workspaces and unemployment figures rising, freelance careers have been steadily inclining through 2020, as more and more people choose to work for themselves and work from home. I’ve been a freelancer for three years now, working both in and out of offices throughout that time, and I’ve experienced the great highs and the great lows that can come with this line of work. It can be mentally tiring, exciting, anxiety-inducing and empowering, often all at once, and it can take a special type of mindset to truly do it justice.
But what about the effect freelancing is having on our mental health? As someone who suffers from anxiety and OCD, am I really better off working alone or has my time in self-employment actually made my mental illness worse? In 2019, I set up a podcast called The Lonely Freelancer — a name fitting for this particular discussion, as I wanted to create something funny, productive and creative out of the isolation I was feeling after working from home full-time. I wanted to be able to address both the good sides and the bad sides of freelancing, reaching out to other self-employed workers who might feel the same way, and offer as much advice as I could on starting out in the freelance field. I also wanted to highlight the realities I was facing — an empty flat and 3 lonely cups of coffee a day as I neatly finished off my client’s to-do list.
The Lonely Freelancer gave me an outlet to explore my loneliness in this job, but not necessarily my mental health. I knew that I’d struggled with anxiety in my past job, almost to the point of a breakdown, but I was never sure if that was just the fault of the workplace. I also knew that I could feel depressed when I spent too many days inside alone — a feeling I’m sure we can now all sadly relate to. I would feel low and unmotivated, tired of staring at the wall in front of me and pacing in and out of my bedroom with nothing else to do. So which one was worse? The terror of anxiety or the sheer boredom of depression?
how freelancing can improve your mental health
Over 40% of people feel that freelancing has had a negative impact on their mental health. But that still leaves over 50% who feel the opposite. There are definite benefits to working from home, and working for yourself, and often these can lend themselves to increased levels of self-care, mental health care and relaxation. Being at home, in your own space, you have more freedom and control over the routine of your day. You can set up your desk in a way that feels calm, you can plan your work hours around meditation sessions and therapy appointments, you can take a mid-day break for a yoga workout or a walk in the park and you can give yourself breathers whenever you need to.
Without the judgemental eyes of an office full of staff, your working patterns are entirely your own, and you can tailor them to the needs of both your physical and mental health. You’re less likely to have screaming bosses and gaslighting managers and snappy colleagues, you can sever ties with a difficult client on your own time and you approach new customers in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident.
If you choose to make it so, your life as a freelancer can be one of peace, relaxation and self-care. You have that power and the ability to do so. You can cut down your client demands in order to focus on your own mental health, without needing anyone else’s permission to do so. You can carve out that essential time to focus on yourself, and also allow yourself comforting distractions at the same time. For me, even the smallest of things — like being able to make a coffee when I want to, open a window or put the radio on — can make me feel safe and productive, without being judged. This is a huge benefit to my own mental health, and I never have to worry about feeling guilty, embarrassed or ashamed because of my mental illness. As long as the work gets done and my clients are happy, I’ve done exactly what was required of me and I’ve made enough money to pay the bills.
For many people, freelancing also allows them a reprieve from the parts of the workplace they find the most mentally challenging, i.e. the social elements. Without the anxious dread of Christmas parties, post-work drinks, summer BBQs and team-building retreats, the work can remain that — just work. You can focus on the parts of the job you know you can do well at, without forcing yourself into situations that can exacerbate your mental illness.
how freelancing can harm your mental health
When you work alone, you truly are just that; alone. For many freelancers, their working day will start and end alone, with perhaps the odd phone call or text from a friend in the middle. Whilst that does mean peace and quiet, it can also be an environment in which mental illnesses thrive, as without healthy distractions, problems like anxiety, OCD, intrusive thoughts and depression can spiral. Silence is an incredibly oppressive thing, and the isolation of working at home without a team can be a huge negative factor in the freelancing experience.
In my case, before the pandemic at least, I would always spend at least one day a week out of the house and working in a coffee shop or a cafe, just to change up my surroundings. It helped me to feel inspired and part of the city again, rather than trapped inside my four walls at home. But for some, even breaks like this aren’t enough to stave off the isolation. When you sit alone, your mind can often wander, and for those predisposed to mental health problems, it can be incredibly difficult not to get caught up in frightening, depressive, angry or scary thoughts without anything else to counter them. Those small social interactions of the office over a cup of coffee or a break room chat can have a truly beneficial impact on our mental health, often without us realising it. They force us to pull out of our own heads and to face reality again, to occupy our minds with small talk and TV talk and gossip and noise. Being able to listen and interact with other people can be a game-changer for many mental health problems, and suddenly working without that can be a big culture shock.
The instability of the work can also cause increased mental health problems, with some freelancers struggling to find consistent work or consistent incomes month by month. This instability can cause increased levels of stress, anxiety and worry, as well as feelings of jealousy and inadequacy when comparing themselves to fellow self-employed workers who appear to be flourishing — all of which can be a bad combination for burgeoning mental health problems.
Finally, one-on-one client relationships are another source of stress that can contribute to mental distress. Having to be entirely responsible for any entire project, independently and financially at risk if anything goes wrong, puts a lot of pressure on a freelancer, and there are often times when clients can over expect and underdeliver. Chasing down invoice payments, dealing with professional boundary crossing and facing off against an unhappy customer alone make freelancing a stressful pursuit, with many other self-employed workers finding that often the clients can be their least favourite part of the job. According to Xolo, only 4% of freelancers ‘feel their employing clients have their mental wellbeing in mind’. Whilst working independently might give you a break away from one demanding boss, it, unfortunately, might put you in the path of another.
Overall, I’m not sure there’s ever one right answer. Everyone’s mental health is different, and whilst this is an interesting topic to explore, I don’t believe that every single freelancer with mental health problems will feel the same way. For some, working from home gives them the freedom to heal their mental health on their time, whilst for others, it simply makes it worse. It’s important to explore both sides of the argument, before making a definitive call, and to look at your own circumstances personally. One person’s home life might be another person’s hell, whilst one person’s terrible workplace might be a safe haven for another. For me, my mental health problems are present, no matter where I work, but if anything, the flexibility I have now as a freelancer to focus on recovering from them means everything to me.
What do you think? How has freelancing impacted your mental health, and did it ever stop you from pursuing a self-employment role? Let me know in the comments or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.