Articles - 9th October 2018

On Loneliness and the Freelance Life

Words by Kate Leaver
Illustration by Ailsa Johnson

Some days I work at my desk quite merrily, listening to the beastly snoring of the small dog at my feet and the distant sounds of London through the window. I hit deadlines, nail pitches and write convincingly. I fit in a Pilates class, a phone call home to Sydney, and a hearty scribbling of ideas in the Moleskin. I am happy in my own company, and grateful for the conspicuous absence of meetings, corporate clothes and elevator banter. I am my own boss, the mistress of my own time and frankly, sometimes, I am a little smug about it.

Other days, I pace between my desk and my kitchen and wonder if I’ll ever come up with a good idea again. When your livelihood depends on your own creativity and gumption, it can be exhausting and panic-inducing to have an uninspired day. The hours of these days are cruelly long, and yet there are too few to do anything of meaning. I refresh Twitter, I nap heavily, I question my right to call myself a writer. I feel aimless and lost and small, weak and desolate, totally useless. I wonder if I have ever or will ever do anything of any consequence.

This is just the freelance life; we are, most of us, destined to dart between contented productivity and crippling uncertainty. According to IPSE, it is “well known that the self-employed receive fewer fringe benefits and social security benefits – and have more fluctuating earnings”. The very nature of freelance work – silence from editors for days and then four deadlines on a single Thursday, a panicky drought of ideas followed by a flurry of inspiration, a stack of unpaid invoices to chase and then a welcome arrival in the bank – makes every day different. Work, money, inspiration, motivation, commissions, confidence, the whims of a nameless invoice processor: all these things are fickle and changeable as the weather. Meanwhile, we are at home alone, or silently tapping away in a library, perhaps ordering multiple coffees in a little café, or trying to blend in at a communal workspace. It can be hard to sustain your confidence, your motivation and your will to work in such erratic conditions.

Working for yourself can be wonderful, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2016 found self-employed people most value their independence (79%), flexibility (75%) and greater job satisfaction (73%). Fifty-two per cent said they were financially better off in self-employment compared to being an employee, and 84% said overall life is better in self-employment compared to being an employee.

But let me make this clear – freelancing can be lonely, and almost unbearably so at that.

“The flip-side of independence is of course loneliness,” says Policy Development Manager Jordan Marshall. “You are unlikely to have colleagues to bounce ideas off or interact with, and especially if you are working from home, you may find yourself isolated and lonely unless you take steps to address this. One important way this can be tackled is by making use of workhubs such as WeWork or Central Working – co-working spaces where like-minded freelancers can share knowledge, bounce ideas off each other and make new contacts.”

We are usually physically isolated, we work alone and we communicate with contractors and collaborators by email or, at best, by phone. We do not typically attend meetings, we do not have the afternoon catch up at the office biscuit tin, we are not invited to Friday night drinks or the usual office social fare. If we want social interaction, we have to chase and secure it ourselves. If we want friends who do the same work as us, we have to congregate on Twitter and find each other in bylines. Inevitably, many of our friends work 9-5 and are simply not available when we find ourselves ambling towards a deadline or stuck in a self-esteem spiral over the structure of a single sentence. We do not have the in-built camaraderie of office life, and so we must be careful to protect ourselves from loneliness as much as we can.

Loneliness is a peculiar but not an unusual ache. If it catches you in a tender moment, it can topple you into melancholy or even tempt a slew of mental illnesses. It has a tendency to feel shameful, too, like it was somehow brought on by your fallibility or character. It’s a real issue for people who are self-employed, though we may be frightened to say out loud the words “I feel lonely”. According to an Aldermore study, 39 per cent of the UK’s self-employed feel isolated. Loneliness is an epidemic and it is quite possibly our great modern public health crisis. As put forward in a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, loneliness can affect our mental and physical health, making us more vulnerable to things like dementia, cancer, depression, insomnia, obesity, stroke and heart attack. Nine million people in the UK are often or always lonely – and many of them work in traditional office jobs, too. Loneliness is pernicious and sneaky; it doesn’t even wait until we are alone. It is entirely possible to feel lonely in the company of other people, and certainly in a boardroom meeting, hot desk or conference call. The act of being alone for hours or even days at a time, with just our laptop for company, can make us especially vulnerable, though, if we’re not careful. Freelancers do not specialize in loneliness, but it can certainly be something you have to watch if you’re spending so much time on your own.

Freelancing can be wonderful for your mental wellbeing. You have autonomy, which can be empowering. Time belongs to you, which can be liberating. You are in charge of your own schedule: you can sleep in and work late, you can get up early and sneak in side hustles, you can give yourself a four-day week and sneak off on a holiday. You can work from wherever you like, do whatever hours you please, wearing whatever you want. You can take time to see the doctor, exercise, prepare fresh meals, go to a therapist, get out in nature and have baths and naps whenever you like. You can take sick days when you need, which is a blessing and a curse: you don’t have to deal with the guilt or limit of office sick days, or ask permission for time off, but your income is tied to the amount of work you do so if you take too much time, your bank balance slips.

However, freelancing can also be detrimental for your mental health. There are so many empty hours to fill, all of which are dependent on your will to work and your ability to get out of bed. The frequent rejection can feel personal and take a toll on your self-esteem. The urgency to come up with good ideas and sell them can be paralysing and frightening. The lack of structure and certainty can be destabilizing, even scary. Certain personality types panic without the 9-5 office structure and it can be overwhelming to have to chase work rather than have it assigned to you.

And then there’s the physical isolation. Human interaction is a huge part of an office environment, even if we are relying more and more on Slack and email for our correspondence than ever. It is conspicuously missing when you first start freelancing, and it can be a very serious absence as you continue.

So, how do we protect ourselves from freelancer’s loneliness? For a start, we need to be diligent about booking in time for social interaction. Making sure we see friends in person on a regular basis is important and we need to prioritise friendship not just for our happiness but for our health. But we also need to collaborate, debrief, gossip and discuss ideas with people in a professional capacity if we’re going to feel our complete work selves and ward off the loneliness. For that reason, I make a point of taking coffee and lunch meetings when I can fit them in. If a publicist, contact or editor asks to discuss something that might take several hefty emails back and forth, I suggest we meet in person. I try to do important interviews in person, or at least by phone so I can hear the sound of someone else’s voice and force myself to speak aloud.

We need work friends, which are slightly more difficult to come by outside a traditional office. This year, I’ve joined a book club made up entirely of female journalists and people working in the media. We meet every two months in a pub or a flat or a park and talk about books for about 20 minutes, then break out into shameless gossip, important life debriefs and general chit-chat. We met on Twitter, as so many freelance journalists do, and agreed to congregate for the purpose of book-analysis and companionship. We talk about journalism, social media, the future of our industry, pay, housing and ideas as well as pop stars, romance, pot plants, dogs and Kardashians. I’ve also joined a freelancer club: a group of female freelance writers who meet once a month in a café or restaurant. It’s a brilliant reason to wash my hair, put on nice clothes and leave the house, but it’s also a really important chance to talk about work. This has been on of the most powerful strategies to defend against loneliness, as it is the closest thing I’ve got to work friends. We use our time together and our WhatsApp group in between meetings to discuss which editors are nice to work with, who just dropped their rates, what to do when an editor steals our idea and commissions it to someone in-house, our contacts, our best advice for writing difficult emails, our insider knowledge on how certain publications work and our encouragement when we’re having a low day. It’s become a vital part of my working identity and definitely a help in the defence against loneliness.

Joining these clubs has helped address my craving for social interaction, and really become a substitute for the kinds of close work friendships I’ve had in the past. Talking to my fellow freelance journalists about the nature of our jobs is always elucidating. However, on the topic of loneliness we are split: some believe they are lonelier than they were in a staff position but others actually think they’re less lonely now because they know they have to be diligent and proactive about seeing friends. The social isolation of working from home has galvanized their sociability and forced them to organise more catch-ups with friends, lest they end up feeling that sting of loneliness. As soon as my freelance friends raised this point, it made me realise that I’ve done the same: the very act of being on my own has frightened me and motivated me to be more committed to investing time and energy into my friendships.

I am frequently tempted to apply for a traditional, full-time office job. I saw one advertised recently that I could imagine myself doing quite happily for about a week, until I would begin to crave the autonomy, freedom and control that freelancing gives me. Every time I’m tempted to hit “apply” on a shiny job description, I sit down and remind myself why I love my freelance life despite what is possibly an increased risk of loneliness. I still adore this lifestyle, and most of us do: 93 per cent of self-employed people say they love it. It’s liberating and exciting, and even the uncertainty of it can be thrilling. I wouldn’t give up my right to wear what I want, write what I want, work when I want, do what I want and be what I want to be, at home, with my dog. It is glorious, even when it’s terrifying.

But if it’s going to be sustainable for me, I have to have my loneliness protection plan in place. I have to have my book club and my freelancer meetings. I have to be strategic about taking meetings in person, asking writers and editors I admire to catch up over coffee or pizza and wine, doing interviews outside the house, travelling for research, showering, getting dressed, venturing outside and speaking out loud to other human beings. I have to take care of my mental health, watch my medication, get as much sleep as possible, eat properly, walk, celebrate love and prioritise friendship. That way, I maximize my chance of having more days sitting next to my dog, typing away happily, pleased and proud of my decision to freelance. Being home alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. It’ll happen – there’s a cruel inevitability to it – but you can minimize it with hot coffee, proper conversation, and good friends.

Kate Leaver is a freelance journalist and the author of The Friendship Cure, a book about the importance of friendship in an age of loneliness. 

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