Articles - 11th June 2019

9-5, alone. The importance of mental health in freelance work

Words by Emily Reynolds
Illustration by Celia Jacobs

Flexibility, variety, the ability to set your own agenda – on a good day, freelancing can feel like the best job in the world.

As we well know, this isn’t always the case. Anybody who’s been self-employed will be familiar with the anxiety, insecurity and precarity of freelance work.

And if you already have a mental health problem, certain aspects of freelancing have the potential to exacerbate them. One study found that 48% of freelancers found it “lonely”; 46% said it was “isolating”.

More worryingly, 25% of respondents had experienced “frequent periods of depression”; 21% said that the loneliness of home-working had caused them to have suicidal thoughts.

The issue is unlikely to go away, either.

Last year, the Office of National Statistics found that freelancers made up 4.8 million, or 15%, of the UK labour force. It also predicted a future in which over half of the population is self-employed – so unless something changes, an eighth of the workforce could be suffering from bouts of depression.

“Not knowing where my money is coming from next is my biggest source of anxiety,” Mary, 25, tells me. Mary’s been a freelancer for around six months, leaving a staff role at a magazine because of the impact it was having on her mental health.

“Every freelancer I talk to has the same problem,” she says. “And in my case, it really does interact with my anxiety disorder. I spend sleepless nights worrying about my rent, even when I know for a fact I can pay it; when I finally drag myself out of bed the next morning I’m too tired to concentrate and I get anxious about that. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Mary also points to a lack of sick pay as a major concern. Though freelancing has freed up time to attend doctors appointments and attend therapy once a week, two things she struggled with in her staff job, she’s keenly aware that she doesn’t always have the luxury of taking time off.

“I can’t say my old colleagues were hugely sympathetic of my mental health problems, but I did at least know that I could take a sick day if I really needed one,” Mary says.

She acknowledges there’s a material problem here – the basic fact she has no sick pay available. But it’s also psychological.

“I hate to take a day off even if I know I can afford one,” she says. “There’s a pressure to always be working, to be the busiest person or the most stressed. Looking at social media and seeing how well other freelancers seem to be doing… I can’t help but feel like I shouldn’t be taking time off at all.”

“I know it’s counterintuitive,” she says. “I know for a fact that I’ve made myself more ill at times by doing it. But it’s so hard to give myself the space to look after myself.”

This isn’t just the case for journalists, either. Tilly Steele is an actress who’s starred in Victoria and Doctor Who; she’s experienced anxiety and depression from the age of 11.

There are several factors that affect her mental health when it comes to her work: rejection, instability, and image.

“There aren’t many other jobs I can think of where you’re so constantly told, in no uncertain terms, that you’re not wanted,” she says. “Last month I was rejected for four jobs in one week; one on Monday, two on Tuesday, and one on Thursday… My friend describes it as having to constantly reapply for your own job.”

And if you’ve struggled with depression, Steele says, it’s “so hard to not internalise the constant rejection as a personal indictment of you”.

“You can go into circular thinking very easily,” she says. “It’s a hard career for everyone, so if you have a habit of hating yourself, it’s very easy to get stuck in those patterns of thinking.”

External factors aren’t the only struggle; the structure of a day is also different when you work for yourself, as Counselling Directory member Dr. Sarah Jane Khalid explains. Working from home brings a whole host of distractions and interruptions; deciding you need to put a wash on, the doorbell ringing, nobody there to tell you off for checking Twitter the thousandth time.

And, crucially, you tend to be on your own: “some people can go for days not speaking to or seeing anyone,” Khalid said. “It is very different to an office environment where you have an impromptu conversation with a colleague at the water machine or over a cup of tea”. These feelings of isolation and disconnection can “trigger feelings of low mood,” she says – potentially quite dangerous for anyone who already experiences mental health problems.

Nicola Banning is a counselor and writer; she also edits the BACP’s Workplace journal. She points out a number of positives about freelancing when you have a mental health problem – namely “getting out of organisations that are challenging or that have burnt you out”.

“Being freelance can be better for one’s mental health in those cases; you can feel like you’re more in control of what you choose to do. Flexibility around hours, childcare… these things are so important. If you’re in an organisation that isn’t giving you that flexibility, it can be really detrimental to your health and life.”

It’s all about making freelancing work for you, she says. Both she and Khalid stress how important structure is; “if you’re not with an employer, you have to create your own infrastructure,” she says.

“Stick to a schedule and give yourself enough time for breaks and lunches,” Khalid adds. “If this isn’t in place, it can overspill into family and hobby time.”

Creating boundaries is also key; Khalid suggests setting up a workspace that is “clutter free and specifically for work”. Working from bed or from the sofa can be tempting, but making sure you clearly demarcate areas in your home as ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ can be a helpful way to start to switch off from your work-life stress after you log off.

Banning also points to the importance of boundaries. “When you’re trying to grow something, you often work very hard,” she says, so it can be hard to switch off. Giving yourself specific set time boundaries is therefore key.

Both point to social support networks, too. Khalid suggests scheduling social time into your day; having meetings, going for walks or professional networking. Banning suggests identifying a “self-employment ally” – someone who can support you through the trials and tribulations not only of freelancing but of your mental health. “When you’re self-employed, you do everything yourself,” she says. “We really need to build our support networks – freelancing can be so isolating.”

And it’s this that Steele believes this is key to her maintaining good mental health.

“There’s often a perception that we should be in competition with each other and it’s made worse by the nature of a job that pits us against each other,” she says.

“I totally reject the idea that I need to have a dog-eat-dog mentality to get ahead. Solidarity will help us all move forward.”

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