Articles - 19th November 2019

Ready for the Weekend? The freelance work-life balance

Words by Joe Williams
Illustration by Emilia Schettino

Nietzsche once wrote: ‘Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.’ By far the most popular reason for freelancing is its flexibility, but with that freedom comes a blurring of the boundary between work and leisure. But how do freelancers negotiate their labour with their free time, and how important is the freelance weekend?

The 40-hour, 5-day working week might seem fundamental, but it’s actually a lot younger than you think. In a study for the London School of Economics titled ‘Productivity and days of the week’, Alex Bryson and John Forth write that until the late-1800s, a 6-day working week was the norm in Europe and the USA. This continued until increases in productivity thanks to new technologies led trade unionists to begin campaigns to take Saturday off.

This movement was backed by the more innovative bosses, such as the American Henry Ford who had developed the moving assembly line. He introduced a 5-day working week with a higher rate of pay in his factories and argued, according to Bryson and Forth, ‘that a shorter week was no less productive, as workers came back to work fresher after a two-day holiday.’

There are obvious similarities between those changes made over a century ago and our current historical moment, as our culture is beginning to consider alternatives to the 40/5 week. Today’s workforce is already changing: in a 2018 report titled ‘Self-Employment in the Modern Economy, IPSE described a 35% rise in the number of freelancers in the UK from 2008-2018, which culminated in the freelance sector contributing £275bn to the economy in 2018.

‘When it comes to work, the boundary between work and leisure, paid and unpaid labour, gradually dissolves, meaning free time becomes treated as a means of opening up new opportunities (through networking or personal brand-building), while work becomes something that is done for pleasure and passion as much as for money.

This rise was ‘driven by a 63% rise in highly-skilled female freelancers in this period.’ With such growth in this portion of the workforce in the decade since Bryson and Forth’s 2007, a reassessment of the 40/5 working week is long overdue. And in some senses, it has already begun: at the 2019 Labour Party Conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledged to introduce a 4-day working week within 10 years, with no reduction in pay. But such proposals, unfortunately, do not consider freelancers.

‘I think the 40-hour week is quite outdated,’ says illustrator Tom Bingham, ‘especially for freelancing and creative work. Freelance work tends to ebb and flow due to a variety of reasons. There will be times where you’ll be super busy and equally there will be quieter times too. The important thing to remember is this kind of work isn’t linear and can’t be compared to the traditional work week.’

Journalist Tara Lepore is one freelancer opting for a much shorter working week. ‘I try to get my work done in three and a half or four days,’ she tells me. ‘Overall, I’m probably working around 22 hours a week. Yes, I don’t earn as much as I used to as a full-timer by doing this, but freelancing has given me the freedom to have three days off a week (which I love).

‘A 40-hour week isn’t something that sounds at all enticing to me. These days, people – particularly freelancers, I would say – can feel so defined by their work, which means they never really take proper time off. I’ve been living in the Netherlands for a year now, and free time is much more valued over here. A 4-day week is pretty standard, and that’s something I can definitely get on board with!’

The UK is particularly bad when it comes to the work-life balance. In their ‘UK Working Lives Report’ (2019), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that the UK is one of the worst countries for work-life balance by international standards. They ranked the UK ‘, and found that 60% of all UK workers (both freelance and in-house) are overworked by at least one hour each week, with 14% overworking 15 hours or more each week.

In her book 168 Hours (2019), time-management guru Laura Vanderkam recommends a shift towards a more fluid idea of the working week, those 7 portions of 24 hours. She writes: ‘Looking at life in 168-hour blocks is a useful paradigm shift, because – unlike the occasionally crunched weekday – well-planned blocks of 168 hours are big enough to accommodate full-time work, intense involvement with your family, rejuvenating leisure time, adequate sleep, and everything else that actually matters.’

But some freelancers strike a 40-hour balance in a different way. Food stylist and recipe developer Carole Hector opts for what Bryson and Forth call a ‘compressed’ week: ‘I do more hours per day, and less days per week,’ she tells me. The TV commercials Hector works on begin at 7am and continue through into the evening, sometimes as far as midnight. ‘Although it’s annoying losing your evening, I really don’t mind this.’

For Hector, it’s the weekend that’s really important. ‘I think it’s good to have a solid amount of time each week when you’re not thinking about work. It definitely makes me more productive anyway!

‘Working the weekend is fine every once in a while, but it’s quite hard to socialise and take trips if you’re always working weekends. I love my life outside of work too much to sacrifice the precious weekends. I feel I’m happiest and most productive when I have a good distinction between work and leisure.’

And Hector isn’t alone there. Bryson and Forth’s study also notes the benefit of a strong distinction between work and leisure. Whilst the Protestant work ethic of ‘labour = good, leisure = Eternal Hellfire’ may still be tattooed onto the UK’s cultural psyche, continuous work is certainly not good for you. Bryson and Forth write that increasing fatigue often leads to a decline in productivity and output over the course of the week. ‘The two-day weekend,’ by which they mean a 48-hour block with no work, ‘provides the opportunity to rest before beginning the working week again the following Monday.’

But productivity shouldn’t be our only metric here: a weekly break improves mental outlook and wellbeing, too. In their report ‘Taking Time Off as a Freelancer’, IPSE writes that 92% of freelancers ‘say taking time off has at least some positive effect on them’ – well, you heard it here first. We might be surprised that as many as 8% of their respondents disagreed with that statement, but it can be easy to lose sight of self-care when a well-paying contract is up for grabs. In the end, though, the potential financial gain from overworking will not alleviate the stress of it all. As IPSE continue: ‘There is a significant correlation between taking more days off and reporting lower levels of job-related stress. … Not taking a well-deserved break can lead to health issues such as burnout, stress and anxiety.’

This might all seem obvious, but many UK workers are ignoring this advice. In the same report, IPSE writes: ‘A recent study of UK employees found that four in five (79%) admit going to work while physically or mentally unwell because of worrying about falling behind on their workload (40%), pressure from their boss (24%) and a range of other reasons.’ In these cases, not having a designated weekend creates a lack of structure that does more harm than good.

But whilst a more fluid working week might lead to stress and burnout for some, for others it can be a lifeline. Women, parents, and disabled people especially benefit from the flexibility of a freelance schedule. In another report, ‘Making Self-Employment Work for Disabled People’, IPSE describes that ‘while many of the disabled people we spoke to said employment had done little to support them, self-employment had allowed them to work more flexibly around their conditions and impairments.’

They continue: ‘many told us that traditional employment was inflexible in terms of supporting them to manage their conditions or impairments, for instance when it was necessary to seek treatment or take time off work. … General flexibility around working arrangements such as working hours and working days was a key factor pulling people towards self-employment, and flexibility to work around an impairment or condition was a factor unique to disabled freelancers.’

Author and journalist Steff Green has achromatopsia, a genetic condition that means she is legally blind and completely colour blind. A key reason for her pivot to freelancing was having control over her work, alongside workplace discrimination. ‘Having this lifestyle is all about working hard and working smart,’ she tells me.

‘I try very hard not to work weekends or weeknights now, but it is hard to break the habit I’ve formed over 10 years, especially because I know I have to work harder than others in order to reach the same place. … [S]ometimes I will if I have a tight deadline or if a story is really calling to me.

‘I think that as you build a freelance business while you have a job, or if you start freelancing and you’re keen to build client work, you have to work weekends. And I think like any business there are times you have to work weekends because there’s a deadline and things need to get done. But I think we also can be too hard on ourselves – it’s easy to feel as though if we squeezed in a few more hours, we’d get ahead – but the to-do list will never get shorter.’

But even those who benefit greatly from a different working week might find it difficult to actually stop working on their days off. In ‘Taking Time Off as a Freelancer’, IPSE writes: ‘Psychological research suggests that some people are natural ‘integrators’ and prefer the blurring of boundaries between work and personal time, while other people are natural ‘segmenters’ who prefer to separate their personal life from their work.’ Even on holidays, 58% of freelancers reply to work emails – so much for the Out-of-Office reply.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that freelancing is an especially dystopian form of work, but this smudged dividing line between labour and leisure is part of the neoliberal economic model in which we all live. Will Davies, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, tells me that ‘Neoliberalism has always sought to inculcate and celebrate an entrepreneurial mentality, with which individuals are expected to be flexible, creative and self-reliant.’

‘When it comes to work, the boundary between work and leisure, paid and unpaid labour, gradually dissolves, meaning free time becomes treated as a means of opening up new opportunities (through networking or personal brand-building), while work becomes something that is done for pleasure and passion as much as for money.

Illustrators, artists, and reviewers may well be more susceptible to this dangerous blurring, as their work and their personal interests are so closely aligned. For Bingham, ‘if you are doing a job that you love it’s easy to let it completely absorb you. If you are constantly thinking about it every day it can lead to burnout. That’s why I always try to take the weekends off. Obviously this is not always possible if I have a particularly busy workload but I do think its beneficial to have days where you don’t think about work at all. That way, when you get started again you will be fresh and excited.’

The UK is particularly bad when it comes to the work-life balance. In their ‘UK Working Lives Report’ (2019), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that the UK is one of the worst countries for work-life balance by international standards.

The work-life balance in 2019 has been further eroded by the internet and social media, where journalists and creatives often use a single account for both work and leisure. Gradually, the professional encroaches upon the personal. ‘I feel that’s one of the most insidious bits of operating in the world we all do,’ says freelance journalist Francisco Garcia. ‘We’re all struggling with it to one degree or another.

‘I think that for journalists especially, we do all think we are beholden to this platform and that, if you don’t keep posting regularly then you’ll be forgotten and your stock will dwindle. I think that’s all actually very overblown.

‘The blur of it all is very disconcerting. You think, “What am I actually using this for? I don’t know.” So I try to limit my usage at the weekend, because the two things do bleed into each other. When I’m not working and I’m taking 24 hours off, I don’t want to look at social media. That’s the last thing I want to do. I try to keep off my phone and only look at it for messages during my downtime.’

Whilst the flexibility of freelancing brings with it a difficult slippage between work and leisure, it also means that no two freelancers have to work the same week. But whether you work a few hours every day or three long days, don’t forget to switch off and recharge. You’ll be all the better for it.

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