Articles - 7th January 2020

We need to talk about the dark side of freelancing

Words by Rebecca Hastings
Illustration by Beatrix Hatcher

Not to sound like your granddad, but over the last couple of years, freelancing has become very trendy. And nowhere is the idea sold to us more than in the world of journalism, where a not-insignificant chunk of the freelance cohort have become celebrities in their own right, writing bestselling books, starting podcasts and newsletters and going viral on Twitter with witty takedowns of Piers Morgan. Podcasts like Creative Rebels and books like Emma Gannon’s The Multi-Hyphen Method have cropped up everywhere, encouraging us to ditch the 9-5 in favour of this brave new world. It’s freedom! It’s creativity! It’s being able to put a wash on at 2pm!

Laundry aside, I also thought that becoming a freelance journalist would give me all this extra time to do the things I’d always wanted to. Like everyone else who studied English at university, I’ve had an idea for a novel rattling around in my head for years, and figured this would be the perfect opportunity to get started on it. I’d get up at 7am every morning, I decided, and get to work by 7.30, do an hour on the novel, then power through everything else and finish at 4pm. Finally, the ever-elusive work-life balance was within my grasp. I’d cracked it. Why on earth wasn’t everyone else going freelance, too?

Fast-forward a few months, and I feel as though I’m inside a real-life version of one of those expectation-versus-reality memes. My dreams of sipping on a coffee from the posh deli down the road, gazing lovingly at my cat asleep on the sofa, smashing my to-do list and clocking off any time before 6pm evaporated within the first couple of days. 

Instead, I sit in a permanent hunchback position at my little kitchen table with the wobbly leg. I really underestimated how difficult it would be to work on my tiny laptop, and it doesn’t help that my cat keeps sitting on the keyboard. The novel, incidentally, has been pushed back to the deepest recesses of my brain in order to make room for the mundane stuff – the commercial content writing that still pays the bulk of the bills, the pitching, the invoicing. It turns out I’m a lot better at making and colour-coding my schedule on Google calendar than I am at actually sticking to it.

And that’s the thing with freelancing. You think you’ll get a lot more done with your day – how many of us really need to spend eight hours at our desk in an office job? – and that you’ll have an abundance of time left over.

But you’re not just doing the work you’re paid for. You’re also managing a business, of which you’re an employee.

That means doing your taxes, sorting out your pension, popping to the corner shop for Hobnobs. It also means chasing late payments – and managing your money so that you have some form of back-up when, inevitably, there are a few companies that flagrantly ignore the 30-day payment terms. It’s a lot for one person to do, and I’ve started to find there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the actual work – let alone have more leisure time.

As a freelancer, you’re also in charge of making sure you’ve got work lined up for the future. This means pitching and applying for opportunities, which – inevitably – means a certain amount of rejection. And sitting in your house on your own all day is the perfect opportunity to over-analyse every email that reads “Not one for us but thank you for the pitch! x”. I know rejection is just part of freelancing, but I’m not sure that spending hours crafting an idea and getting a no in return will ever not feel like a punch in the stomach.

Recently, a report came out that showed I’m far from the only one who found themselves facing a lot of unexpected challenges after going freelance. Compiled by Leapers – a support community for freelancers – the report shows that while 27 per cent of freelancers chose to go freelance to improve their mental health, a far bigger 46 per cent of people think freelancing has actually had a negative impact on it. Interestingly, it also showed that 47 per cent are stressed by the lack of control they have over their working schedule – but 51 per cent moved to freelancing because they believed that it would give them more control over it. Clearly, it’s all too easy to be lured in by the self-employment fairytale.

The report identifies a number of contributing factors and stressors, some of which freelancers themselves can’t do much about, as they’re controlled by the organisations that they work for. In fact, only 4 per cent of freelancers feel that their employing organisations have their mental wellbeing in mind – a pretty shocking statistic, when you consider how far we’ve come with mental health awareness and support in traditional working environments.

It looks as though it’s all about clear, consistent communication. 72 per cent of freelancers are stressed out by clients going quiet on them (nope, ghosting doesn’t just happen on Tinder). 78 per cent worry about a lack of clarity on what a client expects from them, while 67 per cent are stressed by projects being delayed. Payment plays a big part, too – late or unpaid invoices worry 27 per cent of freelancers.

With more and more people going freelance – there’s been a 31 per cent annual rise in people looking to do so in the UK – there needs to be an acknowledgement by companies that their freelancers are just as likely to suffer from stress or low mood as their full-time employees are. Companies need to have plans in place to ensure the wellbeing of their freelancers, such as managing their accounts to avoid late payments and communicating with them as they would with their own employees (there really is nothing more frustrating than sending the same email four times in a row and still not getting a response).

Of course, there are other stressors that our clients can’t control. Tax issues worry 59 per cent of freelancers, 84 per cent say feeling unproductive causes them stress, while 69 per cent feel stressed when they get too busy. Just over half of freelancers find either having to take sick days or choosing to take holidays stressful, and three-quarters of freelancers don’t feel talented enough.

All of these worries are surely exacerbated by the amount of time we spend alone – in fact, the report found that a third of freelancers work more than 30 hours alone each week.

I’m guilty of this – and even for me, London’s biggest introvert, going so long without speaking to anyone except my cat can start to take its toll. Co-working spaces are all well and good, but starting at about £200 a month, they’re not a feasible option for most of us. 

Along with the report, Leapers put together a helpful downloadable booklet with advice on how to look after your mental health as a freelancer. I have to confess that as I read it, I started to get a little bit weepy (clearly, the thread I’d been hanging on by had worn quite thin). It was as though the writers had zipped open my mind, dug up some feelings about the whole freelance thing that I hadn’t even properly acknowledged yet, and perfectly articulated them. I suddenly felt so much less alone.

In the booklet, Leapers encourage writing in a journal at the end of each day, reflecting on what’s gone well and what hasn’t, as a way of both processing stress and identifying what causes it. They also emphasise the importance of celebrating “little wins” – in other words, not just the big commissions and bookings, but also things like doing those invoices you’ve been putting off, or getting out for a walk at lunchtime. They remind us that rejection is all part of freelancing – suggesting that we reframe rejections as “another time I was brave enough to put myself out there” – and highlight the importance of asking for feedback and setting ourselves reminders to check in on a project to see the impact it’s had. After all, we freelancers don’t have bosses or managers to track our progress or give us appraisals. It’s all down to us.

The booklet also encourages talking to friends and family about our worries and being honest about the more negative aspects of freelancing. Not only does this help us deal with our feelings in a healthy way, starting a wider conversation about the challenges we face helps to debunk the myths around freelancing and create a more realistic picture – so that those looking to make the leap into the freelance life can be better informed, and so that clients might get a better idea of how their treatment of freelancers can affect their wellbeing.

So, with this in mind, I’ve added a new new year’s resolution to my 2020 list (keeping the usual ‘spend less time on social media’ and ‘stop eating entire Terry’s Chocolate Oranges by myself’ company). I’m going to answer honestly when I’m asked “how’s work going?” And maybe buy a bigger laptop.

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