Articles - 28th May 2020

Avoiding burnout as we come out of lockdown

Words by Elly Earls
Illustration by Will Francis

Just as freelancers have got used to life on lockdown, restrictions are starting to slowly be lifted. And while this may seem like great news – and for many it will be – it’s important that freelancers resist the temptation to jump headlong back into life as it used to be.

If that’s even an option.

Firstly, there is no guarantee that the amount of work available will go back to pre-lockdown levels, with organisations examining both the logistical and financial aftermath of recent months.

“Will it be ‘business as usual’, in which case it’s all hands-on deck, or will caution and even fear set in about moving forwards with anything which requires growth, expansion, or investment?” asks Marilyn Devonish, a consultant who helps organisations implement flexible working policies and manage the psychological implications of working from home and online. “If it’s the latter, freelancers may be one of the first groups to feel the impact of that contraction.”

Even freelancers who are lucky enough to rebound immediately – or haven’t felt much financial impact during lockdown – will face a transition period. As organisational psychologist and wellbeing coach Karen Kwong says, “Trying to readjust will take a lot of mental effort and fortuity because in many ways, it is going to be even more abstract than the lockdown.

“We will be in partial lockdown for a long time. Can we travel? If so, how? Can we meet up? If so, where, when, and how? With all this uncertainty, coupled with a similar mindset from your clients who themselves are trying to restart their businesses, this could be a very troublesome time to come.”

Don’t take on too much too fast

Kelly Da Silva Fernandes suffered from burnout and exhaustion when she was a freelance marketing strategist in 2016. Now a cake maker, she advises freelancers not to take on too much too fast. “The temptation will be to earn back the money that has been lost, but remember, as humans we have been in survival mode over the past six weeks,” she says. “Consider a phased transition; take on less than you normally would for the first month and gradually increase.”

She continues: “Avoid working during the night – you are not superhuman. Everyone needs sleep and caffeine is not the answer. You will burn out. I did in 2016 and I lost a lot of income as a result because I simply was unable to work. I couldn’t even sit up.”

Devonish agrees, describing what she calls the ‘kid in a candy store’ syndrome. “Having been through a period of social depravation, people try to do everything. But if you developed a slower lifestyle during lockdown, pace yourself,” she suggests. “Also watch for overextending yourself both socially and professionally because taking on too much in an attempt to make up for lost time could lead to a mini burnout before you’ve even gotten started.”

Think about what worked for you during lockdown

Fiona Thomas, the author of Depression in a Digital Age: The Highs and Lows of Perfectionism, thinks the biggest challenge for her will be the pressure to go out and socialise again. “I’m sure for many this will be a positive, but I also know that a lot of freelancers will struggle with this expectation,” she says. “Don’t try and cram too many meetings and events into a short space of time because you can’t anticipate how it’s going to affect you mentally. Your tolerance level post-lockdown will likely be different to pre-lockdown.”

She says one of the big lessons she’s learnt during lockdown is that attending events and networking days isn’t a good return on investment for her, so she doesn’t plan to prioritise them in the next phase of her business. She advises other freelancers to be reflective about what’s had a positive impact on their wellbeing during lockdown too.

“Things like spending more time with your partner or learning to physically rest more may have been a blessing in disguise. Think about setting better working hours or planning time off to accommodate the things you’ve enjoyed during this time,” she suggests.

She’s also been thinking about her basic needs, the things that really make her a happy freelancer. “Is it working in a particular industry? Having creative freedom? Having less Zoom calls? Use this as the basis for how you work with clients,” she says. “If you prefer to communicate over the phone instead of Zoom then say that! Being a freelancer means that you can define the way you work, so start committing to that instead of letting clients control your working life.”

‘Beating ourselves up never helps’

Abbey Robb is an integrative therapist. She says one way to avoid burnout is to protect the things you do to destress yourself. “That could be making sure you’ve got creative pursuits that you do just for yourself or making sure you’ve got social connections,” she says. “Having a community that understands us and supports us is one of the most beneficial things we can do to protect ourselves from intense stress. It’s also important to maintain a good routine and know how much productive work you can actually do in a day and block that out.”

Psychotherapist Melissa Cliffe agrees that it’s the simplest things that can often make the biggest difference. “Rest is so important, exercise is so helpful for our mood, but also I think one of the things we’ve been learning in lockdown is to appreciate nature more; we’re really learning how good it is for our wellbeing,” she says. “Just a little bit of time in nature can be so calming and restorative.”

It’s crucial not to forget, however, that nothing is normal right now, and it’s OK if you’re struggling. “You have to keep that perspective that this is a global context that is affecting us all,” Cliffe concludes. “There’s a risk people can blame themselves and think they’re failing and they’re not good enough. Remember this is a huge upheaval, there are genuine issues and we need to be kind to ourselves about that. Beating ourselves up never helps.”

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