A whole day is dedicated annually to improving our collective wellbeing, known as 'WHO' World Mental Health Day, which just passed on October 10th. This has really got me thinking – is mental health an issue for freelance creatives? Are those who work from home, on their own, for large chunks of the year, at a greater risk of developing mental health problems? Is screen-based solitude unhealthy?
As living proof of a self-employed individual still struggling to build that desirable, stress-free work / life balance, I've decided to take a deeper peek at the wellbeing fears and threats us freelancers face on a daily basis... and how together we can conquer them.
THE STATE OF THINGS
According to research from the World Health Organisation, there is a looming prediction that by the year 2030, depression will lead to more worldwide disability and death than any other health issue. Yep, that's really quite serious. That means more than cancer, more than strokes or heart disease, and more than war. Of course it is just a prediction, but the reality that lurks beneath that statistic is truly disturbing and creeping up on us. We must do what we can, in our own small space on this earth, to curb this.
I am aware that the spectrum for depression is so varied, and so subjective, that it is impossible to generalise on how exactly a freelancer should manage their mental health. Yet, one of the most obvious signs that solitary work could exacerbate depression is when working through a cold, dark winter. Of course, during summer being a freelancer is like getting one of a Willy Wonka's golden tickets. You skip down the street, waving your victory in the office windows of all the 9 to 5er losers. But when winter hits – and the sun sets at 3pm (before you've even finished your breakfast) – your world view can become a little bleak.
After a brief online search, I am happy to find some support readily available for freelancers from Creative Skillset, a UK organisation who help screen-based creatives develop their talent. As part of their freelance toolkit resource, they offer a health and wellbeing section of advice that really hits home with some of the experiences I have had in the last year since starting self-employment.
With further googling, I find a mountain of news articles (in the Guardian, Metro) and honest blog posts exploring individual cases where existing depression or anxiety has been amplified by going freelance. With no colleagues to keep you distracted or in check, many report that their mind gradually lost its focus and descended down a spiral of procrastination resulting in feelings of failure and the worry that their career is stagnant. Are depression and self-employment really a toxic mix? What about when the sun has its hat on and you can enjoy it at the drop of a hat, or the endless list of local cafes you can cosy up in with your laptop? However you look at it, working flexibly from home exposes you to several mental health threats you could easily avoid if still in the office.
SLEEP-INS, SOLITUDE & SOCIAL MEDIA
Freelancing seems seductive, right? Your own boss. Your own hours. Your own rules. The shiny idea of what an Instagram-worthy freelance life entails can blind many wannabes to what lies beneath – the weekend emails, projects that leech your self-confidence and seriously high eye-on-screen time. And if your home is your office, you can never escape the freelance desk. Sure, put it in another room and shut the door, swallow the keys... but your phone will still bleep and your upcoming bills will still niggle at you in the night. Many freelancers are fighting a constant battle against burnout and in such consistent solitude that turning to social media for inspiration often seems a good idea...
It's really not.
Every freelancer on Twitter is a booming PR success who just spoke at a stupid conference. Every digital nomad on Facebook has a damn ebook on how to travel for a living. Every creative on Instagram has an Ikea catalogue life complete with fluffy dog and infinite supply of clients to fund it all, apparently. This is when freelancing is at its most dangerous – when you can almost fall for the trap of replacing lost colleagues for filtered caricatures online. I guarantee if you choose this path of comparison, you'll suffer excruciating FOMO (fear of missing out) and stamp on that special fire within that sent you freelance in the first place. Put. the phone. down.
RUMI FOR ONE
I'm aware there is a link between poor mental health and procrastination. But I'm also finding a clear link between freelancing and a rise in personal rumination. To ruminate is to stew on things. To chew the cud. This is not really a beneficial trait when time is money and home is the office. As a freelancer, you sacrifice that lovely feeling of walking out of the office for the day, leaving your work (and cares) behind until the morning. To combat excessive rumination, take your thoughts outdoors for a walk whenever they get too loud. Alternatively, try the pomodoro technique and work productively in 20-minute bursts.
YOU DESERVE A SICKIE
A major influencing factor on the wavering mental health of freelancers is the lack of any option to take paid holiday, sick days or access an employer's health care plan. Of course, we know this when we go freelance, but it is nonetheless a strong contributor to rising stress levels, financial anxiety and ultimately can lead to mental burnout. It is tough enough for the average employee to take approved sick leave for mental health-related reasons, but you must be mindful of taking regular breaks and time off in your freelance lifestyle to preserve your wellbeing (and creativity!). I personally have felt more physically healthy in the last year since becoming a full-time freelancer, completing an entire calendar year without a chesty flu! Good riddance, dirty, recycled office air!
Nope, it's not your fifth cup of green tea steaming up the windows – it's your motivation sighing. Feeling stagnant is common among freelancers. When you have no lazy colleagues to outperform, and no teacher's pets to undermine, the boardroom is rather lonely. This makes planning ahead more difficult, which is a vital entrepreneurial skill needed for creative sole traders. If you only have yourself as a benchmark, it's easy for your focus to slip. What happens then? Your work loses its spark. Avoid plateauing in your freelance career by separating your work space from your living space. Set a handful of specific business goals and focus your efforts towards them, rather than trying to do everything, or win every job. Most importantly – show up each day. You know what I mean. It's that simple.
SPACE TO BREATHE
Find yourself an outlet. This is one of the best steps a freelancer can take to make sure their mental health is in a good state. When you become your own boss, and your home becomes your office, your days fold into weeks and your pyjamas become your uniform... you need an escape route. Take up a hobby, one that gets you out of bed. Commit to lunch coffee dates with mates. Dedicate your mornings to creative output (not necessarily for a client) and your afternoons to input (CPD).
Build a freelance support network for yourself too. The best way to start is by connecting with fellow freelancers on social media groups and forums – probably one of only two situations when using social media is beneficial (the other being self promotion #duh).
In my local area, there is an alarmingly limited support network for young freelancers, especially amateur ones, despite there being a huge university nearby teeming with talented, hungry creative graduates. Sure, there are various networking events and new business mentoring available, but I am yet to find a cluster of creatives who freelance for a living and fancy a pint and an honest chat about their career. They seem to be scattered throughout the city, as I know they exist (I see their amazing work when jealously wading like a zombie through my social media feed). I'm also keen to find a local outlet for all the crazy questions running through my head as I jump into my second year of professional solitude. I know I'm not alone in my experiences, but when all I have sometimes is that blinking text cursor waiting for the next word, it can feel like it.
So my question is – would you join and interact with a local freelance group or collective to support your mental health and career?
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