How Freelancers Can Prioritize Their Mental Health

By Ruth Terry March 24th, 2021

Like many self-employed people, I find the freedom of freelancing hard to beat. As someone with ADHD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, the lifestyle allows me the flexibility to work around my bad days—the exact opposite scenario than what I experienced while working in full-time roles.

But this past year, I’ve found a major downside to freelance life: constant burnout. As work stress gets compounded by pandemic fatigue, it’s more important than ever for freelancers to prioritize mental health—especially if, like me, you have pre-existing mental illness.

Giving yourself space to go offline isn’t easy. It can create anxiety around missing potential assignments or the mountain of work you’ll have to deal with later on. But you need downtime to counterbalance the stress and mental fatigue that comes with being self-employed. Here are a few expert suggestions on how to design mental health breaks that work for you.

Recognizing the signs of burnout

Even though full-time workers also experience burnout, they often have built-in resources for support. Some companies have started implementing “mental health day” policies, and being part of a team means there are people you can check in with when you’re stressed.

Those safeguards don’t necessarily exist for self-employed workers—even though long hours, a competitive and uncertain market, and isolation present serious challenges to our mental health.

“You’re really having to do a lot of work… without that much [human] contact,” said Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist and freelance writer in San Francisco. “You’re sending emails back and forth [but without] the same type of relationship you might have if you were able to connect in person.”

Without that support system, it’s up to freelancers to identify their own burnout triggers. For instance, Fraga, who is Asian-American, noted that writing about certain topics can take a real emotional toll—particularly for people of color, who are often assigned stories that tap into past trauma. The New York Times article “Self-Care for Black Journalists,” published in the wake of the George Floyd protests, underscores this point. For my part, writing about my experience of race helps me process past trauma. But it can also cause nightmares and bouts of depression if I’m not careful to mix in different assignments.

Other freelancers have different triggers. Leanna Johnson Lee, a Chicago writer who covers mental health and the future of work, said that her stress levels skyrocket when she has too much on her plate. Ruksana Hussain, an L.A.-based magazine writer and features editor, cautioned that “unexpected health issues” may mean it’s time for a break—a lesson she learned the hard way. Hussain experienced “tremendous mental strain” while trying to continue working after a serious back injury.

According to Johnson Lee, common danger signs of burnout can include:

  • Lack of sleep or loss of appetite
  • Lack of social life
  • Crying or losing your temper easily
  • Relying on alcohol or other drugs to relax
  • Irritability, restlessness, and anxiety
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Inability to focus or “brain fog”

Fraga also noted that feeling like you “have nothing more to give” can be a signal that burnout is on the horizon.

Different ways to take a break

For freelancers without paid time off, taking a mental health break often involves smaller chunks of time—a day or two here and there—versus uninterrupted vacations for a week or more. However, even this can be difficult for some. Baking boundaries into your work life can help take the edge off and serve as a proactive protection against burnout.

“I don’t even know how to take a break,” said New York writer Sonia Weiser, who runs the popular newsletter Sonia’s Opportunities of the Week. But, she conceded, she does work to reduce her mental load by automating tasks.

Weiser’s weekly digest of pitch calls and writing opportunities has enough paying subscribers to be her main source of income, but it also means she’s constantly corresponding with editors and freelancers. After subscribers began emailing her to share their experiences with particular publications—something that Weiser can’t really address—she started inviting people to submit their stories via Google Form. “Being able to compartmentalize different conversations [and] emotional labor that you don’t really have to do is such a gift,” she said.

Managing mental health as a freelancer may also call for a mindset shift. Weiser encourages freelance writers to stop putting certain publications on a pedestal, challenging the idea that we must endure “shitty pay” and poor treatment for prestige bylines.

There are healthy ways for freelancers to forge their own support communities too. Weiser, who also has anxiety and depression, limits her engagement in social media spaces, where conversations can quickly turn septic. But she has found a “little brain trust” of professionals she can turn to online. “You find the people who you can run ideas by, who will give you good advice… who you can run drafts by [and] who will be good editors,” she said.

“Being able to compartmentalize emotional labor that you don’t really have to do is such a gift.”

Another mindset shift to consider: Let go of the idea that it’s impossible to take a few days off. There are things you can do to give clients advanced notice. For example, you can put vacation dates in your email signature a week beforehand, or even contact clients outright to let them know you’re planning a long weekend.

Powering through could cost you

Because time really is money for freelancers, even small breaks can seem costly. But not taking time off can lead to financial repercussions as well.

Hussain, for example, eventually had to take almost a month off to prioritize her recovery. “The wake-up call was a regular client noticing the shoddy work I was producing,” she said. “I knew I had to take a break… It meant completely tuning out to focus on my health, clearing my mind, and then recalibrating my work style to ensure this never happened again.”

Unresolved burnout can also affect your productivity. After recently transitioning from staff writer to freelancer, Mindy Koschmann noticed a feeling of being stuck when work became overwhelming. “People are coming to you for your creativity and focus and expertise, so you need to be able to do [those things],” she said. Koschmann now finds mental clarity through physical exercise. “I like to run every day—that’s my mental health break.”

“Find ways to recharge each day, even if it’s a smaller break—even if it’s just taking 20 minutes to do something enjoyable.”

People with mental illness may need to take mini breaks throughout the day. Johnson Lee, who deals with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, leans into “emergency protocols” on difficult days, such as working in shorter bursts between activities she enjoys, like listening to audiobooks. She also tries to work fewer hours per day until the cycle passes.

Johnson Lee cautioned against powering through when you feel the first signs of burnout. “There are two types of mental health breaks: the ones you plan for and the ones you don’t,” she said. “The ones you don’t plan for are essentially forced resets when you’re so overwhelmed and exhausted that you’re about to hit crisis mode.”

As for planned time off, Johnson Lee said she builds intermittent “non-client work days” into her schedule. She also takes occasional time off—like an upcoming 10-day vacation.

Even if you can’t take a full-on vacation, you can still find enjoyable ways to recharge. “That might be exercise, going for a walk, reading, listening to music, or just watching TV. It might be meditation, taking deep breaths, or yoga,” Fraga said. “Find ways to recharge each day, even if it’s a smaller break—even if it’s just taking 20 minutes to do something enjoyable.” For me, my go-to coping mechanisms include watching uplifting animal documentaries and knitting.

A mental health break—whether it’s a holiday, therapy session, or an evening with family—should help you return to work energized. “Do whatever brings you happiness and takes you completely away from your work,” Hussain said. “Ask how each opportunity is improving upon the overall quality of your life experiences, and go from there.”

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