Freelancers: Six Ways to Look After Your Mental Health

Anyone who’s freelanced for more than a few months knows it has downsides as well as upsides, particularly for those working from home. Remove employment and you also remove structure, colleague support, direction from above, a steady supply of work (that usually appears without any input from you), a beginning and end to the working day, the company of others, a change of environment, a reason to leave the house, the impetus to make yourself presentable for public view…

Energy and discipline have to come only from you when you’re a freelancer. You need to find and win work, often working long hours to deliver an urgent project, or one that’s taken way longer than you quoted for. Motivate yourself to work, because there’s nobody else to do it.

Meanwhile, there’s the constant concern over how much work and money there will be next week, next month, and next year. And you take on these stresses and responsibilities alone, inside your own home, with nobody to share a coffee break, concern or joke with, inside the same four walls, every day.

So how can you make sure you don’t just survive this lifestyle, but thrive?

Plan your workload (and learn to say no)

Be realistic about how long projects will take, and build in extra time for the unexpected. You won’t often overestimate how long work will take, or time taken by unexpected interruptions. Always allow time for finding new work, promoting yourself, and doing admin.

Remember you need annual leave too and should allocate it like any boss does; you literally are the boss of you, so be a good one. Don’t forget bank holidays and days you might usually take off for special occasions.

If your calendar is filling up and there’s no way to renegotiate deadlines on new work you’re being offered, say no to it. Running yourself into the ground isn’t good for your mental or physical health.

Limit your working hours

You may find yourself working longer hours than you used to, and of course there’s no commute to take up chunks of your day, but do limit the working hours in your day and week whenever you can. This doesn’t mean you’re only allowed to work 9-5 with an hour lunch. By all means, work four long days with a day off, or work that seven hours 8-11, 2-5, 7-8 if it suits you. But do limit them!

Also think about what ‘working hours’ means to you. If you read work emails outside of working hours, that’s really not getting away from work. If you reply to them, you’re setting a precedent. Your client may learn to always expect a fast answer, whatever the time. It’s not the healthiest way to live; downtime needs to be downtime, when your brain isn’t engaged with work.

Take breaks

Regular breaks are good for your physical and mental health, and if your work involves sitting staring at a screen for hours, then make sure break time involves getting away from the screen (preventing prevent CVS—Computer Vision Syndrome) and moving around (research shows that prolonged sitting can be as bad for your health as smoking, and it’s not good for your musculoskeletal system either).

Breaks make you more productive, not less productive, by allowing your brain a rest period during which it can make sense of the information it’s been exposed to and store it in a sensible way. There’s a host of timer apps and tools that can help you ensure you take breaks, and regular breaks can also help you focus during work sessions, saving chores and social media browsing for break times.

Separate your work space from your home space

When you’re employed, your work time is usually brought to an end by the physical act of leaving your office; even if you wanted to carry on working, you couldn’t, because you’re expected home/have to catch the train/the office is about to close anyway.

When you work from home, that separation can be more difficult. A dedicated workspace is ideal and a workspace that you can shut the door on, even more so.  If that’s not possible, a room or cupboard where you can pack away your work things so that they’re out of sight (and hopefully out of mind) is a good idea. Associating just one area with work and the rest of your home with relaxation helps you to ‘leave work’ at the end of the day and is a great way to tell your brain it’s time to relax.

Socialise

Although we all vary as to the amount of human interaction we need, we all need some! Freelancing can be boring and lonely if you never see another human being. If you’re freelancing and also living by yourself, you’re in danger of going weeks without a meaningful conversation. Being bored and lonely is good for neither your work, nor your mental health.

Catch up with family and friends for coffee or lunch where possible, and consider joining a club, a networking group, or an exercise class. Perhaps you have freelancing friends who would welcome a once-a-week session where you work somewhere together? However you do it, make a regular commitment to seek the company of other people! This brings us to our last tip.

Get out of the house

Socialising is important but so too is getting out the house for a change of scenery, so don’t just invite people round to your house! A brisk walk will give you fresh air, exercise, and perhaps the opportunity of a quick chat with someone.

If possible, get out of the house to work sometimes. A friend’s house, the library, a café, or rented office or co-working space. You don’t have to do this all the time, but try to commit to doing it regularly. It breaks the monotony and provides structure to your day, and again, you’ll feel all the better and work all the better with a fresh outlook and new input.

These tips might be about looking after your mental health, but research has indisputably proved that physical and mental health aren’t separate things; they’re inextricably intertwined. Looking after your mental health will help to keep you physically well too, so what steps will you take in the next few weeks to take care of yourself?