Working for yourself as a freelancer, entrepreneur, or ‘digital nomad’? The ‘freelance economy’ has seen many of us wave goodbye to steady jobs to achieve what we thought a dream lifestyle of freedom.
But turns out that being your own boss doesn’t come without a price. Andrea M. Darcy explores.
The psychological costs of working for yourself
A 2021 survey by freelancer mental health association Leapers found that 79 per cent of those who become self-employed didn’t even consider how it might impact their mental health. 35 per cent end up reporting that the reality of working for themselves was not what they expected.
If any of the following sound familiar, know you are not alone. Many who attempt to be a freelancer or entrepreneur go through a similar journey.
Work has always been the cause of anxiety for some, but there are new reasons workers are anxious.
Freelancers live with the constant worry over whether new contracts will come in, and can feel like they no longer have life security.
And then there is the lack of feedback the regular workplace provides. This can lead to anxiety about whether or not clients are happy with the work being done.
(Not sure you are suffering anxiety or just stressed? Read our piece on stress vs anxiety).
2. Money-related depression.
It can be hard to predict a regular income if working for yourself, leading to money stress. Freelancing can also lead to being seen differently by banks, and we might have not realised we’d, say, now struggle to get a mortgage like our friends.
And many new businesses take out start-up loans, which can seem a good idea at first. But it cause stress later on when the interest-free period expires or the generous relative demands payback. We end up with depression over debt, which can be even more problematic if we are too embarrassed to let family or friends know for fear they see us as a failure.
3. Lowered self-esteem.
Traditional workplaces provide feedback and ongoing training that works to keep employees feeling on track. Without this structure, and without constructive criticism, freelance workers can worry about their performance or talent. This can exacerbate any self-esteem issues.
And while a project gone wrong can seem acceptable and a part of any job when it’s for a company, if it’s your own company, it can seem a personal setback.
4. Focus issues are common when working for yourself.
We can think we hate the supervision and competition of the workplace. But then we find ourselves a freelancer working at home, and discover we are prone to distraction without supervision, in ways we didn’t expect. It can feel harder and harder to get things done.
Boredom can also trigger all of the above, when the thrill of working from home in your pyjamas or being your own boss wears off.
Many workers gone freelance underestimate how much they relied on the social contact the workplace provided, or on afterwork drinks. Life can start to feel very lonely when working from home or cafés where you know nobody.
(Read about ‘the 3 Stages to Overcoming Loneliness’ if you are concerned, or our piece ‘7 Surprising Reasons You Are Feeling Lonely’).
Experiencing self-employed burnout?
A whopping 75 per cent of the self-employed workers who took part in the above mentioned Leapers survey reported experiencing burnout.
The traditional image of workplace burnout is of a CEO working 14 hour days.
But burnout is actually less related to hours worked, and more to the effects of those hours. Burnout is specifically about experiencing feelings of powerlessness and loss of control.
Symptoms to look out for include:
How stay sane when working for yourself
How can you take care of your psychological health if you are part of the new, more flexible work force? Try these tips.
1. Set goals and create accountability.
Yes, goal-setting can seem basic and boring. But with nobody else monitoring you it helps to have a way to monitor yourself so you don’t free float and get way off track. Make goals for each hour and use a timer. Then make daily, weekly, and monthly targets as well. Consider using apps to keep you focussed (read our piece on ‘Apps that Move You Forward’).
Or connect with other freelancers and set weekly goals you then hold each other accountable for.
2. Learn to balance optimism and pessimism.
Trying to be cheerful and upbeat when you feel terrible is a waste of energy. There’s nothing wrong with down days when you are an entrepreneur and working for yourself. Find tools to help you use your negativity to drive you forward and give you insight, such as journalling, mindfulness, or channeling that negativity into exercise that boosts your wellbeing.
3. Get serious about self-care and have boundaries.
Working for yourself can mean your entire life becomes about work. You are always thinking about ideas and don’t have such clear boundaries between work and home. Self-care can be one of the first things to go, but it’s connected to our mental health.
Try to do three things a week for yourself, even if its just small things like a hot bath or gym trip. Don’t just think about it, put it in your diary. And try to make a commitment where certain hours of the day are work-free.
4. Create a support network.
Connecting with other freelancers and entrepreneurs can be a great way to feel more understood and supported.
But also consider the support of a coach or a therapist to keep you on track and resilient. If you are worried you can’t afford therapy with all your money going into your new business, read our guide to low-cost counselling.
5. Know when to call it quits on working for yourself.
At the end of the day working on your own steam is simply not for everyone. If the truth is that being a freelancer isn’t working for you, and you simply aren’t happy? Then be honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind and going back to the structure of a regular job.
It doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you someone brave enough to have tried something, who has now learned more about themselves.
Time to get some help clarifying what career and life you want? Therapy helps. We connect you with a team of workplace counsellors who can help you create a life you feel good in.
Andrea M. Darcy knows all about working for yourself. She left a career in film to become a popular mental health and personal development expert. She has been a freelancer for her entire life, barring a six-month stint in an office.