My mental health was at its absolute worst when I worked in traditional employment. Even with access to counselling, medication and paid sick leave, there was no getting around the fact that I was in the wrong line of work. It wasn’t that I had a bad job as such, but it was a bad fit for my personality; it was time to consider freelance work.
When I made the switch from the hospitality industry to freelance writing, I thought my mental stability was pretty much guaranteed – no more office politics, managing a team or dealing with difficult customers. I had years of recovery behind me and a good understanding of how to manage my depression and anxiety symptoms. But being your own boss means that you have to prioritise yourself, even when there’s endless amounts of work to be done. So it’s no surprise that even with my relatively strong sense of emotional awareness, I still have to work hard to maintain good mental health as a freelancer.
The good news is that your mental health can benefit from going freelance, as long as you actively work to take good care of yourself. Here are my top tips for building good mental health habits as a freelance writer (or whatever form of freelance work you do):
1. Who’s on your team?
While we should all take ownership of our wellbeing and draw on tools that make us feel empowered to make change, there’s no denying the benefit of a good support network. This means letting people in, not pushing them away. The next time your mum offers to make you a batch of lasagne for your freezer, don’t belittle her for insinuating you’re regressing. The fact is we all need a back-up plan for when we can’t adult, and if pre-made cheesy pasta isn’t a perfectly formed back-up plan for when you have a deadline to hit, then I don’t know what is.
2. Get enough good quality sleep
Unless you have full-on insomnia, getting enough sleep should be relatively simple. But for freelancers, it sometimes falls to the bottom of the priority list. Sitting at our desks and doing a bit more freelance work always seems like a better use of our time than lying in bed, but try your best to shift the guilt that comes with getting enough shut-eye. The time you spend sleeping will allow your brain to recover and regenerate, consolidate memory and allow you to learn and function when you are awake. It’s literally an investment in your future health as well as your productivity levels.
When I was growing up, I did no exercise. When I was at university, I did even less. But when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I started going to fitness classes every day. Partly because I heard it is good for mental health, but mostly to gain some sense of control over my life because I was off work with zero structure to speak of. Since then, I’ve had phases in my life where I’ve been dangerously obsessed with exercise and losing weight. At other times I’ve avoided the gym for months on end. But one thing has always been true. Moving my body has a tangible impact on my wellbeing.
Some studies talk about the “symbolic meaning” of social ties, something that I think is definitely on the rise in the freelancing world. Relationships such as marriage come with meanings attached. To have and to hold. Till death do us part. Having meaningful interactions with fellow freelancers is just as important. In the same way that members of a football team work together on the basis that they all want the same thing, being part of a community of freelancers can give you the accountability, drive and confidence to push forward with your business.
5. Eat right
I’m no expert, but I have spent a number of years playing trial and error with lots of different lifestyle changes to see how they impact my mental health. Caffeine, in my case, is best enjoyed in small doses, otherwise it gets my heart racing and triggers anxiety attacks. Sugar does the same. The nature of freelance writing means that afternoon naps are logistically possible (and an undeniable perk), but believe me, you won’t get much done if you need one every time you eat a pancake.
6. Get out and about
When you go to an external space to work (like an office or a shop), you have to leave the house. You have to go outside to get in your car, walk or get the train to be in a specific place to do your job. You automatically breathe fresh air and feel the weather on your skin without really thinking about it. But working from home means that unless you have an appointment or a dog to walk, going outside is entirely optional. It can seem counterproductive to go wandering around the park when you’ve got a website to design, freelance writing to do or emails to respond to, but prioritising being outside – even for just a short time – can go a long way to helping you maintain a healthy mind. TIP: If you’ve made friends with other freelancers in your area, then why not organise a regular walk-and-talk meet-up? It’s a good way to get outdoors but also have some interesting conversations.
7. Make time for creativity
Lots of freelancers work in creative roles – graphic design, copywriting, product development, branding. But there is a difference between being creative at work and being creative for your mental health. Creativity at work is often hemmed in by guidelines set by the client. You might be doing a creative task but on a topic that doesn’t excite you. You might create something you’re incredibly proud of, only to have the client say it’s not what they want, leaving you with a hell of a lot of work to do. For these reasons, finding a creative outlet which is just for fun can have a huge impact on your mental health. We all get days when we feel unmotivated, but being a freelancer means that you can potentially use those days as an excuse to do something else.
8. Recognise when it might be time for professional help
When you’ve exhausted your bag of tricks and you still feel like utter crap, it’s time to call in the big guns. This is one aspect of mental health maintenance that so many of us (myself included) never fully engage with. For many of us freelancers, success only feels real when achieved under the banner of self-sufficiency. We pride ourselves on being the lone wolf, a company of one, and while it’s freeing to have the autonomy of freelancing, that doesn’t mean that we don’t need support. You shouldn’t feel ashamed about going to the doctor or googling local therapists at 3 am. If you’re thinking about asking for help, the chances are you need it more than you’re willing to admit.
About the Author
The above article is largely made up of extracts from Fiona Thomas’ latest book, Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss. Fiona is an author and freelance writer with work published in iPaper, Grazia, Happiful Magazine and Huffington Post. She has also written one previous Trigger book, Depression in a Digital Age.
Connect with her on Instagram or Twitter and on her website, or listen to the Out of Office podcast.