When I graduated from university in 2015, I suffered from extreme anxiety and depression. Most days I couldn’t even get out of bed. Despite this, I managed to land myself a few different jobs, mostly in retail. Almost all of them were temporary, and all of them left me drained and exhausted by the time they were over.
My doctor would tell me things like:
‘Maybe you shouldn’t be working.’
To which I’d reply:
‘Well, I need to eat.’
Then my doctor would shrug as if those were the only two options. Starve, or go crazy.
Of course, there was a simple solution. If I turned to freelancing, I could work at my own pace and have all the alone time I’d need. What kept me from trying it was fear. Fear that it’d be even more stressful than a minimum wage retail job. Fear that I’d make my illness even worse. Fear of change.
After breaking down and quitting my last retail job, I came to a shocking realisation: anything had to be better than this. Freelance might be stressful, but it couldn’t possibly be more stressful than a string of dead-end jobs that had literally driven me insane.
People freelance for all kinds of reasons. According to a report by IPSE, 1 in 7 freelancers are single mums looking for more time to raise their children. In the UK, a rising number of pensioners are becoming freelancers to earn a decent income without risking their health. The same principles apply to those freelancers who, like me, turn to self-employment to try and find a safe balance between health and wealth.
But as any freelancer knows, self-employment isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, it’s one of the most stressful working situations there is. Between deadline anxiety and wondering where your next cheque is coming from, freelancers often end up feeling more burned out than when they started.
There are myriad articles discussing how freelancing can negatively affect mental health. But what does that mean for the people who need the flexibility freelancing offers to protect their wellbeing?
Essentially, it means thinking about what’s best for you. Don’t buy into the idea that freelancing will solve all your problems. Equally, don’t let other people’s bad experiences scare you away from what could be a fulfilling, healthy career.
There’s one simple question you need to ask yourself: ‘Is freelancing going to be better for me than a salaried position?’
It might be scary, but for people who struggle to perform in a traditional working environment, freelancing can provide a solution.
For me, the biggest difference was being able to adapt my work to fit my rest schedule, instead of the other way around. It’s well known that a lack of sleep can contribute to multiple health issues, including anxiety and depression. Disordered sleep contributes to poor working performance in a traditional 9 to 5 office. Freelancers, however, have the option of being able to work whenever their mind is able. Nightmares keeping you awake until 3AM? You can send some invoices while you’re calming yourself down. Sudden panic attack right after lunch? Take some time for self care, and then get back to work when you feel safe.
Your day to day schedule isn’t the only thing that becomes infinitely easier to manage when you’re freelance. When you’re depressed or anxious, your workplace relationships suffer. Even if your workplace boasts progressive support for mental health, on an individual basis you might find that your colleagues are less understanding. When social anxiety rears its ugly head it’s nice to be able to go all day without having to talk to anyone in person. No more spending time and energy psyching yourself up for watercooler chats — it’s just you, your emails, and maybe a friendly pet to keep you company.
Finally, let’s talk about presentation. It takes a lot of energy to make yourself look and feel good enough for a regular office job. When you’re mentally ill, small tasks like getting dressed and brushing your hair become huge trials. Freelancing reduces the pressure to look good. If all you can manage is sitting in your pyjamas while you fire off emails, nobody is judging you. If social anxiety means that you take hours to get your makeup perfect before you can stand to face the world, well congratulations — as a freelancer, you no longer have to face the world before you start your working day.
…and The Cons
Of course, any job requires real, hard work, and when it comes to freelancing that workload doubles. You’re not just one little cog any more, you’re the entire machine, and if you don’t start managing your time well you’ll end up breaking down.
It turns out that time management isn’t a strong point for many mentally ill people. Even people working in offices with a big scary boss looming over them are prone to confusion and forgetfulness. Brain fog, maladaptive daydreaming, losing time — whatever you call it, disorganisation is a major symptom of almost every mental illness and it’s something you’re going to have to fight to overcome when you go freelance. Thankfully, there are tried and tested ways of doing so. Personally, I use a bullet journal in combination with apps like Forest to remind myself constantly of what needs doing that day. The flexibility that freelancing offers also means that when brain fog does start to set in, you can easily take a five minute time-out to reorient yourself and get focused.
Remember when I said that managing your relationships is easier when those relationships are all far away? Well, the downside is that freelancing can be very, very lonely. Sure, for a few days being alone with your thoughts can be a blessing, but if you let things get out of hand you’ll wake up one day realising that you haven’t seen another human being for weeks. Co-working spaces are an incredible antidote for freelancer FOMO. Alternatively, just roll up to your favourite coffee shop and absorb the atmosphere. You can also cultivate relationships with fellow freelancers, many of whom will understand just what you’re going through. Going freelance doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone.
The biggest con for many mentally ill freelancers is stress. Freelancing is a fraught business, and you need to build some specific mental barriers to survive. Whether you’re facing your third rejection this week, admitting to losing a key file, or cold-emailing potential clients, there’s a new and frightening experience around every corner. This is the kind of thing that prompts people to declare that mental illness is a straight-up dealbreaker when it comes to freelancing. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Think of it like this: when you work in an office, you still have to face rejection, learn from your mistakes, and network with total strangers. At least when you’re freelancing you can moderate your environment to be as stress-free as possible while you’re gearing up for the really hard stuff.
At the end of the day, freelancing while mentally ill is all about balance. It’s about knowing yourself and what you can handle, and developing specific strategies for dealing with the stressful situations you’ll encounter. For some people that’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with in a comfortable office environment. For everyone else, though, there’s absolutely no reason that being mentally ill should stop you from pursuing a freelance career.