Let’s talk about freelancing and mental health; a topic that I think is not discussed nearly often enough.
I don’t have ongoing mental health issues, but I consider myself a mental health ally because a lot of people I love struggle with depression and anxiety. Additionally, I went through a period of several months at the height of COVID back in the fall of 2020, when I was under a tremendous amount of stress and, for the first time in my life, I had trouble coping. I felt physically exhausted pretty much all the time, and in general I just felt like I was having trouble functioning.
As freelancers, many of us have a bunch of risk factors for mental health struggles:
- We’re perfectionists
- We spend a lot of time alone
- We don’t have the financial security of a guaranteed salary, and if we’re single or the primary earner in our families, we may have no employer-provided benefits either
- We’re afraid to admit when things aren’t going well in our businesses
- We feel, sometimes correctly, that we could be at risk of significant financial problems if we stop working or even slow down for a short period of time
All of these factors are real, but what can we do about them?
- Most importantly, if you are having suicidal thoughts, call a mental health crisis line or go to an emergency room. There’s evidence that business founders are up to twice as likely as the general population to have suicidal thoughts. If you have thoughts of not wanting to be alive, you need and deserve professional mental health help immediately.
- Second most importantly, try to accept that if you’re at the point of having trouble coping (chronically or periodically), you have two choices: give your brain and your body the break they need, in a way that you control, or risk being forced to take a break in a way that you can’t control. Sadly, I’ve spoken with multiple people in my circle who told themselves, I can’t slow down or take any time for myself because…(who will run my business, who will watch my kids, what will my spouse think, how will I survive financially, etc. etc.), only to find themselves unable to do those things because they ended up needing emergency mental health treatment. The most important step is to not let yourself get to that point.
- All of this sounds like, “Yeah, right, nice idea, but…” or it even seems condescending, as if the key is just to work less and take more time for yourself, which not all of us can do. The reality is that your health is your health: mental, physical, it’s all your health, and we all know that as a freelancer, you are the business. If you crumble, the business crumbles.
In my own life, here’s what that looked like:
- I started meditating for 5-10 minutes a day with the Calm app. That’s not an affiliate deal. I like the Calm app because it has a bunch of different narrators, and you can literally do a meditation that’s one minute or 20 minutes long. Meditating got me off the ledge; after a few weeks, I started feeling that my thoughts were slower, I no longer had a sense of panic when I thought about the hard things going on in my life, and I could identify thoughts and feelings as thoughts and feelings rather than facts or things that were certain to happen.
- I slowed down a bit in general. I’m a fairly energetic person, but I need a lot of sleep, and to be honest this is something that I always feel vaguely embarrassed about. I need at least eight hours of sleep a night in order to function, and honestly I feel better with eight and a half to nine hours, and I sometimes sleep 10 hours on the weekends. I started allowing myself to do this without guilt.
- I prioritized things that I love, like spending time with my husband and my close friends, hanging out with my foster animals, and riding my mountain bike and going skiing. I made a point to take “screen-free Saturdays” where I tried to do an outdoor, non-screen activity all day.
- I eliminated some non-paying work from my work day. I decided to focus on my highest-paying clients, and to offer fewer online courses and more courses that I teach myself, so that I’m as close as possible to my target hourly rate whenever I’m working.
- Eventually, I started going to four yoga classes a week, and for me, this was the major mental health turning point, where I actually started to feel calm and happy again. I realize that this is not attractive or possible for everyone, so I mean it as inspiration for whatever keeps you calm and happy.
- Even if you can’t make big changes, do something, even something small, to support your happiness and mental health; even a small sliver of your day that helps you feel sane and grounded.
I hope these tips are helpful to you in your own freelance journey!
Corinne McKay (email@example.com) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!