How to take care of your mental health as a freelancer

By Benedict Smith
Freelance Writer

Founder of Levo London, an agency specialising in content & copywriting, communications strategy and PR.

Starting, running and building a business is truly exciting, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t, at times, all-consuming, nerve-wracking and every so often, mentally exhausting.

I caught up with a close friend last week who also works for himself and, after exchanging pleasantries, we soon found ourselves talking about life as self-employed people. As is often the case when we chat about work, the conversation focused mostly on the impact that running a small enterprise can have on mental wellbeing.

If I remember rightly, my friend’s exact words were: “Self-employment can, if you’re not careful, **** with your head a bit.” And I couldn’t help but nod my own head in agreement.

Working for yourself is brilliant – without doubt the best decision I’ve made so far in my career – but you do need to look after yourself. Forget to and you won’t take care of your business. Or worse, you’ll lose sight of the things that are frankly much more important than work.

Where you have accountants to sort your tax, developers to build your website and other freelancers to help with your workload, I realised recently – and this is something I wish I’d known when I went solo four years ago – you can’t farm out your mental wellbeing.

You need to look after you. This is painfully obvious of course, but also easy to forget about while you’re handling everything else that self-employment throws at you. 

per cent of millenials experience 'burnout'

According to a survey by Yellow Brick, ‘burnout’ impacts a staggering 96 per cent of millennials every day, shocking really when you think about it. However, it does go to show that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you aren’t on your own.

But how do we, as freelancers, contractors and entrepreneurs, take better care of ourselves mentally? How do we cope with something described as ‘chronic workplace stress’ that so many of us seem to suffer from? 

At this point in the article, I feel I should add a disclaimer. I’m not a professional in this area, but through experience and having looked into these issues myself, I hope the following will be useful to you…

Five ways to look after your mental health

1. Speak up

Slowly but surely, the stigma that was once attached to speaking about our feelings and mental health is eroding – particularly for men. It’s now okay not to be okay. So, whether it’s visiting a qualified professional or being honest with a family member or friend, experts say that talking about how you feel is the best place to start. 

Two people going for a run in the Autumn

2. Reach out

The independent workforce is bigger, more diverse and more important to society and the economy than ever before. And 4.97 million self-employed workers in the UK is proof – if ever we needed it – that there are plenty of people out there who face similar challenges day in, day out. 

From checking out organised meet-ups and attending networking groups, to grabbing a couple of drinks with a like-minded person, find your support system. Leaning on others who also ‘get it’ – whatever ‘it’ is – might just do you the world of good. 

3. Say 'no'

Politely saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to clients who are more trouble than they’re worth is fine too. Sure, it’s a risk, given work is rarely guaranteed for us. But in my experience, turning down projects with businesses that my gut instinct told me weren’t quite right has been liberating. 

4. Stay active

Studies show that exercise releases endorphins that can improve mental health considerably. Personally, I find it the best way to switch off and escape – phone-free. I’m right in thinking that exercise even makes me feel sharper at work too. Specialists in this field say it helps us sleep better, boosts our energy levels throughout the day and, believe it or not, toughens us up. Yep, that’s right – exercise can make us more resilient. 

5. Fuel Yourself

The Mental Health Foundation claims there’s a link between diet and wellbeing. It makes a strong case for this too. After all, just like the liver and heart, the brain also needs the right fuel. I’m not for one minute arguing that nutrition cures mental health issues altogether, but there’s no doubt it helps our state of mind. That goes for the amount of alcohol we tuck away too. Like they say, everything in moderation. 

Ultimately, you need to do what works for you. To state the obvious, wellbeing is personal. What helps me feel balanced, mentally healthy, happy, fit and firing might not be for you. That said, if any of the above helps just one person, in my opinion, writing this article has certainly been worthwhile.