Opinion: Freelancing in a chaotic and stressful world

If you’re finding it hard to focus on work and be productive right now, then you’re most definitely not alone. Global events impact everyone in different ways, but it can be hard to concentrate when you’re freelancing in a chaotic and stressful world.

Especially when the triggers can feel constant, and never ending. I don’t remember feeling as stressed when I first started working for myself with a young family and a mortgage, despite a global financial crisis going on at the time. Or knowing so many people were also struggling, whether they were sharing their concerns privately with me, or publishing their challenges online.

Whatever personal and political views you have, the cumulative effect of Brexit, Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine can’t be denied. Then add IR35, rising costs and taxes, the existential threat of AI, and the need to still deliver work in order to get paid, and it’s not surprising that stress, anxiety and late night doomscrolling have challenged us all.

These can be difficult and emotive subjects to read, or write, about, whether you’ve been directly impacted or not. There’s no minimum involvement required to feel the mental and physical impact of what’s happening at the moment. You don’t need to have Ukrainian, European or Covid-vulnerable friends and family to feel anxious, upset and angry at the world. Or to get triggered into a Facebook fight at 2am by someone with differing views.

Freelancing in a chaotic and stressful world

To quote author Jennifer Wright on Twitter, “When they said ‘History repeats itself,’ I wasn’t expecting all of the twentieth century in two years”. And even if you’re not consciously responding to current events and triggers, we all tend to adopt subconscious coping measures, including procrastination, or burning ourselves out.

I’ve definitely struggled at times over recent years, weeks and even in the last few days. It’s hard not to be thrown by updates from industry colleagues in Kyiv, or having to go back into isolation due to rising Covid numbers. But even in relatively normal times, around one in six people will report an issue like anxiety or depression each week in the UK. So, it’s hugely important for everyone in the freelancing community to acknowledge and support each other, and to find ways to cope as well as possible with whatever challenges we face now, and in the future.

So, I’ve pulled together some tips that have helped me at various times over more than a decade of self-employment. But don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything at once, and rushing through to try and tick things off. I’ve used it as an ongoing reminder to try and take small steps every day, and I’m still working at it after 12 years.

Start with forgiveness for yourself. Not only is it understandable if you’ve spent time doomscrolling, or escaped from reality by binge watching an entire TV series, but beating yourself up afterwards won’t change what’s happened. And it won’t help you move forwards, either.

Actively practice some self-care. The common advice is that you should put on your own oxygen mask first, and for good reason. And don’t try and overhaul your entire life immediately – just start taking small steps and begin building good habits. Some ideas include taking a break from news and social media, getting exercise and fresh air, or making sure you’re eating well and getting enough sleep.

Escapism isn’t a bad thing. We all need ways to relax and reset from the pressures of daily life, as long as it doesn’t become something we use to avoid work entirely. Actively scheduling relaxation and family time, or setting limits on your hobbies, means you can enjoy them more without feeling guilty that you’re not working. A couple of episodes of Parks and Recreation or Ted Lasso during lunch gives a much better boost than regretting watching a whole season in a single sitting.

Getting help and support is a good for everyone. It might feel heroic to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, or you might be concerned about the stigma of speaking to a doctor or mental health professional. But one of the positives in recent years has been a growing acceptance that we all need support at times. And along with friends and family, there are a wide range of organisations and groups which can offer assistance,  including CALM, the Mental Health FoundationMind or the SamaritansOpening up to anyone can seem scary, but taking a small first step can lighten your load considerably. And you’ll often find friends, family and other freelancers are glad of the opportunity to share their own feelings, or to offer you some help.

Reframing events, and getting a different perspective can also help. In the words of Swedish physician and academic Hans Rosling, “Things can be bad, and getting better.” The constant news and social media cycle means we’re more aware of negative events around the world than ever before. And the media industry is less likely to share when things are getting better, as it tends to deliver less eyeballs. In every crisis or tragedy, there are examples of people doing amazing things to help others.

Take some positive action. Stress and anxiety are a fight or flight response to perceived threats, but don’t help us to deal with ongoing situations. But even small steps to do something proactive will help, whether it’s signing petitions, contacting your local MP or highlighting and sharing the efforts of others. In response to every crisis, freelancers around the world have continually donated money, items or their time and skills to help others.

Freelancing in a chaotic and stressful world

Open up to clients and colleagues. This can be difficult at times, and a lot will depend on your working relationship. But in a lot of cases, people will understand if your productivity is being undermined by external events, especially when they’re likely to be feeling the same. And it’s always better to inform clients early if you think work could be delayed, rather than missing deadlines and trying to make up for problems after the fact. And as a freelancer, always remember that you’re ultimately in charge of your own business, whether that’s taking some time off from work, or ending a relationship with clients if your beliefs differ, or things aren’t going as planned.

Hopefully you’ll find one or two ideas which will help your mental and physical wellbeing when you’re freelancing in a chaotic and stressful world. Ultimately, one of the biggest benefits of self-employment is that you’re empowered to prioritise taking care of yourself, and it’s important not to forget that in the face of deadlines and pressure.

And if you need more detailed information on some of the topics mentioned above, why not check out the IPSE advice section or start connecting with other people in a similar situation via the Creative Freelancers UK Facebook group.

I’m not a mental health professional, and the tips above are simply a collection of things that have helped me throughout the years. If you’re struggling in any way to cope, the most important thing is to get qualified help and advice as soon as possible. The earlier you can get support, the smaller the effect on both you, and the people around you. But it’s never too late, so if you feel like you’re having any issues with your mental wellbeing, contact CALM, the Mental Health FoundationMind or the Samaritans today.


Read more of Dan’s previous opinion columns on freelancing here, including bad briefs, living with another freelancer, and why everyone should be self-employed at least once in their careers.