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The dark side of working as a freelance linguist – and how to counteract that feeling of overwhelm

I know why you started working as a freelancer - you can work whenever you want!” said a friend of mine when she was sent home to work remotely due to Covid. She really enjoyed checking her e-mails while sipping a coffee out of her favourite mug, staying in her pyjamas and working (poorly) from home. She knew I did the same (working from home, and maybe also the sipping-a-coffee part), and naively assumed that was freelancing. “How lucky you are,” she insisted.

I know that most of my colleagues have had the same experience, and that this happens regularly, but I’ve personally got used to such preconceptions about working as a freelancer vs working for a company and have come to realise that “they’ll never really get it.” If you’re a freelancer, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, then this may be an opportunity for you to empathise with your freelancer friends on a deeper level.

Working as a freelancer has its advantages and disadvantages (that’s why creating a team is key): flexible hours, variable workloads, working remotely, a greater variety of projects and tasks, lack of security, to name just a few. However, what about the psychological burden? If you don’t think it’s an issue, try typing in “mental health of freelancers” on Google – you’ll be shocked at the amount of results that pop up on your screen.

Apparently, freelancing can have a significant impact on your mental health, due to the numerous stress factors freelancers have to deal with. According to a recent study, 25% of respondents experience “frequent periods of depression”, and 21% reported that the loneliness that comes with working from home had caused them to have suicidal thoughts.

We generally tend to underestimate the importance of self-care and mental health, mostly driven by a widely accepted workaholic philosophy. As freelancers, we have an extraordinary number of challenges, responsibilities and obligations – we are solopreneurs, after all. The funny thing is that, despite all the hard work we put into our daily tasks, it’s harder for us to build a “good company culture,” objectively track our progress and celebrate our wins. So, we tend to overload ourselves with projects (as we all all-too well know just how bad periods of low-work volumes are on our wallet), serving each client at our best, constantly trying to keep on top of every aspect of our business (again, we are solopreneurs) and working overtime to make everything work.

However, there’s only so much that our mind and body can take, and neglecting our well-being will lead to consequences that no one would intentionally choose: burnout, mental illness, anxiety and decreased productivity. We all know this, yet every now and then we all end up there.

I don’t wish to dissuade or discourage any aspiring young freelancers here (freelancing is fun!), but it’s vital that you are aware of your own limits, set priorities and boundaries, and are able to get back on track whenever you start to derail (and this will happen multiple times). So, here are the top 3 tips I regularly follow whenever I notice I’m going off track:

#1 Spot signs of burnout

Have you noticed that you’re feeling less motivated and more drained than you used to? Do you have recurrent headaches, pains or digestive issues? Do you tend to avoid responsibilities and procrastinate? These could be symptoms of potential burnout – make sure you’re aware of them, and that you don’t ignore them, to prevent them from escalating into something more serious.

#2 Set boundaries

This is a particularly hard one for me. If you tend to make yourself available to others (e.g. by replying to e-mails out of office hours, regularly working bank holidays, or trying to meet unrealistic deadlines), then you might want to try this: Set your set working hours, only reply to work-related e-mails during these hours and, most importantly, learn to say “no” to tasks that won’t fit this time window. Finally, take regular breaks from your desk (I in particular like the Pomodoro timer technique) – this will help refresh your mind, and thereby increase your mood and productivity.

#3 Dedicate time for yourself

I know you have a thousand and one tasks on your to-do list, which inevitably makes you feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. And I know it might sound obvious, but taking at least 1 hour in the day for yourself does help (whether that means reading a book, taking a walk, listening to music or doing some yoga). You might feel guilty and unproductive at first, but it’ll gradually begin to feel more natural, and inevitably lead to a significant improvement in your mental and physical health.

There are several other ways we can protect our mental health as a freelancer, and it’ll be my mission to share more. But the key takeaway for now is that self-care does not stop and that, in order to build a thriving freelancing business, it’s essential that you prioritise your mental and physical health at all costs.

What’s your #1 self-care tip that’s worked for you and that you’d like to share with your fellow freelancers?

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