Mental Health as a Freelancer

I've tried to find ways of coping with the enormous demands of being a freelance web designer whilst also balancing home, personal and work life. I've had many ups and downs within this time and always struggled to balance work with mental health and I quite often experienced burnout. Not only that, but I'd wake up, force myself to get to my desk at a certain time and quite often stare at a screen for large periods of time. I wasn't productive, but I felt like I had to be working, otherwise I'd be left behind and almost felt guilty if I wasn't working the typical 9-5 hours.

Burnout

I've really struggled with several serious bouts of burnout. Looking back, there were usually two triggers:

  • Taking on too much work, not having enough time to look after myself and have some downtime away from the screen.
  • Having a really demanding client that either didn't suit the way I worked, were unreasonable with things like timeframe, responsibility or delivery.

It's only when I look back now I realise how what I'd been doing wasn't sustainable, and how that affected mental health. I was quite often working most evenings and weekends, and with that obviously comes some perks, I was probably earning a bit more, and I found that I had routines to allow me to continue to produce great work. Hell, I quite often found my most productive hours were between 9-11pm.

When I hit burnout, I really struggled to get to grips with why I felt like I did and what caused it. I had zero motivation to do anything, I was just making sure I delivered for clients and hitting deadlines but doing nothing in-between. I was ambling from project to project, forcing myself to work in small patches to make sure I continued to deliver for clients. Do you remember how it felt when you got to a Sunday evening when you were at school? I used to have that dread feeling in the pit of my stomach and really not wanting to go back to school. This is what burnout did to me, but for work. The beauty of being a freelancer is to be your own boss. You decide when you want time off. You decide what projects you want to work on.

Improving things

I'd begun to realise what was happening in 2019. I knew I had to create something sustainable, that I could manage long term and start to enjoy again. I put in the following measures, which really did help:

No weekend work

I made a conscious decision to not work any weekends unless there was a really valid reason for doing so. I shut the laptop on a Friday afternoon and don't pick it up again until Monday morning. This really helped initially, but I found with the Gmail app installed on my phone, I was picking up emails and getting mail classed as 'urgent' to action (and expecting me to action) on the weekend. Things like small bugs on mobile for example, or maybe a host went down and the client needed some help.

The reality was: it wasn't urgent. These types of enquiries were valid, and I help all clients with all matters to the best of my ability. With every project I put in measures to make sure the client can take responsibility and get support should I be away. All my clients have their own hosting accounts, so their hosting provider should have been there go to for support. They know that, but I'm the first port of call so I completely understand why the emails hit me first. Towards the backend of 2019, I'd uninstalled the Gmail app and relied on the stock Mail app. This meant I didn't get push notifications, and I was in control of what I saw when I had time off. This was probably, the single most important change I'd made across 2019. Suddenly, I was finding that I had breathing room, I wasn't suffocated, and I could enjoy weekends without the worry of needing a laptop everywhere I went. Although the emails didn't stop, the fact I didn't pick them up over the weekend resulted in one of two things:

  • The issue had been resolved by the time I picked it up Monday, by reaching out to the relevant party for support.
  • I actioned things as soon as I could on Monday morning, and this was OK. It wasn't as urgent as it may have seemed and things can wait.

As I began 2020, I felt I was in a much better space with burnout. I felt in control of my mental health and what sort of things triggered anxiety and burnout. But, we had no idea what was to come in March 2020.

COVID-19

As we hit March, and with lockdown happening, I think the world began to realise how challenging it can be to work from home. In reality, I'd been dealing with the struggles for several years, so I was in a great position to help family and friends adapt. To summarise some of the advice I gave, here's a few quick tips to help mental health whilst working at home:

  • Create a dedicated desk space for a work/home balance. Even if it's a spare room, or a temporary position on a table, create somewhere you go to every day that's different to where you spend your time in your personal life. This creates separation.
  • Take regular breaks. Stepping away every hour for a stand goal or even for a coffee helps break up the day. It re-energises the mind and helps with concentration.
  • Set reasonable working hours. We're all human, and quite often (depending on type of job) you're more productive at home, so keep this in mind.

Introducing exercise

One thing I'd always neglected is exercise. I'm regularly in touch with Dil at Hippocrates Lounge and one of the most important things I'd missed is exercise. As a teenager I loved playing sport. Football, cricket, rugby you name it, I loved it. As I moved into a working career, and then eventually as a freelancer, I'd just stopped. I wasn't walking far, my step count was low, and I didn't really do anything intensive. My BMI had slipped into the red. As COVID-19 struck, one of the most influential factors seemed to be weight. This really struck a cord with me and gave me the kick I needed to address this massive issue that I didn't even realise was happening. From April 2020, I decided I was going to try and get all three rings on my Apple Watch everyday throughout lockdown. I decided that I was going to walk most days, minimum 30 minutes and also start the couch to 5k and even a spot of bike riding.

This was probably one of the biggest major changes I made in 2020 that improved mental health. Having that break away from all screens (I don't take my phone) whilst going for a walk in the countryside helped give me that breathing space. I listened to a Shawn Mendes Time to Walk, and he described this as radio interference. If you have too many people/things making noise around you, it becomes noisy and the signal isn't clear, there's no clarity. Having that breathing space helps to reduce that noise, and the clarity returns. It really struck a cord, and felt like a great way to describe how I feel when things are building up. I'll have days when I know I feel like it and I need to be extra cautious with how I interact with people. It can lead to bad decisions without that clarity which is needed in certain situations.

The final piece of the jigsaw

Towards late 2020 I made one more decision, and it was a big one. I'd decided to almost exclusively work on Jamstack builds. I loved working with this tech stack, and it was so stable and required so little maintenance when coupled with Netlify, that I could comfortably take a week off work and not really worry about major issues with databases, hosting or anything technical.

I decided that I was going to take on projects that only fitted within this workflow. Furthermore, I could focus on an area, and really try and master it to deliver the highest of quality, whilst working on something I enjoyed and that had less responsibility. I was very worried about losing my bigger clients, and the business suffering from it.

So far in 2021, I've managed to maintain income whilst working only on projects that are a good fit for me. This has given me a big boost mentally, and hopefully as we look forward and start to enjoy holidays again, I'll be able to get a larger period of time away from the screen without worries of the dreaded urgent call or email.

2021 and beyond

We never thought that in 2021 we'd still be in lockdown. COVID-19 has changed the world, put a focus on mental health and I think all of us has struggled at some point throughout it. I wanted to start a conversation amongst freelancers, web designers and developers as I've had a few chats with others who have experienced similar. A year ago, I definitely wouldn't have had the courage to post this. If I can help just one person, then it'll have been worth posting.