Burnout

How to Avoid Burnout and Focus on Mental Health: Tips for Freelancers

by Tonya Russell

Freelancing can be extremely rewarding, but it can also leave you feeling drained. Since 2020, there’s been a 36 percent increase in individuals leaving 9-to-5 office jobs to forge their own paths as freelancers. Many people have left toxic workplaces in search of more flexibility, better work-life balance, and less feeling of burnout.

But it takes strategy to achieve longevity with self employment, while also making sure not to freelance yourself into the ground. Freelancers can make their own hours and work as much as they want in their sweatpants. Without a mental health-focused strategy, however, there’s the risk of burning out — just like if you were working in a cubicle. 

“The biggest issue with burnout is that you normally don’t recognize it until it’s happened to you,” consultant Elizabeth Rosenberg said. 

How to recognize burnout

For freelancers experiencing burnout now, Rosenberg recommends finding your triggers and addressing them. “There is no silver bullet that cures everyone, but for some therapy works, for others taking a long break or vacation, and for others it’s a full life pivot.”

One of the first signs you’re headed for burnout, according to psychotherapist Oludara Adeeyo, is the persistent feeling of anxiety. 

“There is a level of uncertainty that comes with freelancing: When am I getting paid? Will they pay me my rate? When’s my next job?” said Adeeyo. “And if you’re having to do this almost every day or month, you can possibly develop anxiety.” 

Work stress transforms when you switch from a traditional office role to freelancing, but it certainly doesn’t go away. Adeeyo recommends freelancers pay attention to their anxiety, which can also manifest as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or brain fog. 

Build in time for yourself

Transformation coach Dr. Christina Fontana recommends that her clients shut the world out sometimes. “The most important thing that I do for myself is shut off social media each day after I’m done working,” she said. “It’s been a game changer.” 

For others, social media may not be draining, so instead of avoiding social media, taking time away from your phone altogether can help. If you can’t figure out when, then schedule it daily, or weekly if you need to. Switching into “Do Not Disturb” mode and reading a book can be a refreshing escape, whereas many freelancers let little escapes culminate into a longer sabbatical. 

Creating boundaries with work is also important. Commit to taking weekends off, and consider not having your work email account on your phone — this way you won’t respond to work emails during atypical hours.  

Work smarter, not harder

Work should be challenging, no matter what you do. But “challenging” shouldn’t ever feel like you’re being taken advantage of or underpaid. A freelancer may encounter this when starting out. Some freelancers have trouble saying no to opportunities out of fear that they will run out. 

“If a client or project is throwing up red flags before you start, you can and should say no,” Rosenberg said. 

Fontana agrees, and said, “Say no to things that aren’t needle movers” — tasks that don’t help to further your career, or clients you may take on because you can’t say no. 

Communicate with your client 

If you’re already beginning to feel your productivity wane, it may be time to communicate that feeling with your client. 

For author Jen Miller, keeping an open line of communication ensures client relationships stay intact. When on the edge of burnout, asking for an extension instead of handing in “bad copy” can take you far.  

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask if an editor can shift back a deadline,” Miller said. “Most build wiggle room into their publications, and I’ve never had someone fire me for asking for a half day or day more. And use that time to do something not related to working at all.” 

Prioritize self care

When her business started to grow, Fontana hired a full-time assistant who handled billing, social media, and scheduling. She’s since considered it to be one of her best freelance hacks for maintaining productivity. The tasks she designates to her assistant can often consume a lot of time and can hamper her creativity when it comes to projects.

“If you can afford it, hire people to do the things that take a lot of unnecessary time and stress you out,” Rosenberg said. “Those two things for me have always been bookkeeping and my social media content calendar. With those taken care of by a trusted team, I have more time to do the things I’m good at and get paid to do.”

While everyone will feel burnt out at some point, it’s possible to overcome the loss of productivity. Ultimately, to have a sustainable freelance career, you’ll need the courage to start your career on your own terms with your wellness in mind. 

Tonya Russell is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who writes about health, wellness, and travel. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Times, Washington Post, and various other publications. To see more of her work or her cute dog photos, follow her on Twitter @thetonyarussell.

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