How to avoid burnout as a freelancer

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On the Freelance Corner podcast, hosts Faye and Jess spoke to accredited coach, qualified Nutritional Therapist, and bestselling author of Have it all without burning out, Deborah Bulcock to discuss how to combat burnout. Together, they look at the areas that particularly affect freelancers such as prolonged periods of isolation and not being able to switch off or take time off work.  

Faye: What is burnout? And how is it different to stress or maybe a sign of something more serious? 

Deborah: Burnout is really a consequence of extreme and chronic stress for quite a period of time. We can maybe have a really short period where we're feeling some stress, and we get exhausted, but maybe we'll take a weekend to recuperate and then we're back on fire again to do what we need to do. Burnout is quite a bit more serious than that.  

Usually, burnout happens when someone's been experiencing high levels of stress for a long period of time. It could be years where people have been trying to get themselves back on track and feeling better, and they get these little improvements, but then they carry on the way that they were. Burnout is quite a physical and emotional condition so it can be very debilitating.  

Jess: Have you personally experienced burnout, and if so, how did you manage to recover from that? 

Deborah: To tell that story I have to go quite a way back, because like I say, it doesn't just happen overnight. I started my work in financial services working in some of the big corporates. I performed really well, I enjoyed what I was doing, and I was promoted quite quickly.  

So, I had all of these good things, but I was also someone who absolutely gave it my all. I was working really hard and working all hours, and I was also living life to the max outside of that. That went on for a number of years.  

I'd say during my 20s and into my early 30s, that's how I was living, and it was only after quite a number of years of living that way, that I found I didn’t have the energy left to go out in the evening. And then on weekends, I wouldn't really want to do something. And then when it came to holidays, it just became nothing but recovery time.  

And that becomes your norm then. You keep on going like that, and then ultimately, because I didn't change the way I was living or the way I was looking after myself, that just built and built and built until it got to a point of my body just saying that's it, no more, you have to slow down now. And this is how we're going to do it.  

Jess: Do you think burnout can affect freelancers differently to those who are in employment due to the different way of working? 

Deborah: I think there's definitely different pressures. I do come at things from an angle that everyone's an individual, everyone's different. We all view the world differently, but there's no doubt in my mind that the context in which you work can absolutely make a difference.  

When you're a freelancer, there's more uncertainty, there's more of a hustle that goes on with needing to find your work on quite a continuous basis, there isn’t the same level of security that can often accompany an employed position. There are different pressures when you're a freelancer, and I absolutely think that can act as a stressor.  

Now, interestingly, some people will thrive on that being their reality. But then other people will find it quite stressful and respond differently. The trick for me with thinking about stress and burnout is tuning into what's right for you: what kind of environment, working practices, or support is best for you? What works for you, that helps you thrive rather than feel really stressed all of the time? 

Jess: IPSE released a report a few years ago that investigated whether freelancers were taking some time off, and it found that some freelancers just didn't take any time off in the previous year. Do you think freelancers find it harder to take time off then say those in full time employment? 

Deborah: Absolutely. I mean, I'm obviously self-employed in a kind of a different capacity, but it is just me in my business. And I can totally agree that it's very hard to switch off when the provision of your services is your income. So if you're taking some time off, and you're not going to be earning, it is a real mindset shift, to think about taking a break.  

If people don't feel they can take a break my recommendation is always to start with some small steps, and that's making sure that your body and your mind has some time to recuperate and has some downtime.  

There's lots of things that happen in our brain and in our body physiologically when we're resting. And it's really critical for preventing things like burnout, or other areas of ill health as well. So even if we don't feel like we can take a week off, making sure that you're getting really good quality sleep, or making sure that you're having a good amount of downtime at the weekends, is a really powerful first step. 

Jess: Do you see burnout as something that is more of a long term thing? 

Deborah: I do. Burnout was recognised by the World Health Organisation in May 2019, actually, so it's relatively fresh as being considered a medical term, if you will. And it's still not considered a condition in its own right. In the UK, it's considered a group of factors like fatigue and overwhelm, and some anxiety that goes with that.  

So I do think the words stress and burnout are used more regularly than they would have been otherwise. And I think people use the phrase burnout to indicate that they're feeling tired and exhausted, and they need some rest.  

My experience and the experiences I’ve heard in the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted on the subject of burnout with different people is that it really is something that builds up over quite a period of time, to a point where you have a really debilitating impact.  

It's certainly not something you can recover from in a weekend. I took really extreme measures: I stopped working and I did a whole lot of different things to change my lifestyle. It took me about six months to recover once I took those steps. 

I think if someone is saying that they're feeling burnt out, we shouldn't dismiss that. They're feeling probably more exhausted than they ever have. As a result, they're probably asking for support indirectly. The good news is, there are some things that they can do to help themselves. 

Jess: What are the best ways of combatting those feelings of intense exhaustion that some of us do experience from time to time? 

Deborah: The first thing for me is always just to really know how you’re feeling. We have a tendency to do it, particularly in the self-employed market, where we just push on through and tend to ignore what our body is telling us, because we've just got to get the job done. And that's really common. I still do that, even though I've had my experience of burnout.  

Some of us have just got those tendencies that we want to achieve and keep pushing forward, so I think the first thing is just recognising what your body's telling you. There are real techniques behind that in just really understanding what you're feeling in your body, and what that's telling you.  

As a nutritional therapist, the other steps for me come from a health and wellbeing perspective. I really believe in taking care of your health in a way that's right for you (so not a way that's right for your best friend or for your parents or your brother or sister). A key focus in my book is about how do we proactively make sure that we're building resilience so that we can cope with those really stressful times? What I do in the book is share about 30 different things that we can look at ranging from say the basics of nutrition to movement and sleep. And how do we rest, right through to thinking about things like meditation and mindfulness. I also discuss what your working environment is like and who are the people that you surround yourself with. So I cover a whole set of things, but I treat it like a menu. All of these things are not right for everybody, and actually, if you were to try and attempt all of those things, it would be overwhelming in itself. The aim is to work out the things that are absolutely right for you. 

Faye: Is there anything people can do to just avoid burnout? 

Deborah: I would say even though I'm a nutritional therapist, the thing that goes at the top of my list when it comes to wellbeing and resilience is sleep. There are so many things that happen when we are asleep. We think it's quite an inactive process, but really, there's loads going on. Without all of those different processes completing whilst we're asleep, it starts to really affect our health, our resilience, our concentration and focus.  

I would also talk about having fun as much as you can. Things like laughter and connection, and, doing things that bring you real joy, actually influence physiologically what's going on in us. They don't only just give us a feelgood factor, they contribute to our immune system and our overall health and they'll also help us sleep better.  

Many of us (though not absolutely everybody) crave real human connection. We get so much from that if we're surrounding ourselves with the right people. That can obviously be a bit tricky if you’re self-employed and work alone. Things like video conference, and using technology has obviously been a saviour for many people. But we all know it's not the same as seeing people face to face.  

I think if people can get a really good night's sleep, make sure they're having plenty of fun and have some good connection, those would be my top three ways to avoid burnout. 

Listen to the podcast where hosts Faye and Jess ask Deborah how to combat burnout, looking at the areas that particularly affect freelancers such as prolonged periods of isolation and not being able to switch off or take time off work.   

Deborah Bulcock, is an accredited coach, qualified Nutritional Therapist, and bestselling author of Have it all without burning out and Confidence Confessions. Having experienced and recovered from burnout herself, Deborah now advises her clients on how to manage stress, build resilience, and take care of their mental and physical wellbeing. Learn more about Deborah at

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