How to manage stress when you’re self-employed

Everyone will feel stressed at times. It’s a normal part of life, and can even be a positive thing in some circumstances. But when it becomes a long-term state of mind, there are serious implications for your mental and physical wellbeing. Understanding how to manage stress when you’re self-employed will benefit your professional career, and your personal life.

Anyone may experience stress when you feel pressured or threatened, but the triggers will be different for each individual. But whatever the causes, there are a number of things you can try to manage and reduce the impact of stress. Not every solution will work for everyone, so you might need to try a few different techniques to find what helps you the best. 

What is stress and when is it helpful?

Stress is how we respond to being under pressure or threatened by situations. Our bodies produce hormones to a trigger a fight or flight response and activate our immune systems, which is massively useful if you need to deal with danger. Or when you need some extra energy to push through a night of work to meet a last-minute client deadline. 

It can also be a valuable tool if you’re neurodivergent. If you’re living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may be prone to leaving tasks to the last minute. Setting earlier deadlines can motivate you to get projects completed earlier, rather than waiting for stress to kick in. 

Many self-employed professionals were prompted to become their own boss by the stress of daily employment. And while freelancing brings its own challenges, having control over their work lives helps stress management.

But while it can build resilience, help you bond with clients or collaborators, and push through barriers in the short term, the positives, referred to as ‘eustress’, come from small, manageable levels of stress.

When can stress be a big problem for the self-employed?

If you’re feeling particularly intense and overwhelming feelings of acute stress, or it’s lasting for a long time (or constantly coming back) as chronic stress, it can have a big impact on your wellbeing, and your self-employed career.

Even positive events can be stressful. Becoming self-employed, signing a new client or raising your rates can trigger fear and anxiety. Or physical reactions including headaches, nausea, indigestion or heart palpitations.

Stress can cause you to withdraw from interacting with people, become more indecisive or stubborn, feel more emotional, and cause issues with sleep and memory. You can also notice your eating and exercise habits change. All of which can impact your relationship with clients and your ability to deliver work on time.

Both acute and chronic stress are also linked to recognised mental health conditions including anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And some research has also linked long-term stress to physical issues including ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is more likely if you’re using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.

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Ways to manage stress when you’re self-employed

Acknowledge and recognise stress for what it is

You might dream of living an entirely stress-free life, but it can be a useful motivation. Learning to recognise and accept stress will help you avoid getting trapped in a negative cycle of worrying about your response to situations, as well as the events themselves.

The fight or flight response is an automatic response humans developed to escape wild animals and other threats. It’s not as suitable if you’ve forgotten to pay an invoice, or a client has noticed a small mistake. Unless you’re a freelance brain surgeon, it’s unlikely that any issues are going to be life-threatening, even if they might feel that way at the time. 

Taking some time to think about the causes of your stress will also help you to understand when it’s possible for you to take some positive action to change the situation, and when it’s outside of your control. It’s entirely understandable that you might worry about the national economy, wars or pandemics, but not to the point of suffering chronic stress.

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Take some control back, and accept support

One of the major causes of stress is being in situations outside your control. And while you may not be able to cure a global pandemic, or fix the economy, you can still take steps to regain a feeling of your own autonomy. 

Donating to charity, volunteering, or spending some time organising your budget and savings are just some of the ways you can channel the stress hormones into something more positive than fear and worry.

And one of the best ways to take your life back from stress is to find help and support. It can come from opening up to friends and family. Or by contacting one of the many organisations which can provide qualified advice, including CALM, MIND, Samaritans, and the Mental Health Foundation.

There are also a range of organisations and options for specific issues. For example, if you’re worried about your financial situation, a charity like Stepchange can help.

Don’t hesitate to contact support organisations or medical professionals via your GP or mental health services if you feel you might need help. You don’t need to have encountered a life changing event or wait until it’s a major issue to justify getting in touch with them. And the earlier you can get support, the better.

Adjust your expectations

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with stress if you expect to become the world’s leading freelancer in the space of a few months, or grow your business into a global company before the end of the year.

There’s nothing wrong with having ambitious targets and goals. But not every self-employed person will become rich and famous for their work. And it might take longer than you think to become an overnight success.

Aim high, but be realistic. And be forgiving to yourself if you’ve put in the hard work and it hasn’t resulted in quite as much success as you hoped. It might be a matter of time, or a sign you’re putting effort into the wrong place. And you can be perfectly happy as a self-employed professional earning a good living, without becoming the youngest millionaire freelancer, or breaking business records.

An exercise which can help you get a different perspective is to imagine someone else in your situation. If they came to you with the same worries, what would you suggest? Would you be as critical of them if they hadn’t reached a six-figure income yet?

Start setting work and life boundaries

When you become self-employed, it’s easy to get trapped in responding to client emails and work at all hours of the day and night. That’s fine if there’s a genuine emergency, but in almost all cases the response can wait a few hours.

Becoming self-employed can significantly lower your stress and increase your job satisfaction, but not if you’re risking burnout. Whether you prefer to keep standard office hours from nine to five, or work later in the evenings around family and other commitments, is entirely up to you. But the important thing is to be clear and open about when you’re available, and the times you’re not.

If necessary, you can use your calendar to schedule free time, whether you’re going to use it for exercise, hobbies, family or relaxing. Having a separate work phone and email address makes it easier to switch off, or you can set your notifications to only highlight genuine emergencies. And if clients regularly abuse your non-work time, you can politely inform them you’ll be charging double for out of hours work in the future.

And potentially the best boundary is learning when it’s best to say no to some projects and clients. It may be that you’re already near capacity, or you may have spotted warning signs and red flags. In both cases, it’s better to decline rather than risk your reputation and stress levels by delivering bad work. 

Prioritise one thing at a time

While creating to-do lists will help you decide which tasks are most important and urgent, they can also become overwhelming and stressful. Every freelancer will have a different preference when it comes to organising their self-employed projects, and it’s worth experimenting with techniques until you find the right method.

If you do find your task list is unmanageable, then one option is to just pick a single item, and set a time limit for working on it. By making progress on something, even if it’s fairly small, the rest of your list will seem a bit more manageable. And various time management methods, including the Pomodoro Technique, build on a simple timer strategy.

Keeping a list of the things you’ve completed can be helpful in reducing stress. And by reviewing it at the end of each day, it helps you to identify what helps you to be happier and more productive.

Get some exercise

You don’t need to be pumping iron in the gym for hours every day for exercise to help you manage your stress levels. Going for a short walk not only gives you the benefits of physical activity, but it can also boost your creativity and make you more productive when you return.

If you largely work from a home office, exercise also allows you to change your surroundings, which can give you a different perspective on your worries. What might have seemed overwhelming after a few hours at your desk might feel a lot less of a challenge when you’ve given yourself a break in some fresh air. It also allows your subconscious mind to keep working on problems without you worrying about them.

It can be easy to skip the exercise when work is piling up or the weather isn’t encouraging. But schedule some time in your calendar, organise any clothes or equipment you need to make it easier, and consider joining a group activity to boost your commitment.

Make time for your hobbies and interests

It’s important to make time for yourself and your interests. And while that could be learning a new language or how to bake sourdough, it’s equally valid to relax in front of the TV or a videogame.

Finding what helps you to relax, and reduces your stress, doesn’t have to rely on an arbitrary hierarchy of interests set by other people on Instagram or Twitter. Whether you enjoy mountain climbing, knitting, reading or watching a soap opera, it’s entirely your choice. 

Scheduling or setting time limits for your hobbies may feel restrictive at first, but it can help if you have a tendency to use them as a way to procrastinate. Or if getting caught up in a good book or new interest can mean hours go by without you realising. 

Social media, games and streaming TV are all designed to encourage everyone to binge and spend more time than intended on their services. If you’re already using a timer for work, then setting a limit on your break time will encourage you to stick to regular rest time without overdoing it. And then being even more stressed, because you’ve slipped further behind than intended.

Consider outsourcing, or dropping sources of stress

Being in control of your self-employed business doesn’t mean you have to personally handle every task. It’s often possible to save money, as well as reduce your stress and workload, by outsourcing certain tasks. 

You might bring on a bookkeeper or accountant to help with tax and finances, or invest in a virtual assistant for a few hours to tackle administrative tasks. And that allows you more time to focus on the areas which bring in more revenue, whether that’s client relationships or delivering work. Often the cost of outsourcing is less than the money you can bring in from the hours it frees up, or the benefits you can get from more free time.

If you offer a range of products or services in your self-employed business, it’s also useful to regularly look at the sources of stress, versus revenue and profits. If you’re spending most of your time dealing with problems for clients who pay the smallest amounts, or offering services which aren’t profitable, then dropping them will actually improve your finances as well as reducing your workload and stress.

And if you feel you still need to provide those areas, then you might be better off outsourcing, or collaborating with other freelance specialists. Accepting a smaller percentage of income could be worthwhile if you’re able to offer a much better service, and reduce your task list at the same time.

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