How to tackle freelance burnout for the self-employed

Everyone will experience times when they feel less motivated or enthusiastic about their work. But it’s important to know how to spot and tackle freelance burnout for the self-employed. The physical and mental symptoms can impact your career and home life more than you might think, especially when your work is directly linked to your income.

The term was first used by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, and occupational burnout is a recognised syndrome by the World Health Organisation. And it can cause an aversion to work that you may have previously enjoyed, reduced productivity, mood swings, and even physical problems including headaches, back and neck pain, or indigestion.

Burnout may have been identified decades ago, but the impact of it has increased massively over recent years. The increased expectation to always be available and working productively has led to longer hours and a bigger risk of being overwhelmed by a constant flood of emails, social media updates, online meetings and work chats to try and fit alongside getting projects done.

IPSE research shows that many freelancers could manage the risk of burnout more effectively, with around 10% taking no time off work in the last year, and 78% working even while on holiday. But if you rely on your client income, it’s easy to let your good intentions slip without realising how much it can negatively impact your self-employment.

  • Spotting the symptoms of burnout

  • How freelance burnout can impact your work

  • How to prevent self-employed burnout

  • Ways to manage and minimise freelance burnout

  • More support and resources to help with burnout for freelancers

Spotting the symptoms of burnout

It’s normal to experience challenging days or weeks in any career. But burnout is a gradual, ongoing syndrome that get worse over time if you don’t make significant changes to your life.

The symptoms of burnout are focused on chronic work stress, but they’re very similar and related to other conditions including depression, anxiety and stress.  As with many mental health issues, early intervention can be much easier and more effective. So, speaking to a medical professional when you start to suspect there’s an ongoing challenge to your wellbeing is a good idea, rather than letting the problem grow until it seriously impacts your life.

When you’re suffering from stress, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed by the pressures and demands you face. But you can imagine feeling better if you can get everything back under more control. With burnout, your physical and mental exhaustion means it’s hard to care or see the chance of positive change.

We’ve compiled some of the common symptoms of burnout for freelancers and the self-employed, but everyone is different. And many of the signs are shared with other physical and mental health issues, so qualified medical advice will help you identify the cause.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Feeling tired, drained and exhausts most of the time, even after waking.

  • Lowered immunity, and frequent niggling illness

  • Recurrent headaches, muscle pain, indigestion and stomach problems.

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Heightened sense of self-doubt, fear of failure and imposter syndrome

  • Feeling more trapped, defeated and helpless, including when small problems or issues crop up

  • Increased feelings of isolation and detachment

  • Lack of motivation

  • A more cynical and negative outlook, and less satisfaction and accomplishment when tasks are completed.

Behavioural signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Avoiding and withdrawing away from responsibilities

  • Increased procrastination and indulging in comforting distractions

  • Choosing more distance and isolation from others

  • Becoming more irritable and easily frustrated

  • Increasing your reliance on coping mechanisms, including food, alcohol, and drugs. Or other habits which are fine in moderation but become a problem when used to excess due to burnout. 

  • Late night procrastination, sleeping in, and avoiding work. Significant and ongoing changes to your appetite and sleep habits.

While medical conditions like depression have a variety of treatments available, burnout is a syndrome or phenomenon which is managed or tackled by lifestyle changes. One big benefit of being self-employed or freelancing is your ability to change where and how you work. The big challenge with burnout is recognising the problem and motivating yourself to introduce better habits.

But it’s an important step to take, as long-term burnout, stress, anxiety and depression can contribute to serious physical health issues alongside the mental toll.

How freelance burnout can impact your work

An odd bad day or project can be a hassle. But freelance burnout can have a serious impact on your work and life over the course of months and years.

Constantly feeling tired and lacking motivation makes it harder to meet your current obligations, especially if you’re under time pressure. And even when you’ve managed to complete a task, you’ll feel less achievement. All of that means the quality of your work will suffer.

It can also leave you more reliant on external validation, and prone to self-doubt if it isn’t regularly supplied by clients or collaborators. A growing decline in confidence can lead to serious Imposter Syndrome, which can hurt your confidence and rate of success in attracting new clients. Or when discussing future projects with your current employers. 

The negative feedback loop also means you’re going to be more prone to other illnesses. And sick days will leave you further behind schedule, and feeling less able to tackle the underlying cause.

When you look at the symptoms of burnout, it’s obvious to see how badly it can impact freelancing and self-employment. But unfortunately, this is also likely to feed into your non-work life, with isolation, detachment and a lack of enjoyment in other areas. And the potential for frustration to spill over to friends and family.

How freelance burnout can impact your work

How to prevent self-employed burnout

The good news is that if you’ve yet to experience burnout as a freelance, there are a wide range of ways to hopefully prevent it from becoming an issue. And most of them are good working practices which will benefit your productivity and success in any self-employed role.

Set goals and priorities: By identifying what you’re working towards, and the steps involved, you can focus on the things that need tackling. And it helps you to delegate or ignore everything else which could overwhelm you.
There’s no single way to set your long-term or daily priorities, but by experimenting with some of the popular recommendations you’ll find what works best for you. Working for yourself means you should be in control of your schedule, not your clients or your email inbox. And this then allows you to move towards the next steps.

Find harmony with work and clients where possible: As a freelancer, you’re not always able to choose your ideal clients or projects. And if you’re self-employed, your business might involve tasks you don’t enjoy. But by avoiding toxic or bad clients, and identifying or delegating areas you hate or struggle with, you’ll generally be more motivated and less likely to burn out. And those clients and business systems will cope better if you do need to take time for your mental wellbeing.

If you’re currently working for bad clients, then look at how you can extract yourself from the situation without causing undue offense if possible. And how to avoid the situation reoccurring in the future. 

Establish boundaries, schedule time off and plan for delays: It’s easy to get caught up in the idea you should always be available, chasing the next client, or be productive. But it’s also completely unrealistic. 

Setting a clear boundary between work and life can ensure evenings and weekends allow you to recharge. Taking holidays reduce stress and anxiety, with two thirds of freelancers saying that time off improves their work performance in recent IPSE research. And adding extra time to schedules and deadlines means you have the flexibility to handle an unexpected issue or take a break if you feel things are becoming too much. A day, morning, or even an hour away from the pressures of self-employment can do a lot of good, especially when you know it won’t lead to a missed deadline.

Consider a change: As an old saying recommends, it can be as good as rest. Small changes to your routines boost your creativity and inspiration. They don’t have to involve emigrating or entirely changing your career. 

You could try working from a co-working space one day a week, or trying a new collaboration. Or even just invest in new equipment or decoration for your home office. 

Take self-care seriously: It’s easy to work late, skip meals, and realise you haven’t moved from your office chair in days, especially under pressure from clients. But it’s also damaging to your mental and physical health.

Eating regularly and healthily, making some exercise part of your routine, and ensuring plenty of sleep and rest will mean you can produce your best work for the long-term, rather than burning out in mediocrity and stress. It might not feel like you have time to spend on a 20-minute walk, but the chances are that you’re spending more than that procrastinating or paralysed with stress. 

Talk to people: While some freelancers prefer working mainly in isolation, it’s a myth that even introverts want to be away from other people all the time. Self-employment gives you more opportunity to choose when and how you socialise, so make use of it. 

Schedule time for family and friends, meet up with other freelancers you enjoy hanging out with, or embrace a new communal hobby. If you can’t socialise in person, then phone calls or chatting online can help to some extent. And you’ll be surprised how often a chat with a family member sparks a creative work idea.

Ways to manage and minimise freelance burnout

If you’re already experiencing severe symptoms of freelance burnout, then it’s important to realise that it’s never too late to change things. While it can be hard to motivate yourself to start tackling an ongoing chronic health issue, taking a small first step can make a big difference. 

Admit there’s a problem: Self-confidence and belief is an important part of starting to work for yourself. But it can also lead to denial if you’re struggling with any aspect of your career, especially when you don’t want to worry family members. Being able to admit that you might be experiencing a difficulty is a necessity if you want to be able to tackle it.

Get support: Qualified medical advice will help identify the cause of your current challenges, along with further support and treatment. But it can be daunting speaking to a doctor or find a therapist, so don’t hesitate to start by contacting charities and support groups who can help you. Simply knowing you’re not the only person struggling with burnout, and seeing the experiences of others in changing their situation can ease the burden.

Reduce your financial and work commitments: It’s not always possible to take time off or end a working relationship with bad clients if you’re stretched financially. But if you can reduce your expenses and living costs, it gives you more freedom to scale back your work commitments for the short or long-term.

This doesn’t mean skipping necessities, but a quick look at your accounts might reveal unused subscriptions, memberships or other costs which you can ditch. If you’ve been able to speak to family and friends about your current issues, they may be able to ease your finances in the short term, allowing you some space to focus on recovery.

And don’t take on any big new work commitments. It can be hard to say no to client enquiries and lucrative projects, but there’s little point in agreeing to work you’re going to struggle to deliver. If you can recommend other freelancers, then the favour may be returned in the future, but ultimately most clients will prefer you to say no, or pull out of a project as early as possible, rather than cost them time and money further down the road with missed deadlines or substandard work.

Ways to manage and minimise freelance burnout

Identify the causes and re-evaluate your goals: Spend some time working out what may have led you to burnout, possibly with the help of a therapist or medical professional. And use that to help you re-evaluate your existing goals and modify them where necessary. 

It doesn’t mean giving up on your targets, but allowing a longer timeframe and a different approach can mean you still reach your destination rather than burning out along the way and failing. Or you might decide that you’ll ultimately be happier with a smaller client portfolio, but potentially raising your rates in the future, rather than trying to juggle every possible lead.

Let clients and collaborators know about delays: Admitting that projects may be delayed can be tough. But the earlier you let clients or collaborators know about issues, the easier it will be to manage.

You don’t necessarily have to admit the exact reasons for schedules slipping. Although the stigma around mental health has reduced a lot over recent years, you might want to claim a generic illness or family commitment has caused you to miss work. The main concern for any client is getting the communication that deadlines will need to be moved, so they can plan accordingly.

And take a break! If you’re already struggling with burnout, the most important thing is to allow yourself time to start recovering. You may be fortunate enough to be able to take weeks or even months off, but many freelancers won’t have the freedom or savings to do that straight away.

So, start planning regular breaks throughout the year where possible, but also shorter rests throughout each week and individual day. Whatever routine you have, or workload you’re currently facing, it’s unlikely you can’t spend a few minutes walking, exercising, meditating or doing other self-care that will help you cope in a more beneficial way than endlessly scrolling through social media or stressing at your desk. 

You don’t have to try and achieve everything at once for an immediate recovery. Improving your mental wellbeing will take time and consistent effort. Tackle one or two small tasks each day and the impact will build as you create a healthier and more productive working routine, and also improve the other areas of your life.

More support and resources to help with burnout for freelancers

 


 

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