How to look after your mental health as a freelancer

Look, pals. We all know how important our mental health is.

Sometimes it feels like our brain is battling against us, and we all know that the ole noggin is something that we need to take care of.

But when we’re our own bosses, working alone and spending a lot of time with our own thoughts, how can we make sure we’re doing the best we can to look after our mental health?!

Running your own business is tough – and with no work pals to keep an eye on us or remind us to take a lunch break or get some fresh air, we have to take that responsibility on for ourselves.

But that doesn’t mean you have to tackle it alone! That’s what I’m here for.

So let’s look at how we can start prioritising our mental health and run a business at the same time. Because, even if it doesn’t feel like it is right now, it is possible to do both!

Why freelancers' mental health matters

First up: whether you’re a freelancer, an employed person, both or neither, your mental health matters.

There’s no discussion about ‘if’ it matters or whether you ‘deserve’ to have good mental health – it does matter and you do deserve to have good mental health. There’s no debate allowed on that here, thank you.

For freelancers in particular (or self-employed people or small business owners or however else you refer to yourself), our mental health is often intrinsically connected to our businesses. Particularly if we’re solo in our businesses, we’re the face of them. And if we find ourselves struggling with our mental health, our businesses struggle too.

In the UK, freelancers contribute £162 billion to the economy. Now, we might not agree with how our government chooses to spend that money (which is a whole other story), but we can all agree that that’s a huge amount of money – and has the potential to do a huge amount of good, both for ourselves and our communities.

There are an estimated 4.4 million of us solo-self-employed folk across the country, so we are definitely not alone in our business endeavours!

And we’re also not alone if we’re struggling with our mental health…

Many of us chose to become self-employed because employed life just wasn’t working for our mental health (that was absolutely the case for me, Mrs Two Breakdowns in Two Years). We painted a rosy picture of deciding our own hours, working with clients who respect us, and earning however much money we wanted to earn.

And that IS possible.

But I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not what many of us experience on a day-to-day basis.

During the pandemic, I’d bet it’s fair to say that every single one of us has had some sort of mental health issue.

Regardless of whether we’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or depression (which, by the way, are the most common mental illnesses in the creative sector), the stats show that the number of freelancers experiencing poor or very poor mental health rose from 6% to a whopping 26% over the past couple of years – and only 9% of people reported not having experienced any negative mental health effects as a freelancer during the pandemic.

So pal, you are very much not alone.

The things that impact our mental health as freelancers

According to an IPSE study, these are the aspects of self-employment that have the biggest negative impact on our mental health:

  • Finding work (53% of respondents)
  • Irregularity of income (50% of respondents)
  • Blurring of boundaries between work and home life – hello emails at 11pm (32% of respondents)
  • Access to statutory employment benefits, e.g. sick pay, holiday pay – ahh the dream (29% of respondents)
  • Working long hours or to tight deadlines 😩  (28% of respondents)
  • Late payment (26% of respondents)
  • Managing your own finances (25% of respondents)
  • Feeling lonely and isolated – sometimes Gibson the cat just doesn’t cut it (24% of respondents)
  • Experiencing project delays or cancellations (23% of respondents)
  • Administrative tasks, e.g. accounting, bookkeeping etc. (22% of respondents)

Looking at that list, I can definitely see things there that have affected my mental health over the last three years of running my own business – can you?

From that list and from many chats with self-employed pals, there are often three areas our mental health worries fall into: finances, boundaries and loneliness.

So let’s tackle them together and figure out what we can do to help our mental health, shall we?!

Finances & mental health

Mate, we can’t talk about mental health without talking about money.

Whether you love it or loathe it, as a freelancer you NEED to earn money from your work. Otherwise it’s just a very expensive hobby…

Being a freelancer has its perks, sure. But it also comes with a whole heap of financial responsibilities that we can’t escape from. So how do we make it as easy on our mental health as possible?

Start taking yourself on money-dates

First up, stop hiding from it.

I know money is stressful. Whether you’ve got loads of it or none of it, there is always stress. But the absolute worst thing you can do (and I’m speaking from experience here) is to hide away from it and pretend it doesn’t exist and just hope it’s all going to turn out fine.

I’ve been there – and trust me when I say that it doesn’t turn out fine. It turns out bloody stressful. More stressful than ignoring it.

Being on top of your numbers, knowing what’s coming in, what’s going out, keeping track of your expenses and your taxes – all of those things help to alleviate the stress that money causes.

My biggest tip here is to give yourself time to cosy up with those numbers regularly. Whether it’s once a week or once a month, block out a good chunk of time in your calendar where you can get down to the nitty-gritty without being distracted by client work.

Start getting comfortable with checking your bank account, recording your necessary expenses and knowing what’s happening with your money.

And reward yourself too! Take your money-date to your favourite coffee shop and treat yourself to a slice of cake or pop on some relaxing Harry Potter ASMR in the background to keep you going (if you need HP ASMR suggestions, hit me up – I’m your gal). 

Make money a fun thing to handle!

Pro Tip: If you have absolutely no idea where to start with getting comfortable with your numbers and spreadsheets and all that malarkey, my pal Susie who is just AMAZING with this stuff has lots of free resources you can swipe to help you get comfortable with your numbers.

Look at your pricing

I get it: pricing isn’t easy.

But if finances are causing you stress and impacting your mental health, the answer is not to work more hours to earn more money.

Working more is just a one way ticket to burn out – and that is not going to help your mental health, even if your bank account looks healthier.

If you know me at all, pal, you’ll know that I am a fierce advocate of working less and charging more.

Pricing your services, particularly as a creative freelancer, is tough. It’s tough to figure out what to charge in the first place, it’s tough to have the confidence to charge higher prices, and it’s bloody tough to increase your prices with existing clients.

All of those things are tough.

But you know what’s even tougher?

Working yourself into the ground for a pittance. Not earning what you’re worth. Not being able to pay your bills or have a social life or pay for therapy or have any time to do the non-work things you want to do.

Those things are tough too.

Pricing is an incredibly personal thing for many of us, so there’s not a single ‘correct’ blueprint I can give you (as much as I would love to wave a magic wand and make the decisions for you!) – but I can give you some gentle nudges in the right direction…

  • Shift your focus from charging for your time to charging for your value instead – what problem do your products or services solve for your clients? How much value does solving that problem bring into their life?
  • Remember that it’s not your responsibility to calculate what other people can afford – it’s your responsibility to run a business that’s sustainable and financially satisfactory for you and you alone.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your mind. A decision you make today about your pricing doesn’t have to be forever. Start with what feels comfortable for you now and see where it takes you.
  • If you’re happier dealing with tangible numbers, start with your annual income goal and work backwards, figuring out how much at a very minimum you need to be charging for each of your packages to reach that goal. Set a goal that feels like a stretch – not impossible, not easy peasy, but somewhere in the middle.

If your go-to solution to earning more money is to work more hours – stop! You don’t need to work 18-hour days to earn the money you want to earn. 

There’s even more about pricing here: How to price what you do

(Spoiler alert: somewhat shockingly, earning more and working less is exactly what my new course, Work Less, Earn More, covers! It will be open again in Autumn 2022 – sign up for the waitlist and you’ll be the first to know.)

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst

Sometimes, money will be an issue. There’s no getting around it.

Earlier this year, I struggled with money – because I had been ill and needed to take time off for my own mental health. While the time away from the business was just what I needed, it also threw up a lot of financial uncertainty – which set my mental health back a few steps again.

Sh*t happens, pal. Sometimes it just does, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

But what you can do is prepare for it.

I don’t mean we need to be pessimistic and expect the most terrible things to happen every week, just so we’re mentally prepared for them if they do come along – but what I do mean is that we need to protect our mental health by having processes and safety nets in place for if things do go tits up.

And when it comes to money, that means having some sort of emergency fund.

It doesn’t have to be a million pounds (I wish), but if you have an emergency fund that covers even half a month’s expenses, that gives you some reassurance that you’re okay and that you can take time off to prioritise your mental health (more on that later…).

Boundaries for your mental health

Ah, boundaries.

If you’ve never heard me say the word boundaries (or, more accurately, shout it from the rooftops), you’ve clearly not been around here for very long – so let me set the record straight:

Boundaries are probably the single most important thing you need in order to protect your mental health as a freelancer.

But what exactly are they?

Rather handily, I’ve written about that before: What are healthy boundaries and why do they matter?

Basically, boundaries are rules and processes and procedures you put in place to protect your energy and your mental health when you’re working (and when you’re not working, too).

Take this example: imagine you’re a branding designer and you’re working with a business owner named Fred. You’ve got a clearly defined project you’re working on, to design a new logo and colour palette for Fred’s business – but Fred keeps pushing his luck… 

He keeps emailing you in the middle of the night asking for revisions and he keeps texting in the middle of the day asking for extra little bits added into the project.

Because you’re a nice person, you don’t mind doing a little extra – but now this project is overrunning, and your next project is going to be delayed unless you work extra hours to get all of Fred’s extra bits done for him.

Clearly, this means extra stress for you. He’s constantly contacting you, assuming you’ll reply instantly, and not respecting your working hours either. He’s a royal pain in the arse.

And your mental health is now suffering. 

You can’t delay the next project, because you need the money. But Fred’s project has taken twice as much time as you budgeted for and is encroaching on your personal life too.

Fred’s crossing your boundaries. And it’s damaging your mental health. FRED NEEDS TO BORE OFF.

This is exactly why clearly defined boundaries matter. Because people like Fred exist, and they likely don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong – yet your mental health, your financial security and your job satisfaction are all suffering.

By knowing what your boundaries are and clearly communicating them to clients your mental health is protected. If Fred still doesn’t respect your boundaries, you can push back – because you’ve been upfront about them from the very start of the project.

Implementing boundaries to protect your mental health

  • Add your working hours to your email signature
  • Set an auto-responder on your emails, letting people know your working hours and when they can expect to hear back from you
  • Set up auto-responses for your Instagram DMs
  • Add a Boundaries highlight to your Instagram profile (more Instagram boundaries tips here!)
  • Include a Boundaries section in your client welcome guide or contract, clearly stating what you will and won’t be doing, what your working hours are, how clients can contact you, and what they can expect from your working relationship

PSST: if boundaries are something you struggle with, here are two mighty-fine things that can help you:

The Boundaries Bundle – done-for-you copy-and-paste boundaries templates, so you know exactly how to communicate your boundaries to clients.

TheHeartwood Way workshop – a walk-through of my way of doing business. Starting with your needs and building your offers, your boundaries, your capacity and pricing from there.

Tackling loneliness as a freelancer

One of the toughest things (in my experience) about living the self-employed life is the fact you’re on your own every single day. Even when you have a cat with personal space issues.

Loneliness can creep up on you when you’re least expecting it, and if you’re working from home with no one else to chat to during the day, it’s no surprise that some of us go a little stir-crazy now and then…

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes I very much prefer my own company. I like sitting alone, cosying up with Gib the cat and reading, with no other humans around to distract.

But sometimes, I need a bit of human connection too. Even the most introverted of us still need that connection and community for the sake of our mental health – it’s in your blood, as Hermione would helpfully point out.

And you know what’s bloody fantastic? The internet.

I’ve met so many brilliant online friends and colleagues on my self-employed journey and I bloody love each and every one of them.

Unlike in the actual physical workplace, the internet (and the ‘Gram in particular for me) lets me find people who really bring value into my life. I’m not stuck listening to Susan’s unnecessarily long tale about her second cousin’s sister’s weekend BBQ while I’m making a cuppa in the communal kitchen – instead, I can curate a community of online pals who really get me, and who are there for me in those moments when the loneliness strikes.

If it wasn’t for those online friends, I quite literally wouldn’t be where I am today – so if you’re one of them, I am eternally grateful to you.

If you’re struggling with loneliness as a freelancer, the online world is a great place to start building connections. 

Online groups and communities specifically for freelancers/self-employed folk, like The Co-Working Club, Uncommon Club, and Fiercely Freelance, are a great place to start, and they all offer loneliness-busting online events where you can meet other people who feel exactly the same as you do.

And for those days where internet friends just won’t quite cut the mustard? Head out to your favourite local coffee shop for a day of work, or find a co-working space you can join – getting out of the house at all is quite an achievement for me most days, but if you’re craving that IRL connection co-working spaces are a great place to start!

Remember: seeking connection and community is a good thing! The more we can support each other, the better our mental health will be and the more good we can do in the world. Together, we’re better!

Your freelancer mental health checklist

So, there we have it mate: some sure-fire ways to protect and nurture your mental health on your freelance/self-employed journey.

If you skim-read to this point (we all do it, don’t worry), here’s a handy little checklist to come back to when you’re feeling your mental health dip a little…

If you're stressed about finances...

  • Arrange a 60-minute money-date with yourself
  • Make it as enjoyable as possible, with cake and coffee and anything else your heart desires
  • Take the plunge and get familiar with your numbers – use Susie’s free resources to get started
  • Take another look at your pricing and make sure you’re charging enough to cover your time, your energy and your expenses 
  • Start building an emergency fund for those times where you need to take time off from your business for mental or physical illness (and there’s more help for returning to work after illness here!)

If clients are taking too much of your energy...

  • Quote for projects with a clear scope of work, to prevent last-minute add-ons that clients don’t want to pay for
  • Set clear boundaries for yourself and your clients from the start – include these in your contract or welcome pack so your clients know what to expect from you
  • Share your boundaries far and wide! Here’s some help with Instagram and here’s my Boundaries Bundle if you’re after clear templates for communication
  • Take another look at your pricing – are you charging for the mental energy your work takes, and not just the actual time it takes you?

If you're feeling lonely and disconnected...

  • Find a community online that can support you on your freelancer journey – take a look at The Co-Working Club, Uncommon Club, or Fiercely Freelance
  • Use social media mindfully to build real connections with others (cat reels also acceptable)
  • Take yourself out to your favourite local coffee shop for the day
  • Find a local co-working space to join for IRL connection
  • Message me! My DMs are always open for some loneliness-busting chat – often featuring cats, dogs and Harry Potter

Self-care go-tos for freelancers...

  • Structure your days in whatever way you want to – that’s the joy of self-employed freedom! If the 9 to 5 doesn’t work for your brain, that’s a-okay pal. If you don’t like sitting at your desk and want to work from the sofa instead, that’s a-okay too. You make the rules now!
  • Be mindful of how many hours you spend working – because overworking is a sure-fire way to end up burnt out, fast. Switch off from business life in whatever way works for you – for me, it’s leaving my office and shutting the door (and my business brain) behind me. But you do you, pal.
  • Invest in your mental health – whether that’s going to therapy (big fan), going to yoga classes or starting a new hobby that makes you calm, there is zero shame in spending money on yourself. The better your mental health, the better you can serve your clients – really, therapy, yoga and hobbies should count as business expenses… (before the accountants out there come for me: I know they don’t! I just wish they did!)
  • Cover the basics, because they’re often the first thing to slip… Make sure you’re hydrated, full of good nutrition, and getting enough sleep. It’s easier said than done, I know – but if you can, covering those basics will help your brain be the best it can be.

And the final word: if you are struggling with your mental health, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Most of us have struggled at some point, and the absolute best thing you can do is to be honest with yourself and those around you. If you feel like  you’re heading to crisis point, please for the love of cats, talk to your GP, book an emergency session with your therapist. Your mental health should always be your number one priority. Business can wait; your mental health can’t.

And the final final word: my inbox is always open pal. Whether you’re lonely, struggling with stress or just fancy a good old chinwag, I’m here.