Self-Employment and Mental Health

What is the link between self-employment and mental health?

A self-employer writer and editor in her natural habitat.

You might be surprised to know that mental health is becoming increasingly a reason to go freelance or self-employed.[1] In a study by the website Leapers, it was found that 43% of freelancers cite wanting to improve their mental health as a motivation to become self-employed. This story is familiar to me. Why? Because it mirrors my own. This blog post will explore the links between self-employment and mental health; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will also include tidbits of my own personal story about turning to self-employment and my struggles with mental health. Something you’ll find about me, is that I’m open with my mental health struggles. If you can, it’s important to talk about mental health issues you are facing, not simply to help normalise mental illness, but also because it is a part of who we are, whether we like it or not. We’ll split this blog post into two main sections: Turning to Self-Employment, and Being Self-Employed.

Turning to Self-Employment

The story is not an unfamiliar one, unfortunately. A person suffering with depression, anxiety, burn-out, and leaving their current workplace as a result of it. But what to do next? Speaking from personal experience, when you suffer with a mental health issue such as anxiety, the main thing you want to do is to remove whatever is causing you stress or upset. If that’s your job, then that’s what you’re focused on. Remove the job, you should feel better. Until you do it and you realise there are more hurdles in your way. Not only are you now unemployed, but you have to find a way to make an income. I’m not for one second suggesting you stay in a job you hate, that’s the worst thing a person could do. What I am suggesting is that you try to think a few steps ahead. It’s easier said than done if you’re not well, and I know that. But it’s something to consider.

At this point, you have to decide what to do next. 15% of the UK workforce are self-employed, this is an estimated 4.6 million people.[2] 40% of millennials (me!) and 53% of Gen Z’s are reportedly working for themselves now.[3] The reasons people turn to self-employment are varied, but predominantly ‘mental wellbeing’ is cited as a key reason for turning to self-employment and freelance work. People are attracted to the flexibility of being your own boss, and see this as a way out of typical workplace stress and upset. It’s a solution to a problem.

Why I turned to freelancing?

The reason I turned to freelancing is simple. Avoidance. Yes, my previous jobs had messed my mental health up so badly that the thought of going back into the workplace in any capacity at all seemed impossible to me. I had a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, both first-class, and the thought of working in any related field, particularly in schools (my background is teaching) triggered major anxiety and panic attacks. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of how poorly I was at that time, that’s something for another blog post, I think. But in a last-ditch effort to not have to go back to work, I signed up for freelancing websites. I’d always been good at writing, and every single freelancing website was crying out for writers, and so I took the plunge. I started with writing blog posts, then moved onto broader content writing, and then moved onto ghostwriting. My first major ghostwriting project was what made me think, “Yep, this is going to work for me!” Thanks, Gary, if you’re reading this!

Avoidance is the main symptom of my mental illness at the moment, believe it or not. And, believe me, I am well aware of the irony that I am currently doing what I’m doing because I wanted to avoid ‘traditional employment’. It worked out well in this case but usually avoidance makes things trickier. The whole fight or flight thing kicks in, and by fleeing, you feel better. From my research, it seems that plenty of people get into self-employment in order to avoid something about traditional employment that makes them unhappy or uncomfortable. For me, anything was better than being in a job that made me miserable, and to be quite honest with you, I wanted to work from home, somewhere where I was in control and I felt safe and happy.

If you happen to Google freelancing and mental health, you’ll see a boat load of articles about why freelancing negatively impacts your mental health. But, you don’t tend to see a lot from the other side of things. Any job has the capacity to hurt your mental health. Freelancing is no different in that respect. It brings plenty of stressors with it. These stressors, in my opinion, are on pretty equal footing with being ‘traditionally employed’. And, in order to make a living, you have to choose which stressors you can cope with and which you can’t. You have to make a choice. I was so very lucky in my situation that my partner and my family were supportive of my decision to go freelance. Honestly, after seeing the impact my previous employments had on my mental health, I think they were also of the opinion that anything was better than seeing me like that. Freelancing doesn’t solve mental health problems. I still suffer with both depression and anxiety disorders. Self-employment isn’t a magic wand that makes you better. However, in my case, it made the world of difference. It allowed me to focus on what I wanted to do with my life. To focus on getting better, without pressures of the workplace impeding that.

Being Self-Employed

I am very lucky in that my job is flexible enough that I can take care of myself. Should I spend more time doing self-care? Hell yes. This is something I’m working on. Some freelancers work in roles that are stricter, in terms of working hours and deadlines, and so it can be hard to organise your work/life balance around this. 64% of freelancers, according to a study by state that stress, anxiety or poor mental health has, at some point, had an impact on their ability to work. Here, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that physical illnesses will also impact our ability to work too. But the issue with the mental health side of things is that, for many freelancers, it seems that mental health is the reason people turned to freelancing in the first place.

It is important to learn about yourself. When you first turn to freelancing it can be a bit of a learning curve. Figuring out how and when to set deadlines, organise your calendar, admin tasks, estimating the hours that will go into a project. Learning how you work and how to organise your business means that you can give yourself ample time to do your best quality work and deliver in a timely manner. If, for example, you don’t work well in the mornings, then shift your diary to accommodate this. If you know that you usually have one wobbly day (this is what I call my bad days) a week, then make sure you leave plenty of time in your diary should this happen. When you’re self-employed, taking time off is often harder than it would be if you were traditionally employed, and this is something people don’t necessarily realise. You see, taking time off means you’re not working on a project, and if you’re not working on a project, you’re not earning money.

Self-employment can be isolating too. I absolutely love working from home. I’m a home-bird and I am perfectly happy staying in my house and just walking my dog and doing the shopping. But for some people, the isolation that comes with freelancing is a bit of a shocker. If you’re used to a busy work environment and then all of a sudden, you’re all alone every working day, it can be difficult to acclimatise. My issue with the isolation, on the flip side of this issue, is that I probably like it a little too much, which can become a problem in itself. Because of this, I have to make sure I get out and about fairly often. The isolation that comes from freelancing can trigger mental health issues and relapses, so it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. If you know you don’t cope well with being isolated, or love it too much (like me), you have to factor this into how you run your business. You could look into co-working spaces, which seem to be popping up all over the place. There’s a great blog post on The Marketing Society’s website about possible mental health issues that come from freelancing. I always find it interesting to read other people’s experiences: The Marketing Society Blog Post.

Overworking is a big issue for freelancers. I’m so guilty of this, but I’m working to develop some boundaries for myself. When you’re self-employed, you see a direct link between the amount of work you take on and the money you earn, that goes without saying. Therefore, it can be tempting to take on projects that you don’t really have time for. You have to find a happy medium. Previously, I would work five full days, and do smaller projects on the weekends. Now, I limit myself to a five day working week and on my days off, I answer emails first thing in the morning, and that’s it. Which five days I choose to work depends upon my partner’s working schedule, as well as other factors too. This is where the flexibility comes in. This is the limit I’ve set for myself. Similarly, a lot of my clients are from overseas, and on those days I have to turn a little nocturnal in order to accommodate them, and this is something I plan ahead to prevent my working day from stretching onwards.

Self-care is the key to everything. I don’t mean you have to have a facemask every night, or spend hours walking barefoot through fields or meditating, unless you want to. You have to take care of yourself, or else you can’t work. Simple. If you don’t you’ll burn out, and that’s not something I’d wish on anybody. Having had ‘burn outs’ in the past (my doctor said these used to be called nervous breakdowns, just for context), this isn’t something I’d wish on anybody and I do all I can to prevent this happening again. I have lapses, of course, anybody with mental health problems does, but how I deal with that is important. Recently, I found myself back at the doctors and on another waiting list for therapy because I had let myself keep on swimming, ignoring the signs that it was getting too much. While reaching out to the doctors wasn’t easy, it was a form of self-care because I know I have to stay on top of my mental health problems. My self-care comes in the form of reading, walking Buster, switching off my computer at a reasonable time, exercising (something I need to do more of!), and doing little things that make me uncomfortable.

There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel!

This blog post has been negative, I know that, and I’m not sorry for that. But I wanted it to be realistic. When you’re talking mental health, I’m a huge advocate for not sugar-coating things, it doesn’t help matters. If you suffer with mental health issues and are a freelancer, or are considering freelancing, I hope this blog post has given you some insight into the links between mental health and freelancing. I also hope that it doesn’t put you off. Ideally, this blog post will show you that being self-employed isn’t this magical phenomenon that solves all mental health problems (yes, I was naïve enough to think this was true) but that if you go into it with open eyes, it can work for you as it has for me. I would love to hear all about your stories of freelancing and mental health, my inbox is always open, or you can comment below. I am by no means a mental health professional, and you should seek help if you need to. This blog post is just based on my own experiences of freelancing with a mental health condition (or two). So, the light at the end of the tunnel… Something that made me smile, 65% of freelancers say that they’re feeling positive about their career in 2021.[4] The future is what you make of it and therefore my final note is this, don’t bury your head in the sand (like I’ve done for so long) getting on with life because you have to. You don’t have to carry on being ‘just okay’ and seeking support is the first step to being genuinely happy.

As always, wishing you love and books that make your heart skip a beat,

Sarah Jules x





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