MENTAL HEALTH FOR THE SELF-EMPLOYED
Here’s how to prevent overwhelm and stop the walls closing in.
The joys of self-employment are immense, especially if you’ve spent years in a career that didn’t make you happy – or one that did, but where your position became insecure. Being mistress of your own destiny, striding out on your own, choosing your working hours and picking the projects that suit you can feel amazing. As can knowing your commutes are now minimal and you’ll never have to endure office politics or sit in a mind-numbing planning meeting again. BUT – and as you can see it’s a big but – there are downsides too. Here’s how to avoid them and stay buoyant through the sometimes wobbly ride of being your own boss.
Structure your day
It’s easy to adopt an anything-goes approach to freelance work, sleeping late, bingewatching box sets then burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines. But it’s far better for your state of mind to create a daily schedule and stick to it. When I became self-employed a friend advised “You’ll feel better and get more done if you treat it like a normal work day. Start at 9.30, have an hour off at 1 and finish at 5.30”. And it works.
Tempting as it is to slide from bed to desk without bothering to change out of your nightwear (or even to stay in bed and work there), you’ll feel far better if you have your own version of workwear. The postman/woman will thank you. What’s more if you’re the only person you get to see all day (via your bathroom mirror), at least make an effort for yourself. That hospital in-patient look is not great for your self-esteem.
Get off your backside
If your work involves a lot of sitting, make a conscious effort to un-sit on a regular basis. We’ve all read the scary stats about extended sitting being more dangerous than smoking (untrue, but it is linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer). Working solo means we walk around less as there are no colleagues to go and chat to. So stand up and walk around to make calls. Invest in a standing desk. Take regular breaks to go to the shops, go for a walk, do some stretching – just don’t sit welded to your computer for hours without budging, talking to yourself.
“That hospital in-patient look is not great for your self-esteem.”
Invest in a dog
Seriously. The day-long company. The bonkers joyful tail-wagging welcome every time you walk in the room. The non-negotiable twice daily walkies that work wonders for your physical and mental health. The unquestioning loyalty that seems to include shadowing your every move and curling themselves around the base of your chair to huff contentedly while you work. The proprietary paw on your knee reminding you it’s walkies time FORCING YOU OUT OF YOUR CHAIR. Result.
Or a cat
As above with purring. And less needy.
Talk to humans
Whether it’s Facetiming your equally isolated self-employed friend, befriending the regulars in your favourite coffee shop, having face-to face meetings or using a shared work space, interfacing with actual people is vital to your sanity. Lack of human contact can make us overthink challenges or disappear down rabbit holes on social media. Speaking to clients isn’t enough. You need some normals in your life. Lose the ‘lonely artist in an attic’ vibe and engage. Did you get the dog? Get the dog. You’ll soon know every dog owner in your area.
Ration social media
Of course social media plays a huge role in our work life nowadays for marketing, contacts, opportunities and the ‘social glue’ of knowing what’s trending and why. But it can be dangerous if we use it as a constant distraction from work, because hours can get lost watching videos of a hamster eating a pink wafer biscuit and wearing a crash helmet. Also the ‘compare and despair’ aspect can make us feel like crap if everyone seems to be doing better than us.
As well as scheduling work into your diary, make room for time off. A matinee at the theatre for a fraction of the normal ticket price? A visit to your best friend in another city? Taking your mum for her hospital visit so she doesn’t have to go on her own? A shopping expedition when the shops are deserted? Well why very not. If you can’t enjoy the freedom that being self-employed allows – no boss to question your absence – then what’s the ruddy point?
Make your work space cosy
Tidy your home office regularly. If it also happens to be the clutter room in your home, have regular weekend chuck-outs so you can keep your space clear. Customise it with pinboards, fairy lights, artwork and lots of images that lift your mood. Add a couple of plants to help reduce stress and a picture of the sea or a river. Being near the water is known to be good for our mental health, but even a watery image can have the same effect. True.
Step away from the spice rack. It doesn’t need rearranging. Your day does.
Make it noisy
Unless you’re the kind of person who can only be truly productive in absolute silence or your work requires intense concentration, choose some background noise to kill the sound of no one there. Podcasts, audiobooks, radio or playlists can help put you in a great frame of mind. But the TV on all day? Too much.
No Marie Kondo-ing
When you’re grappling with a difficult client or stressy deadline the lure of housework can become strong. This is no time for tackling the washing backlog or wondering if that teetering pile of half-read books by your bed sparks joy. Step away from the spice rack. It doesn’t need rearranging. Your day does. Schedule chores in just like everything else.
If in doubt, get out
The vagaries of self-employment can be tough to navigate, however much we love the freedom and sense of fulfilment. It can sometimes take nerves of steel to ride through a lean patch, negotiate with a difficult client or avoid panicking when payment isn’t forthcoming fast enough. Or stop obsessing over that weird passive aggressive email you just received. When the walls start closing in, get yourself outside and away from the work thoughts. It’ll be better tomorrow.
Words: Marina Gask
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