I Love the Freelance Life, But It’s Taking a Toll on My Mental Health

Photo: Phil Lewis/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The morning started the same as too many others before it: with my collie mix, Gus, trying valiantly to get me out of bed. Valiantly, but unsuccessfully — the best I could muster was a brief flutter of my eyes and a roll in the other direction. My dog may have wanted me up, but I wanted to put off the inevitable struggle of the day as long as I could.

My work as a freelance writer had been s-l-o-w. Days without much work bled into weeks, and somewhere along the way the catastrophizing, negative thoughts began to creep in. This is what failure is, I thought. I was convinced that I’d burn through my little savings in no time and end up broke, not even able to do basic things like feed the dog or pay the bills. Even though, up until that point, things had been consistent and — dare I say — even moderately prosperous for me, I was sure that any success I’d had was sheer luck, and that my luck had run out.

Thankfully, I don’t feel that way anymore. A couple of accepted pitches sparked a crucial confidence boost, and I found myself a therapist to top all therapists. Still, even though things have started to turn around, there are moments when I’m gripped with anxiety about the future of my freelancing career. It’s isolating, and lonely — and, as it turns out, a pretty common experience among people in my situation.

In a 2005 study published in the journal Work and Stress,  a team of researchers examined the self-reported health of freelancers using an effort-reward imbalance model (essentially a scientifically verifiable cost-benefit analysis). Developed in 1996 by study co-author  Johannes Siegrist, a senior professor at the University of Dusseldorf, the model took both extrinsic and intrinsic factors into account. The former encapsulated external experiences like client demands and compensation, while the latter examined freelancers’ commitment to work, characterized by an “inability to withdraw from work, thinking about it day and night,” Siegrist says.

What the team discovered was alarming. Lead author Michael Ertel, a researcher at Germany’s Federal Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, explains that poor subjective health was reported by 37 percent of the German freelancers who participated. The study also “found a more specific pattern of health problems in freelancers: chronic strain and a reduced ability to relax,” as a result of long working hours in conjunction with an unpredictable workload, he says.

To this day, subsequent studies have only added to their findings. Just this past April, a Swiss study explored the mental health of people working in “non-standard employment” conditions; researchers identified high job insecurity and financial difficulties as the most common stressors, and tied them to “sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, a high prevalence of antidepressant drug use, and ‘presenteeism,’” a term for continuing to work in the face of illness or other factors that warrant a break.

As someone who’s experienced anxiety and depression since well before I began my freelancing years, I found the findings comforting, in a way — at least I know I’m in good company — but they also made me wonder if I’ve been naïve. After all, I’ve willingly adopted a work lifestyle that’s mentally challenging, with a predisposition to the very problems that said work can cause. True, the independence and autonomy are everything I imagined they would be, but are they worth putting myself at greater risk of so much distress? Maybe, I thought, my history means I’m just uniquely ill-suited to such an emotionally tough line of work, regardless of how much I love it. After talking to other freelancers, though, I discovered that couldn’t be farther from the truth — the field is full of people like me, who grapple with previously existing mental-health struggles as well as those brought on by the demands of the job.

Katie Nave Freeman, a 33-year-old living in Brooklyn, explains that she’s struggled with anxiety and bouts of depression her entire life, and that she finds deadlines make things worse. “I get this overwhelming fear of disappointing people, and spend nights ruminating about how to get things done,” she says. Her experience also verifies the “presenteeism” that Siegrist mentioned: “I went on vacation recently and I was working the whole time. I put my daughter to sleep and went right back to my laptop. I have this guilt, anytime I’m doing anything else, that I should be working.”

Kate Morgan, a 26-year-old based in Pennsylvania, says that true vacation is elusive for her, too: “I’m never totally not at work. Even when I go somewhere new, I’m always thinking, Okay, how can I turn this into money? I’m always thinking about the stories I could pitch.” She often finds herself picking up magazines at hotels and lugging them home in hopes of pitching them someday.

Morgan also experiences what she calls “your garden-variety anxiety,” noting that the isolation of working solo can often exacerbate things. “As someone who depends on feedback and bouncing ideas off people, when you’re the only person there it can be really difficult.” Of course, there are online sources for community in the digital age, but even they have their drawbacks. “On one side, there are all these people dealing with the same things, but on the other side, there are so many writers announcing amazing news,” Morgan says. “Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re measuring up.”

Having good news of your own, though, can also present challenges. “Sometimes after putting out a slew of really good articles with positive feedback, I start to have all of these [self-imposed] expectations,” says Juleana Enright, a 32-year-old writer based in Minneapolis.
“If I don’t produce something that’s comparable or better, then it’s not good enough.”

For Enright, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression last year, it can be a struggle to figure out whether her work is helping or hindering her mental state. “I’m so much in my head already that when I put myself in a situation where it’s all my own thoughts and a laptop, I’m not sure if I’m making [my anxiety and depression] worse or if I’m releasing some kind of cathartic energy,” she explains.

Creative uncertainty is something that Alida Carlson, a 29-year-old also living in Minneapolis, experiences as well. “In terms of mental health, I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar multiple times, but I think it’s just more that I have an ability to feel on a spectrum of extremes at all times. If I can’t play with that hot and cold, I don’t know if I can create what I create,” she says. “But it’s also a curse when you feel those highs and lows in the freelance world, which is full of extremes.”

Considering that the gig economy is expected to double in the next four years — bringing the total of nontraditional American workers to roughly 9.2 million by 2021 — more and more people will be exposed to the work conditions that beget the mental-health issues that freelancers like these women and myself experience. How society and policymakers adapt to these changes “will be essential,” Ertel notes, for shaping a gig economy that is both productive and healthy.

Siegrist puts it this way: “[Freelancing] is an occupation that’s largely invisible. Many are solo workers and there is no organized process for when they have a problem. I think some organization should be developed so freelancers can have access to monitoring or counseling for support in cases of crisis” — whether that’s caused by outside circumstances or by the job itself.

I Love the Freelance Life, But It’s Hurting My Mental Health