4 signs you’re experiencing freelancer burnout (and what to do about it)

1 in 5 people surveyed by Mental Health UK have felt "unable" to deal with work-induced stress. And while 23% of UK workers work for an organisation that has resources for stress and burnout available, freelancers are in charge of creating their own mental health resources.

According to research by IPSE, 10% of freelancers surveyed took no time off work in the last year, and 78% work even while on holiday. With such a busy schedule, and the pressure of running their own solo business, how could freelancers not experience burnout?

What is burnout and how do you know if you're experiencing it?

Burnout was recognised as an "occupational phenomenon" by the World Health Organisation in 2019. These are the main symptoms according to Mental Health UK:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed

There are some less obvious signs you could be experiencing burnout too. According to Jessica Gold, M.D., M.S., assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, you might also be irritable outside of work, neglect even normal levels of self-care, and find yourself daydreaming about other career options.

1. No amount of sleep helps you feel rested

IPSE highlight the physical signs and symptoms of burnout as feeling exhausted even after just waking up. It's also likely to lower your immunity and give you frequent, recurring illnesses and colds. This can coincide with headaches, muscle pain, and even stomach problems. Burnout is physical as well as mental and emotional.

2. You've lost confidence in your skills

We often think we'll gain confidence in our work and abilities as we spend longer developing them, but burnout can make it difficult to gauge our own skills and value. Some of the emotional signs of burnout highlighted by IPSE's survey include self-doubt, fear of failure, and imposter syndrome. This gives freelancers a more negative view of themselves, their work, and the world, which reduces the satisfaction and accomplishment they might have felt before.

3. You're leaning on unhealthy habits

IPSE say it's common for the freelancers in their survey to rely on alcohol, food, and drugs to feel better when work is causing stress and exhaustion. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms, so it could be completely different for you. You might find yourself compulsively exercising, playing video games all night, or shopping more than usual.

4. You're avoiding your responsibilities and dreading work

Freelancers choose their work, so it's particularly concerning when they find themselves avoiding it, hating it, and procrastinating instead of doing it. You could be leaving client emails unread, spending a long time on straightforward tasks, or shrinking away from responsibilities and tasks that you're more than capable of.

What you can do about burnout

Burnout isn't improved in a day, it takes lots of small changes and patience. If you're in the depths of it that probably sounds like a lot of effort, but it's 100% worth it. Without making healthy changes to your work schedule and life, burnout can have serious knock-on effects outside of work, including putting stress on your health and relationships.

Go back to basics with self care

Brush your teeth, shower in the morning, make yourself lunch, go for a walk in the middle of the afternoon. These small changes to our day help you put things in perspective, feel better, and get some mental and physical distance from your desk.

Take a real break

Time off is essential. Without a period of pure rest (that means no work! No emails! Nothing!) the symptoms of burnout are unlikely to improve. If it's not financially possible to take a break just yet, make sure you schedule it in and stick to it.

Accept project delays and explain them to your clients

If your work has been slipping, the fear of clients being unhappy can feel massive. Every email notification can fill you with dread because it might be them realising you're actually a huge fraud. Eliminate that dread now by being transparent about delays to projects. If you need some extra time to complete things, give yourself that time.

Make time for fun

Burnout is the absence of energy and joy. Give yourself reasons to laugh and feel lighter. Whatever you enjoy, make time for it. It could be spending time with kids, family, friends, reliving something from childhood, going to a theme park, the beach, anything!

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