When I started my freelance career three and a half years ago, I sort of assumed that life was going to be better from now on.

I’d always struggled in full-time employment. Suffering from imposter syndrome and feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of a nine-to-five career, the thought of spending my working life trapped in an office left me feeling anxious and depressed.

Freelancing seemed like a way out: a career where I can choose where, when and who I work with, picking projects that leave me feeling mentally fulfilled.

I wasted no time in planning my escape route, taking on commissions in my spare time while working regular hours in a day job. Less than a year after accepting my first freelance project, I handed in my notice at work and began my career as a self-employed writer.

My ideas about freelancing weren’t entirely wrong. Being in control of the hours I work and spending time on projects that I enjoy has been a game changer for my mental health.

But it hasn’t been all plain sailing. There are days when I struggle to stay afloat in the choppy waters of self-employment, succumbing to the isolation, self-doubt and stress that working for yourself can lead to.

I’m not the only freelancer who has experienced this. In a recent survey of 1,000 UK-based freelancers, 25% of respondents had experienced frequent periods of depression, while 21% said that the loneliness of self-employment had led them to suicidal thoughts.

With 50% of workers expected to turn freelance in the next two years, tackling the pressures of self-employment with positive mental health habits will be important for more people than ever.

Through trial, error and the support of some amazing people, I’ve developed a routine that keeps me happy and balanced in my self-employment. Despite some occasional down days, my freelance career is looking up, and I’m excited for it to continue.

Whether you’re considering working for yourself or already freelance for a living, having some strategies for dealing with tough times is crucial. Here are some things that have helped me navigate the emotional highs and lows of self-employment.

I’m not the only freelancer who has experienced this. In a recent survey of 1,000 UK-based freelancers, 25% of respondents had experienced frequent periods of depression, while 21% said that the loneliness of self-employment had led them to suicidal thoughts.

1. Set non-negotiable work hours

Grinding from 8am until 8pm will burn you out. So will slacking off all day, then pulling an all nighter to meet a deadline. Be realistic and stick to the same hours each day to create clear boundaries between work and chill time.

2. Be honest with clients

When communicating with clients, don’t promise them the world or accept unreasonable requests. If something isn’t working for you, explain why. If they’re reasonable people, they’ll work with you to find a solution. If they’re not, the stress and worry of working with them probably outweigh the rewards.

3. Always take a lunch break

At least an hour, ideally with company, and definitely not in front of your computer. Taking time away from your work to meet your most basic needs (eating, resting and socialising) will clear your head and make you a happier, more productive person.

4. Find time to exercise

Even if it’s just a daily walk in the fresh air, exercise is hugely beneficial for your mental health. Running works for me – something about pounding the pavement outside after a tricky day puts problems into perspective and helps my brain find solutions. Exercise also means better sleep, which your mind will thank you for.

5. Spend your work days with fellow humans

Working from home can be isolating and make work-life balance hard to manage. Consider joining a coworking space, where friendly chats and moral support from fellow freelancers are only a desk away. I’m lucky enough to be part of the creative community at Rabble Studio in Cardiff. Similar spaces exist all over the UK, full of remote workers who help each other avoid the loneliness that self-employment often brings.

6. Remember, freelancing isn’t for everyone

If you felt more fulfilled in employment, there’s no shame in changing your situation. ‘Quitting’ isn’t failure – it’s recognising that you’d be better off doing something else, and taking practical steps to become a happier person.

7. If you’re struggling, talk to someone

While you may feel like you have nowhere to turn, your family and friends don’t want you to suffer. Whatever you’re going through, it’s important to share your problems and seek support when you need it. Organisations like Mind exist to help people experiencing mental health difficulties. Talking to someone could be the first step towards a happier, more fulfilling life.

Matt is a freelance copywriter based in Cardiff. He regularly writes blog posts about freelancing, including articles on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance and make the most of self-employment. Follow his freelance adventures on Twitter via @mttyrs

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