Go Offline: How remote work can take a toll on freelancers’ mental wellness

For many people, freelancing has given them a better option to make a stable income without compromising their mental health. Working from home and working for themselves allowed them to prioritize their mental health. The absence of co-workers and a nagging boss meant the absence of toxic office culture.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—this is not all chill and fun. It takes a lot to build a sustainable freelance business and not experience stress, burnout, or even trigger your anxiety and depression. Putting in the work is necessary, but so is prioritizing yourself. 

The growing mental health crisis in the US

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. live with mental illness. The severity of mental illness varies, but that’s about 52.9 million people in 2020.

Consultant Health Psychologist Dr. Sue Peacock shares that CEOs and freelancers who attend her clinic have certain characteristics. She sees a lot of workaholics, perfectionists, and folks with the “need to prove myself” trait whom she describes as “constantly comparing themselves to others, working crazy long hours, going above and beyond in everything at work, achieving a great deal, but still wondering if they are doing a good job.”

Dr. Peacock also shares how she noticed some freelancers “never switch off and always have their phone on. They work long hours and are always looking for the next project.” She adds that “these things and the characteristics described above will inevitably lead to burnout. The more overworked and exhausted they get, the harder it is to process emotions and think clearly, which leads to stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.”

That said, if you’re a freelancer who hustles all the time without checking in on yourself, or taking necessary breaks, you could lead yourself down a path that causes burnout—which could affect your mental health.

How remote work can take a toll on freelancers’ mental wellness

“It’s easy to get sucked into being in ‘work mode’ all of the time,” says Ashley Cummings, a freelance writer whose work has appeared on brands like Spotify and Omnisend. Cummings has been freelancing since 2011 and shares how “it’s challenging as a freelancer to protect your free time. Money is a strong motivator, and you’re the only one responsible for your growth and paying the bills.”

And when you work remotely or from home, it’s so easy to choose to sit in front of your laptop for long hours. That’s what happened to Momina Asif. “When I first started freelancing, it was the happiest I had felt. After 5 months of the same routine, the monotony got to me,” she shared, adding that she “was constantly under pressure to deliver the next blog, work on the next article, start the next project.” Asif noted how she was in front of a screen, “13+ hours a day and all of it got to me.” That’s what pushed her to finally choose herself and take a month off.

But it’s not only the money and the desire to have project after project that negatively affects a freelancer’s mental wellness. For Peak Freelance founder Elise Dopson, her mental health took a hit when she, “got into the routine of filling spare time with work.” “As freelancers, it’s easy to overwork and not know your limit. I found myself thinking, ‘I’m not doing anything this weekend. Why not make some extra money?’” she shares. Dopson describes this as a “slippery slope.”

Find balance and how to make it work

Working from home and building your freelance business may sound fun, but if you’re not careful, you’ll spread yourself thin. Just like anything else, it’s all about balance. And no matter how tempted you are to keep working, don’t. If it’s time to pause, it’s time to pause. Honor that so you’d reduce the risk of compromising your mental wellness.

  1. Work in public spaces

I personally hate working in coffee shops. I need quiet and coffee shops are not exactly quiet. However, I knew I needed to get out and have some human contact. So whether that’s a coffee shop or the beach, working in public spaces helps ease the loneliness of freelancing. It helps lessen my susceptibility to depression and feeling like I’m all alone in this life. Now, I always bring a headset and do the admin tasks in coffee shops and public libraries. Sometimes I check into a hotel for a couple of days and spend the afternoons working at the lounge or by the pool.

  1. Set limits and honor them

When Dopson went down that slippery slope and later noticed her writing quality was declining because she was overcommitting to clients, she decided it was time to step back and reevaluate things. “I’ve come back to freelancing with strict limits (2-3 articles per week) and no weekend working,” she shares. Dopson adds that “it’s hard to set those boundaries, especially when you feel like you’re missing out, but it’s worth it!”

  1. Talk to someone

When I was experiencing really bad burnout that triggered my depression and anxiety (it felt like everything I was doing was wrong), I thought talking to someone exclusively meant talking to a therapist face-to-face. Of course, that’s a solid option too! I cannot express how helpful having a therapist is! But sometimes, talking to a good friend is enough. Don’t wait for burnout to happen. Don’t wait for stress to get the best of you. Catch up with friends from time to time and share what’s going on with you. They don’t need to understand it fully—the simple act of listening helps.

Tech tools that can help

There are also digital tools that can help. Believe it or not, my first tool was my phone’s alarm clock. I’d set an alarm for when it’s time to pause so I don’t end up working too much and skipping meals. There are also meditation apps that can help ground you, apps to help you sleep better, and even those that can provide online therapy, in case you’re not yet ready for the in-person kind. Here’s a list of some digital tools:

  • Calm – helps with meditation and sleep
  • Headspace – helps with meditation
  • Talkspace – helps with therapy access
  • Mindshift – helps with anxiety
  • MoodKit – helps with boosting your mood
  • Sanvello – helps with stress relief
  • BetterHelp – also helps with therapy access
  • Happify – helps with adding fun and happiness
  • Shine – helps with anxiety and stress with a focus on people of color
  • PacedBreathing – helps with breathing

Do what’s best for you

With so much content out there about freelancing, working from home, and remote work, it’s easy to end up following one’s tips and advice to the T. It’s great that there are now lots of resources, but keep in mind that it’s still about doing what’s best for you. This is to say, if working for 5 hours straight works for someone you follow on Instagram, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. And if you force yourself to do something that you’re not 100% okay with, you might end up stressing yourself. 

Some folks may be happier working from home. Others may want the company of co-workers. Some folks may prefer hustling for a few consecutive months then taking a couple of months off, others may want a more relaxed work schedule. Do what works for you. Do what feels right without compromising your mental health.

CategoriesRemote Work
Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.