On Sunday afternoon, I departed from my home in search of fresh air. The streets were busy, yet quiet at the same time—a weird parallel, I thought. Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic and the sense of fear feels thick. The unknown gist of questioning the who, where and when are apparent, but for freelancers, there’s also a sense of emotional familiarity.
Last week, I received an email from a recruiter. During a frenzy of recurring fears, I applied for an array of jobs, hoping it would provide me with a sense of stability. Opening this email, I was both perplexed at the response and petrified. It read: “Following internal discussions and the uncertainty of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, we have decided to freeze hiring until a later date.” That is exactly how the coronavirus started impacting my career, but what about other freelancers?
My initial feeling of confusion rose from the fact that I couldn’t even remember what the role was—save the judgement, please, as I seem to recall that we are a nation that fights over toilet paper. The advertised role was for an editorial internship for both an in-house and remote position. Because journalism as a whole has changed; what was once an industry filled with affluent well-educated men is now pioneering into a world where everyone thinks their opinion needs to be heard.
As a fortunate being who knew early on their destined career, I’ve spent my life competing in contests, reading to stay ahead, and not to mention an insane amount of debt studying in order to become a multimedia journalist. The outcome has been an overwhelming amount of frustration about the difficulty of finding the perfect role. Fellow creatives can relate, I’m sure.
With the outburst of dooming news of coronavirus—otherwise known as COVID-19—I’ve had to adjust my profession expectations yet again, and so will other freelancers. At the beginning of the year, although the golden life of self-employment has previously been described as a lie, I accepted fate and turned to freelance in hopes of building my CV and exercising my skills, all the while searching for a permanent role within my field. Yet despite the fact that the mental pressures of freelancing are being thoroughly discussed, I doubt change will ever come. I recently saw a post advising people to reach out to their freelance friends, who, during this period are coping with the dread of financial uncertainty.
Typically, freelancers are glorified for having remote roles that offer them the luxury of working from home. While that may be true, and I have reaped the benefits of working from home, it’s important to remember the excessive brain work one musters on the daily to produce content. Imagine working, sleeping, socialising and eating all day in one place; it’s a huge demand. And now, with the governmental advisory to self-isolate for safety, the stress duplicates.
Self-isolation has become the butt of all jokes during this pandemic, and while I have chuckled at a few, it doesn’t dispose of the anxious thoughts for individuals in creative fields of what’s to come.
I fear for the future of journalism during this period. I managed my expectations by succumbing to the thought that I may not achieve my dream of landing a steady role that pays me to report and travel for a long time. But now I’m having to adjust them once more, as I’m heading towards a greater battle—one that may result in sparse commissions, financial burdens and creative strains.
It feels as though freelance content creators have slipped and slid down a ladder in this game, but in times of tribulation, I take great pleasure in being part of a community that advocates better mental well-being.
Right now, understandably, it all seems blue. But I advise everyone (including myself) to remember to seek coverage in your community. The best thing about freelancing is the element of independence, so while it seems difficult, use it. Writers, read more to pitch more as responses are rapid at the moment. Journalists, the news is being bombarded with talks of the outbreak, so use it to your advantage. And fellow creators who are stressing out about money, sell that coat you haven’t worn in years because sustainability is still the ultimate motive.
I’m currently sitting in my living room typing at an hour that isn’t the 9-5. This week I’ve worked in a library, a co-working space and a café because, like many other freelance creatives, my work comes with me wherever I go. It can be a blessing and a curse.
What can usually look like an example of flexibility, and is adjustable enough to slot a yoga class in at 10 am, can sometimes turn into a facade of freedom. Most people probably assume that because our work as freelancers has fewer strings attached, we can work whenever we want to. The reality is usually fitting work in and out of the 9-5 hours, juggling multiple bosses and styles of work while being self-motivated and doing thankless jobs such as chasing the accounts team about your invoice. Being a freelancer for many can also feel lonely or with the ebb and flow of cash, stressful when trying maintain your lifestyle. But with the many horror stories we’ve all heard about freelancing and the ever-changing working landscape, the issue of anxiety is one that tends to pop up rather often, but I rarely see it being dealt with.
I’ve been lucky with my mental health that it hasn’t been as crippling as it has for those near and dear to me. Having good mental health is not something I take for granted—if anything, it has felt like one less thing to be worried about. When talking to Sophie Kirk, a friend and freelance creative at The Good Stuff, we discuss how the anxiety of being a freelancer can go either way. “When you work for yourself it becomes about working to stay afloat and you, of course, don’t have the security of work coming in all the time, so sometimes you have to go out and find it”. But Kirk also adds, “I also get anxiety when I take on too much work because I don’t work well under immense pressure and deadlines”. Therefore finding a balance for both your work and mind can be like trying to figure out a jigsaw puzzle most of the time.
In 2018, records showed that 2 million people in the U.K. are working as freelancers, and that freelance work is on the rise. Yet what isn’t matching up to the rising figures is the support for this new type of workforce and its mental health. Building more co-working spaces is great but surely we should also be looking at the common issues that are happening within the growing number of those integral to tightened budgets and an economy that’s slowing down.
This is understandably a difficult conquest, as one person’s mental health is not a flat landscape, and anxiety can be triggered for all sorts of reasons. However, when talking to Albert Azis-Clauson about what UnderPinned was doing to help tackle anxiety and freelance workers, the Founder said, “One of the biggest challenges facing mental health in (and out) of freelancing is a lack of openness.”
The CEO of the practical support network built by freelancers for freelancers explained how it all comes to the infrastructure and how you prioritise the treatment of all employees. “I think unfortunately the support structures for temporary staff just don’t exist in most companies at the moment and freelancers feel like they’re taking a risk with their job to approach a manager about mental health.”
But for UnderPinned, it’s about normalising any conversation around mental health issues. “First, I make myself available personally once a week to my team to talk about how things are going both in and out of the office. By creating a dedicated time to talk about mental wellbeing, people feel more confident to be open to talking about how they feel and how things they might be struggling with are affecting their work,” says Azis-Clauson. Though mental health may seem like a ‘trendy topic’ to discuss, it’s also imperative companies understand that creating a healthy working environment is not about enforcing mindfulness onto others. And while UnderPinned say going forward they are going to introduce a reading hour once a week, gym classes and meditation in the office, and a fancy-dress day once a month, Azis-Clauson also says that it all boils down to taking the time to be educated about mental health issues and truly understanding that there’s no one right thing for everyone.
For freelance creatives such as Sophie Kirk, it’s about trying something new. “I’ve tried all sorts of things since I went freelance. From guitar lessons, skateboarding, bouldering, learning to speak Japanese, baking to embroidery”. For the graphic designer, it’s also about looking at the perks of being a freelancer and understanding that you don’t have to take on a hobby after 5 pm. “It sounds really silly but just getting my mind off work can be really rewarding and refresh my approach. It’s something I couldn’t do when I was in a full-time position because I was exhausted by the evening and treated it as sacred self-care time”. Unlike Kirk, when I feel anxious, I personally prefer to be active when my mind is doing over time. The thing about freelancing is that remembering to stretch, breathe and drink water can be grounding. But for those who have more severe mental health issues, founder of UnderPinned recommended Dinghy, a counselling helpline specifically for freelancers.
While there appears to be more platforms for freelancers, whether it’s working spaces made solely to empower women like The Wing or Women Who, it seems as though there needs to be more mental health facilities to cater to this specific growing workforce as the mental issues among freelancers appear to be common. Though freelance work is temporary, we can’t treat the mental health issues that come with freelancing the same way.