How Being A Freelancer Affects Your Health

Photo: Brooke Cagle.
When I first became self-employed I was worried about finding work, making money and meeting deadlines. But one thing I didn’t think about was my health – it just didn't occur to me that it might be affected.
But 10 months later, I know that starting out as a freelancer can impact on both your physical and mental wellbeing. My regular climbing and yoga sessions have fallen by the wayside, junk food has become my new best friend, and sometimes I’ve skipped proper meals altogether so that I can meet a deadline for a new editor. I’ve also found working alone difficult; without colleagues, I’ve sometimes felt lonely and lost confidence in my ideas.
So is it just me? Or can becoming self-employed affect your health? And if so, what can we do about it? Jade works in the hospitality industry and has been self-employed for six months. She says working from her sofa and not a desk affects her posture. “I end up completely hunched over for hours at a time, and the tension builds all around my neck and shoulders,” she says. “It got really bad at one point and I was getting muscle spasms.”
Her diet and exercise routine have also been affected. “I used to do yoga about six times a week, but haven’t been for about two months now,” she says. “I gained weight because I was picking up things as I went and eating a load of junk food in the evening.”
Luke, a self-employed business owner, says he’s struggled to adapt to working alone. “Before, I had that office banter. But then I did a lot of work by myself in my room and I’d feel very low,” he says. “It does get you down, there’s no question about it.”
On top of this, freelancers may be tempted to work when they're ill because they don’t get sick pay. “Yesterday I worked while I was sick,” says Jade. “I’m still new to it so I feel I can’t say no to things.” Luke, meanwhile, says there’s no such thing as an off-day or a holiday, “regardless of whether or not you’re in Barbados”.
However, it’s not all bad news – many report feeling healthier after they’ve adjusted to freelance life and found a routine that works for them. “I think being self-employed makes you healthier because you don't have to deal with office politics,” says Becky, a journalist. “There’s also more flexibility. If you want to go for a doctor's appointment or running in the middle of the day you don't need to ask anyone's permission.”
So how can new freelancers like me get to this point? It’s all about creating boundaries, says Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.
“Even though it’s tempting to work all the hours you can, bear in mind it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “You’re in it for the long haul and if you wear yourself out and exhaust yourself emotionally and physically, you won’t be able to keep it up.”
Without boundaries, work can take over. “Restrict it to a certain area of the house,” Kinman says. Meanwhile, Becky and Jade both advise getting out and working with other freelancers sometimes. “I’ve signed onto networking events and I’ll work with other people who are self-employed,” says Jade. “We’ll sit together and work, which is actually quite nice.”
It’s not unusual for your diet to be affected, says Daniel O’ Shaughnessy, director of nutrition at Bodhimaya. “Making healthy food can go out the window when you don’t have a set routine,” he says. “Plus, when you get stressed, your body reacts by craving sugar and salt.”
Plan meals and stick to exercise routines, he says. “Make it as easy as you can. Do some batch cooking and take time away from your desk to eat, because your digestion will feel better. Don’t rely on caffeine and sugar, and have a good amount of protein with each meal. It’s also a good idea to treat exercise like a doctor’s appointment you can’t miss.”
With more and more people becoming self-employed, guidance from a young age about what to expect and how to take care of yourself would be helpful, says Jordan Marshall, policy development manager at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed. “Most people aren’t going to have a job for life; they’re going to have lots of jobs and I’m not sure schools and universities are properly preparing us,” he says. “They should be giving advice on what freelancing means and what you have to consider.”
I now know how easily my exercise routine can slip, and that I feel lonely if I work by myself all day. So from now on I plan to work with other freelancers as often as I can, book in my climbing and yoga sessions, and prioritise my health as well as my deadlines.