Working for yourself can be very exciting, but freelancer burnout is very real. The idea of making your own schedule, spending more time with your family and friends, and being free to explore different routines and hobbies sounds amazing! But when you go too far, and it’s easily done, you can end up burning out.
The 7 steps to avoid freelancer burnout are:
- Make time for socializing
- Take regular breaks
- Learn to say no
- Modify your lifestyle
- Find a support group
- Stay organized
- Seek professional help
Below, I’ll go through these steps in more detail, along with a discussion on how to identify signs of freelancer burnout. I’ll also talk about my own experience with burning out. But first, what is freelancer burnout?
What Is Freelancer Burnout?
Freelancer burnout is essentially a feeling of exhaustion or negativity associated with overworking or mismanaging your time. The World Health Organization defines burnout as:
“Chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterized by feelings of depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy”
We freelancers often face unique challenges such as juggling multiple projects, managing our own time and resources, and dealing with uncertain income streams. These factors, combined with a lack of clear boundaries between work and personal life, can contribute to freelancer burnout.
Freelancer burnout can have a detrimental impact on both personal and professional aspects of your life. If you’re struggling to carry on your freelancing business, even though you’re doing something that you love, you’re likely suffering from freelancer burnout.
My Personal Experience With Freelancer Burnout
I’ve been freelancing for several years now, mostly as a writer, and in that time I’ve personally experienced burnout a few times. It’s easy looking back on it to see why, but at the time it can be difficult to see it coming or prevent it.
The main reason for my own freelancer burnout was simply working too long without a break. I’d take breaks during the day (something you should definitely do), but I could go stretches of months without taking more than a day or two off.
It Can Hit You Out Of Nowhere
Then, after a few solid months of work, I’d start to, seemingly out of nowhere, feel really low and have a severe lack of motivation. I’d struggle to stay focused during the day, even on what are usually quite engaging tasks. I’d also just feel physically tired, and sometimes a bit sick or generally unwell too.
Taking a few days off would usually be enough to fix this and get me back to feeling good at work, but I’ve learned to prevent this from happening in the future by implementing more breaks, getting out more, and various other things I’ll mention below. But what else can cause freelancer burnout?
What Causes Freelancer Burnout?
Overworking yourself is extremely easy to do, especially if you’re just getting the hang of things as a freelancer. At the beginning of your freelancing career, getting work can be hard, and you may feel the need to take on as many jobs as you can (I know I did!). But that will eventually wear you out.
It’s very important to know your limits and when to say No. So, if you see that work is starting to pile up, take a step back, accept only the projects that interest you or are most valuable overall, and focus on providing quality over quantity. Not only will this help you avoid burnout as a freelancer, but it also ensures your clients get the best work possible.
Some freelancers start their careers with hopes of having more time for friends and family. However, it’s really easy to lose yourself in your work, especially if you’re not organized.
Plus, freelancing is a one-person job. It can be a lonely business. There are (usually) no offices, no co-workers, and it’s often just you and your computer. That can be pretty lonely. Isolation can lead to productivity issues, but the biggest concern is its effect on your mental health.
Lack Of Self Care
As cliché as it may sound, you need to be at your best to give your best. The more freelancers bury themselves in work, the easier it gets to let go of self-care practices like exercising, eating well, staying hydrated, and even simply taking time to work on pet projects and other hobbies.
I love the quote “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” which is usually used to describe the fact you can’t help others before you help yourself. This can be applied to freelancing in a practical sense, as you’ll be unable to help clients and provide quality work if you are not feeling good yourself!
Poor Work-Life Balance
Freelancers often work from home or flexible environments, blurring the line between work and personal life. This lack of clear boundaries can result in difficulties in separating your work and leisure time, leading to overworking, exhaustion, and ultimately burnout.
More than 64% of freelancers and consultants say they are burned out for this reason, with 78.6% believing their issues would be solved if they improved their work-life balance.
Finally, freelancers also often set high standards for themselves and strive for perfection in their work. This self-imposed pressure can lead to overworking, excessive self-criticism, and a constant fear of not meeting expectations. The pursuit of perfectionism, combined with the inherent nature of freelancing, can significantly contribute to burnout.
So, now you know the main causes of freelancer burnout, what are the key symptoms to look out for?
The Main Symptoms Of Freelancer Burnout
Feeling physically and mentally drained is very common for freelancers experiencing burnout. You might constantly feel tired and unable to perform the easiest of tasks, and it can be hard to get out of bed or feel creative.
But it’s not always this extreme.
When I’ve experienced exhaustion from burnout, it’s been a bit more subtle, but still unpleasant. I’ve been able to get out of bed, but after a short period of work my eyes just want to close and I feel overwhelmingly tired. I’m not ready for bed, but I am definitely not ready for work either!
It’s not hard to imagine how freelancing can lead to anxiety, without even considering burning out. You constantly have to think about getting more clients. You worry about the instability and, if you’re a full-time freelancer, there’s always that fear of not meeting your financial needs. You’re very likely to experience higher levels of anxiety when suffering from burnout as a freelancer.
This can be more likely to occur if you’re in a dry period without many clients, or the opposite, when you have more work than you can handle. You might occasionally feel anxious about a deadline or to see what a big client thinks of an important project, but if you’re constantly anxious when you’re working, you might be burning out.
Suffering from burnout may lead you to constantly postpone your assignments to the point where you actually start believing that you hate doing something that you once enjoyed. If you’re put off doing the work you normally like doing, that’s a sign you’re suffering from burnout.
Maybe you’re not avoiding work yet, but you feel that you can’t get things done as easily as you could last week. Or you might find it very hard to concentrate on your work. Work might feel stagnant. That is also a tell-tale sign of freelancer burnout.
Lacking motivation in general is a sign of burnout too. If you’re normally hyped up about a specific part of your work or when working with a specific client but now you’re not that fussed, you might be burning out.
It’s important to note that you might feel a lack of motivation away from your desk too. So if you feel generally low doing things you normally enjoy, be it playing golf or painting in your spare time, this could be burnout as well.
Burnout can lead to more severe damage than you might think. It may manifest itself through headaches, or through neck, shoulder, and back pain. It could even lead to stomach and intestinal issues. If any of these physical symptoms are recurring, making you feel completely drained all the time, then you might be facing a serious case of freelancer burnout.
Of course, it could be something else entirely, and as I’m not a doctor, I’d advise speaking to a professional if you’re suffering from any physical pain or other discomfort.
The 5 Stages Of Freelancer Burnout
German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger described the 12 stages of staff burnout in various places, with one paper in 1974 and a book in 1980, titled Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. The list below is a simplified version of these 12 steps.
1. Honeymoon Phase
In this initial stage of freelance burnout, you may experience high levels of enthusiasm, motivation, and energy. You may be excited about your work and have a generally positive outlook. However, you may also take on too much work, pushing yourself to work long hours and neglecting self-care.
2. Onset Of Stress
As your workload and the pressure increases, you may enter the second stage, characterized by stress and a sense of being overwhelmed. You might start feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, experience mood swings, and struggle to find a healthy work-life balance. Take note of these signs and avoid pushing yourself too hard!
3. Chronic Energy Depletion
In this stage, burnout becomes more apparent and persistent. You may feel emotionally and physically drained most or a lot of the time. You might become cynical, detached, and experience a decline in productivity. It’s important to recognize these symptoms and seek support to prevent further deterioration.
4. Crisis Or Burnout
The fourth stage is marked by a significant breakdown in your physical and mental well-being. You may feel a deep sense of disillusionment, hopelessness, and a complete lack of motivation. Physical symptoms may worsen, and you may struggle to function in your personal and professional life. It’s crucial to seek immediate intervention and support at this stage.
5. Recovery Or Complete Burnout
The final stage can vary depending on your circumstances. With timely intervention and support, you can enter a recovery phase where you work towards healing, establishing healthier coping mechanisms, and gradually regaining your energy and enthusiasm.
However, without proper intervention, you may experience complete burnout, requiring an extended period of time to recover and necessitating significant changes in your work or lifestyle to restore your well-being.
7 Steps To Avoid Burnout As A Freelancer
1. Make Time For Socializing
Freelancing can be lonely, and isolation comes with a lot more than just productivity issues. So, it’s very important to make an effort to try and make time for hanging out with others in order to avoid burnout as a freelancer. Spend some quality time with your friends and family.
If office interaction is what you’re craving, why not try out some coworking spaces near you? Places like these are always filled with like-minded freelancers who are often more than willing to share great ideas and brainstorm.
2. Take Regular Breaks
Freelancers tend to take less time off than employees. But you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time off, as you need it more than you realize. Yes, freelancing is supposed you give you more freedom. But sometimes you end up working more than you did in your previous job. Take a day or two off every week and focus on life outside of work.
Like I mentioned earlier with my own burnout experience, it’s also key to take some proper time off every few weeks or months. Taking a week off to do things other than work is a must every now and then, be it for a holiday or simply to recharge doing other tasks.
3. Learn To Say No
It’s essential to recognize your limits and avoid taking on more work than you can handle. Be selective about the projects you accept and ensure they align with your skills, interests, and available capacity. Saying no to overload is crucial for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
You’ll learn which tasks are right for you and which are not as you gain more experience, but in the beginning it can be difficult to say no. However, quality over quantity is the name of the game when it comes to freelancing.
4. Modify Your Lifestyle
Exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep are all very important aspects of a balanced life and they’re critical for staying healthy as a freelancer. It’s easy for us to forget to move around enough, have a snack-based diet, and work until the early hours. But that doesn’t give us the energy we need to work at the top of our game.
If you want to be in your best physical and mental shape, you need to take good care of yourself. This involves setting a regular bedtime (or at least semi-regular), planning and preparing the right meals, and taking some time to exercise every day.
But you don’t need to sign up for a gym membership if you don’t want to. Simply going for a quick walk outside, dancing to your favourite songs around the house, or doing some stretching is all it takes. Your body will thank you, and so will your mind!
5. Find A Support Group
There are lots of freelancing communities on sites like Facebook where you can find plenty of like-minded people to connect with. There, you can share all of your ideas, brainstorm, and ask for advice about any burnout issues you face. Lots of people are eager to help, and you won’t feel alone in your struggles. Plus, you can also find motivation in helping others with their problems too.
6. Stay Organized
Working as a freelancer can sometimes blur the lines between your personal and work life. You might feel like there’s no end to your daily tasks, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The best way to stay on top of things is to organize your workspace and your workflow.
First, organize your workspace. Decluttering your place of work is a great step towards productivity and de-stressing. Next, write everything down. At the end of each day or week, write down all of your ideas, goals, and tasks. With everything in front of you, instead of just bouncing around in your head, it’s easier to figure out how important everything really is and when you want to tackle each task.
Finally, plan everything ahead of time. Some people use daily or weekly planners, but there are also lots of apps and programs out there that you can use instead.
Having your most important tasks scheduled ahead of time forces you to stick to the time limits and reduces distractions, minimizing any room for procrastination. The level of rigidity of your schedule and how flexible you can be while still staying on track will vary, so don’t be afraid to tweak it when things aren’t quite working.
7. Seek Professional Help
If you can’t seem to overcome your freelancer burnout on your own, there’s no shame in asking for professional help. A dedicated therapist can help you figure out the roots of your issues and work through your burnout symptoms. There are also lots of apps and websites out there that you can use as well, and I’ve listed some good resources for dealing with freelance burnout at the end of this article.
How To Recover From Burnout As A Freelancer
Acknowledge That You’re Burning Out
To recover from freelancer burnout, you first need to recognize and acknowledge that you are experiencing burnout. Acceptance is the first step towards healing and making positive changes in your work and lifestyle.
Take A Break
Next, allow yourself a significant break from work to rest and recharge. Take time off, whether it’s a few days or weeks, to focus on self-care and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
Reach out to your support network, including friends, family, or fellow freelancers, to discuss your experiences and seek emotional support. Consider consulting with a mental health professional who can provide guidance and help you navigate through the recovery process if you’ve suffered from quite severe burnout.
Reflect & Reassess
Use the break to reflect on your current work situation and reassess your goals, values, and priorities. Identify the factors that contributed to your burnout and decide if you need to make changes in your work habits, client relationships, or the types of projects you undertake to prevent burnout in the future.
Gradually Ease Back Into Work
When you feel ready to resume work, do so gradually. Start with a reduced workload and gradually increase it as you regain your energy and motivation. Jumping back into things too quickly could lead to burnout once again.
Further Resources For Avoiding Freelancer Burnout
If you want to read more about burnout and strategies to manage it, here are some helpful resources:
- Burnout: How to avoid it and look after yourself (NHS)
- Job burnout: How to spot it and take action (Mayo Clinic)
- Mental Health Resources to help prevent creative and professional burnout (UC Berkeley Extension)
- The Anti-Burnout Club
Avoiding Burnout As A Freelancer
Freelancer burnout is a serious issue that you shouldn’t ignore. It’s important to listen to your body and monitor any feelings of exhaustion or lack of motivation, as well as physical symptoms. By understanding burnout, you can implement strategies to address it and even prevent it from happening in the first place.
For more tips and tricks to improve your freelancing career, check out our guide on freelancing mistakes to avoid.