In 2014, I was an underpaid social media account manager for a company that built corporate websites. I juggled more than 100 Facebook accounts for businesses at a dismal hourly rate, which often included implementing new “strategies” passed down from managers with no social media experience.
The stress was high, the pay was low, and my mental health was suffering. So after freelancing on the side for about four years, I finally decided to go full time. I put in my two weeks. My coworkers were impressed and jealous, but I was terrified.
The jump was stressful, but I had support, and the transition went smoother than I’d expected. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that, five years later, I’d still be struggling with the isolation. I had to learn how the ups and downs of a fully digital lifestyle could impact my identity.
Room for negative thoughts
First of all, you should know that my husband also works from home. So I can’t say I work in a cave devoid of human contact. It’s a different kind of isolation, one in which I’m separated from others who “get” what I do, who can commiserate, collaborate, or just hash out the day with me. That leaves a lot of space for some very negative thinking.
Every year when the slow season hits in November, I get stressed. As work begins to dry up, that little voice in the back of my head gets louder. Is this a seasonal slump or have I finally been found out? Are people out of office and on holiday or did someone uncover the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing? It’s the kind of question many of us ask ourselves when we have a little bit of downtime. But it’s a lot louder in the echo chamber of a home office.
I’m not alone. Carrie Hill, co-founder of Ignitor Digital, brought up a similar point in a recent Twitter chat:
This is more than anecdotal. A 2007 German study found that the unbalanced effort-reward model (meaning, working harder for less pay, less recognition, and fewer chances of promotion) inherent to the freelance lifestyle had adverse effects on how freelancers perceived their health.
“Isolation is directly correlated with depression,” said William Schroeder, a counselor and co-director of Just Mind, a mental health practice in Austin, Texas. “A recent blog post on Search Engine Roundtable focused on this point because it’s incredibly common. Research has proven this connection and it’s an important thing for freelancers to be aware of.”
How to cope with isolation
How we deal with isolation comes down to the individual.
“As a therapist, one of the things I assess for with depression is the legs of support for each individual,” Schroeder said. “The more legs you have, the more it helps to stabilize you. The more meaningful the supports are, the better they tend to be.”
Schroeder encourages freelancers to stay connected to others out in the world. “Go to lunch with friends and make a plan of it,” he said. “Set a running schedule with a buddy. Think of what structure helps you thrive and work towards it. If you don’t know, you might want to see a counselor to get some guidance to build a better plan.”
For me, it’s all about finding people who understand some aspect of my work and lifestyle. I’ve joined several Facebook communities, including a small group of women business owners with children, because no one understands all the facets of how I work. Those who get the motherhood struggles don’t always understand my work and vice versa.
In a recent chat, J.P. Sherman, manager of search & findability at software company Red Hat, had the following advice for freelancers:
Mental health is a complex topic, one that a blog post can, at best, only begin to unpack. But before we can create resources for ourselves and fellow freelancers, we must begin normalizing conversations about mental health and mental illness among our community. We need to create more connections. We need to take care of each other. And we need to stop expecting others to reach out when they feel depressed or suicidal.
Instead, take the time to check in on the acquaintance who stopped posting silly photos on Instagram, ask that former colleague to grab a cup of coffee, or reach out to the friend who skipped their favorite conference. You might be a sorely needed lifeline or just a reminder that a caring community exists, full of fellow freelancers who get it.
Image by Issam Hammoudi for Unsplash