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Freelancing is still on the rise, but the golden life of self-employment is a lie

By Chantal Brocca

There are few things more enticing than the prospect of escaping the soul-crushing routine of the nine to fiver. In the recent decade, freelancing has risen up as the ultimate solution for the dissatisfied individual, offering the freedom of flexible self-employment, an improved lifestyle and other glittering promises of work-related happiness at our exhausted, overworked faces, prompting many of us (me included) to quit our jobs and begin the hustle toward self-fulfilment.

Today, more than a third of U.S. workers are in the gig economy, and it’s hard not to see why. In 2019, we are constantly confronted with the modern ideals of success: independence, self-actualisation and purpose. The logic is infallible—almost. Why gift a lifetime of hard work, your soul and your precious ideas to ‘the Man’, when you can keep the fruits of all that you can offer to yourself? Why commit to a rigid working structure and vacations on a tight leash? Why never have the time to pursue personal passions or allow yourself to be the leader that you can be, all the while running the risk of getting sacked when the time comes to downsize? If you’re a creative, all the better, because freelancing is presented to you as the means to the glorious end of living for your art.

We’re fed the myth that the way to happiness is paved by self-starters, championing the self-employed high risk, high gain lifestyle as the next step on the ladder to self-actualisation. The internet and social media are littered with articles, how to’s and interviews of successful freelancers who declare that they’d never go back to employment, painting work-as-wanderlust pictures of working from their laptops from exotic beaches, cocktail in one hand, with only the mildest sensation of being swamped from constant proposals of work from clients that they adore, for projects that they love.

But the day-to-day reality for the freelancing individual couldn’t be further from the painted truth. Studies show that freelancing translates into less freedom instead of more. The line that separates work and life becomes blurred until it disappears and you end up switched on 24/7, mulling over concepts, looking over accounts, pitching to new clients, and networking, networking, networking.

A 2019 survey found that, in the U.S., 92 percent of freelancers work on vacation. The flexibility promised by the freelance economy becomes another rerun of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for saga: flexibility, yes, but only to increase your working hours from 9 to a hearty 16. The truth is not that freelancers become hardcore workaholics—it’s that they absolutely cannot switch off, or risk missing out on contracts that pay the bills and the many significant overheads that come with being self-employed. The perceivably appealing position of wearing all the hats in your business quickly turns into an unsustainable situation, translating in the long term into perpetual over-exhaustion.

As a freelancer, companies can choose to pick you up and drop you without so much as an email, shrinking and expanding as required by the amount of work they find themselves with. The reality is that, like everything in capitalist structures, the freelancer has turned into prey to market forces, becoming entirely dispensable in the face of a seemingly infinite supply of freelancers reachable from all corners of the globe.

Even gig economy platforms, such as Fiverr, Upwork, Toptal and, to name a handful, created specifically to support freelancers and increase client bookings, have become mere bidding sites—war zones that directly pitch freelancers against each other in order to bring down the price for highly specialised skills to next to nothing. That is, of course, if you get paid at all. Stories of hard work handed over freely in exchange for the promise of ‘exposure’ abound, because it is now a normalised trade-off that hardly raises eyebrows anymore. We all know that all work deserves pay, but,  somehow, we are not in a position to demand it.

The solution to escaping the bottom rung, it seems, is to network till you land higher paying contracts, but if the disproportionately high importance placed on networking indicates one thing, it’s that without connections and nepotism, working inexplicably hard and honing your talents will get you nowhere.

Those who justify away the issues with the gig economy with grandiose statements of being ‘blessed’ and ‘humbled’ to be able to work for their art have another thing or two to contend with. The only way to even scrape by with the bare necessities of a relatively normal lifestyle in an industry that has reduced the value of labour hours to new lows is to produce in bulk; that is, shoot out lots of content for clients in very little time, placing productivity above all else. But such an emphasis on speed does very little for your art, as much as what churning out sub-par content to meet constant deadlines does to your self-esteem and standards.

When we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, what we see is an alarming restructuring of the job market leaning heavily towards big, traditional employers. The truth is, in no time in history has being an employer been so cost-effective and free of responsibility. In no time in history has highly specialised, high-quality work been sold for so little, and never have individuals been so satisfied with being swindled, raising the question of whether in trying to ‘stick it to the Man’ we have perhaps inadvertently stuck it to ourselves.

How can we tackle anxiety as we become a society of freelancers?

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.