For many people, the thought of branching out on their own and going freelance in their profession is the ultimate dream. Having the flexibility to work when we want and with who we want, whilst not being chained to the same office desk seems like the perfect, stress-free life. But in reality, is this always the case? Is being a freelancer completely liberating or is it a solitary existence marred by loneliness?
The current situation has forced office workers to work from home, with companies realising just how easily a workforce can adapt to working independently. Many office workers have quickly noticed there are both ups and downs to working at home, and these ups and downs are felt even more strongly by freelancers who don’t have a network of colleagues they can reach out to.
At Viking, we decided to find out what life is really like for freelancers – those who regularly worked from home before the pandemic. Last year, we surveyed 1,500 people, half of whom were office-based workers and the other half who were freelancers. We then analysed the results in the hope of highlighting the positives and negatives of being a freelancer as well as the effects it has on the work-life balance, health and much more.
The Shape of the Working Week
When we think about the makeup of the working week for office-based workers, that monotonous 9-5 slog in the drab surroundings of office furniture often springs to mind. According to government statistics, the average length of the working week in the UK for full-time workers is 37.3 hours. For the freelancers that we surveyed, their hours were considerably shorter.
59% of freelancers in our study said that they work less than 30 hours in a week, with only 20% of freelancers working above 36 hours and getting anywhere near the national average. For those doing 30 hours, it’s the equivalent of doing more than one full day less during the week.
As for office workers, the constrictive daily routine set by office-based work means that they’re more likely to do more hours. 59% of office workers do more than 36 hours in a week, with just over one-in-five (22%) doing less than 30 hours.
As freelancers are responsible for their own equipment, office supplies, billing and payment, you’d expect a significant number more to feel the strain when it comes to personal finances. Even day to day essentials, such as hand soap, toilet roll and pens, will naturally be used more and need replacing more often if somebody is working from home all day. However, our survey found that the gap isn’t actually that wide. 53% of freelancers said they worry about their finances daily, with office workers coming in lower at 44%. This could be down to several factors. For example, freelancers may spend time working through their filing trays and chasing up invoices to get paid, but they often earn more for their services than salary-based office workers.
The survey also found that office workers were more likely to suffer with their health. Nearly a quarter (22%) said they worry about poor health on a day-to-day basis, compared to just 12% of freelancers. This figure makes sense – office workers naturally see and interact with many more people than freelancers on a daily basis, making it easier for germs and illnesses to spread if a regular office cleaning schedule is not followed.
Effects on Mental Health
Taking care of our mental health is more in-focus now than ever. Mental health charity, Mind, estimates that one-in-four Brits experience a mental health problem each year. Much of this can be attributed to our lifestyles, lack of social support and the burnout suffered from being overworked. But how does this affect those freelancers who often work alone?
Over half (55%) of the freelancers we surveyed said they’ve suffered from depression as a result of their job, compared to 30% of office-based workers. You don’t have to look far to discover the possible reasons for this. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of freelancers say their job makes them feel lonely on daily basis and 62% say they feel stressed as a result of work. This is compared to office-based workers, who answered 29% and 55% respectively.
Jenny Stallard, lifestyle journalist and author and founder of Freelance Feels: Wellbeing for Humans who work for themselves, says of the research, “Beating loneliness is not an overnight ‘thing’, and especially not for freelancers, in my experience. There are steps we can all take – and that I’ve taken and take myself – to help us on the road to a less lonely freelance life.
Many freelancers I speak to, including those I’ve interviewed for my podcast, Freelance Feels, say that connecting via the phone is essential. Call a friend who is also freelance (call, don’t message!) and try to meet up with other freelancers you know to share ideas and how you’re feeling. Finding Facebook groups that can be supportive is helpful, too. I recommend a group called Freelance Heroes, which I find a huge source of freelance support.”
Further to this, 54% of freelancers say their productivity suffers due to their choice of work. On the other hand, office-based workers seem to find productivity less of an issue, with just a third (33%) struggling to maintain momentum throughout the day.
Jenny added, “Keeping productivity high can be a huge challenge when you are also battling feelings of isolation and loneliness as a freelancer. In my experience, it can actually be stepping away from the desk that can help, rather than trying to be more productive.
I believe exercise or movement are key (and I know many other freelancers agree). Even just a walk around the block can clear the mind. Ideally without your phone if you can bear it.”
It’s not just at work where freelancers are struggling. Six-out-of-ten (60%) say that their quality of sleep is directly affected by work, with only four-out-of-ten (40%) of office workers saying the same, showing that it really is tougher for self-employed people to switch off after hours.
Switching Off for a Holiday
Taking a holiday is an important escape from the daily grind, giving us a chance to switch off and forget the stresses and strains of home life. It’s an opportunity to kick our feet up, soak in some sunshine, or head on an adventure that’s far removed from the monotony of everyday life. Whilst those in full-time employment will receive a paid holiday allowance, freelancers must accept that a holiday often means a week or two without pay and the potential for clients going elsewhere.
Over half (54%) of freelancers admit to reading work emails whilst on holiday, with 48% saying they reply to those emails. These stats are considerably lower for office-based workers, of whom 36% read emails and only 30% reply to them. Similarly, 29% of freelancers do work whilst away, compared to 17% of office workers.
A holiday is supposed to be a time when you completely switch off from working life and recharge your batteries. This is important in order to keep your body and mind healthy. The extra stress, anxiety and sleep problems experienced by freelancers could well be affected by the fact that only 15% of freelancers say that they avoid work altogether whilst away on holiday. Just 42% of office-based workers say the same. Both figures suggest large numbers of people don’t completely switch off from work when they go on holiday, but the figures for freelancers are particularly troubling.
Jenny Stallard offered some advice on this, “For me, there’s a halfway house. I’ve found in the past that switching off completely is hard and can lead to higher levels of anxiety as I then return to an inbox and wonder what ‘surprises’ it might contain.
It is important to try and remove yourself from work to reset and regroup, and I find when I do it that new ideas or solutions can come to me. Much like when I do exercise. Switching off can sometimes happen when we’re not trying to do it. I would also advocate turning off alerts – and for social media. Then you’re in charge of when you check the emails, rather than them interrupting your precious holiday time.
Finally, the wording of your out of office is key, too. Try to say something you can stick to. For example, don’t say ‘I’m not checking emails’ if you are – perhaps try ‘I won’t be responding to emails.”
Balancing the Pros and Cons
To get a true comparison of freelance working against office-based work, we also asked our respondents to rate the best and worst aspects about their role. Respondents ranked the best aspects of their type of work and we worked out the average position for each. The top five for each were as follows:
|1. Flexible working hours
|1. Job security
|2. Working from home/No commute
|2. Socialising with colleagues
|3. Being your own boss
|3. Ability to switch off before and after work
|4. Easier to organise childcare
|4. Holiday allowance
|5. Freedom to choose projects and clients
|5. Support with mental health issues
|1. Feeling lonely at work
|1. Working office hours
|2. Struggling to switch off from work
|2. Commuting to work
|3. Working too many hours
|3. Arranging childcare
|4. Finding consistent work
|4. Booking appointments
|5. Lack of support for mental health issues
|5. Having to work with difficult customers or clients
The table above clearly shows the big differences between the perks of working freelance and working in an office, and the striking comparison between the common gripes and positives of each type of work.
Freelancers named working flexible hours as the best thing about their role, whilst office-workers said that working office hours was the worst about theirs. Our ‘Perfect Working Week’ survey found that the modern worker needs flexibility in their working day in order to be happy and productive. For freelancers, this is easily achievable as they own their own time, however, more businesses need to consider flexible hours for their office-based workers.
This links nicely to the second-worst aspect of being office based and the second-best thing about being a commuter – the commute. Facilitating flexible hours or remote working means that employees don’t have to battle through traffic to make that trip into the office five times a week.
The number one worst aspect of being a freelancer was loneliness. Working in a somewhat isolated environment can have many other effects, namely the lack of support when it comes to mental health issues (which was named the 5th worst aspect). As we saw earlier, freelancers are more likely to feel anxious and depressed, as well as suffering with difficulties sleeping. Look at some of the top aspects of being office-based including socialising with colleagues (2nd), the ability to switch off before and after work (3rd) and support with mental health issues (5th), and you’ll see that having a support network on hand can make a big difference to how we cope with the stresses of work life.
Interestingly, working too many hours was chosen as the third worst aspect of being a freelancer, despite our survey showing that freelancers work less hours on a weekly basis, this could be counteracted by the lack of holiday allowance (the fourth best thing about being office-based) and the face that 85% don’t switch off from work for a holiday.
Fighting Freelancer Loneliness
When it comes to fighting freelancer loneliness, Jenny Stallard offered the following advice, “Isolation and loneliness as a freelancer often seem to go hand in hand but taking small steps and recognising the signs is a good place to start. You don’t have to become a receipt-inputting marathon-running ninja overnight. But if you are feeling stressed by the isolation, a group class or some fresh air might be just what you need to reset. Communicating with other freelancers, either via Facebook groups, the phone, or at events, is something that can really boost your mental health. Knowing others are in the same boat can be a reminder that you do actually like the boat if it’s sailing on calmer waters.
“I would urge any freelancers to try not to put on a brave face with friends and family. It’s ok to say if you’re not coping, and if you are really struggling, there are charities such as Samaritans that can help. I have found that being more honest about my freelance feels has been empowering. Those in full time office roles can see freelancing as a holy grail, a wonderful way of life that we feel we need to live up to. It’s ok when we don’t – and we are entitled to say we’re not feeling ok.”
Our freelancer loneliness survey has highlighted that there are definite pros and cons of a life working for yourself. Whilst there is flexibility around working hours and freedoms from choosing that type of work, there are clearly certain aspects that can be difficult for a freelancer. The loneliness and solitary nature of freelancing can lead to mental health struggles. If you do work as a freelancer, it’s important to talk to someone if the stresses and strains of the job become difficult.