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 a