Why Freelancers Are So Depressed

It's not just February. The work-home blur, social isolation, money woes, and heightened personal risk all mean being a freelancer can be dangerous for your mental health.

When Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz created a health plan for independent workers, a top concern of her members was access to mental health care. "You work with coal miners and you learn everything there is about black lung," Horowitz told the Village Voice last week. "You work with freelancers and you learn about depression."

Is it true that those of us who make our own hours (I’m one of them these days) are more prone to the blues? It’s a depressing thought.
Job satisfaction or dissatisfaction has been shown for decades to have a strong impact on mental and physical health. National polls on the topic show the self-employed are least likely to report themselves as "thriving," at 14 percent--compared to 22 percent for the unemployed!
Here are five ways working alone can contribute to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

1. Who’s the boss?
Psychologists identify two major dimensions of job stress: the sheer demands of the job and autonomy or control. A job that has high demands and long hours--say, CEO--can still be very satisfying because of the ability to make decisions and control one’s time.

Autonomy is a major draw of freelancing: the ability to make your own hours, make your own decisions, and balance work with family. Yet according to several studies, “Overall, self-employment was found to be associated with relatively few mental health benefits,” as a 2004 Australian study put it.
Men in the study had no health benefit, while self-employed women actually had worse health than women with more traditional jobs. A second, American focusing on women from 2002 found that whether you were self-employed or not had no direct influence on mental health, and self-employment didn’t even benefit work-family balance for most women.

How can this be? Well, maybe autonomy is less important than other factors that negatively affect freelancers. Or it could be the definition of autonomy is slippery. A lot of people choose self-employment only to find themselves at the mercy of clients and customers rather than bosses, with overlapping rather than coordinated deadlines and a feast-or-famine rhythm.

2. The work/home blur.
In one study of Dutch self-employed workers, the sheer number of hours worked didn’t cause negative effects. But another dimension of what the researchers termed “workaholism” was the inability to separate work and home. People who couldn’t stop thinking about work or checking their email at the dinner table reported more aches and pains, more exhaustion, and felt that they were doing a worse job. When you work from home, obviously, it’s especially difficult to leave your work at work.

3. Money problems.
Most contract, freelance, and other nontraditional employees earn less than other workers at the same level of education and skill, even when hours worked is taken into account. Only a small percentage are able to out-earn their friends with "regular" jobs. Polls show a strong negative relationship between lower and fluctuating income and mental health even when other factors are controlled for.

4. Social isolation.
A lack of strong relationships is an acute risk factor for major depression and addiction. At a minimum, going into an office every day requires you to shower, get dressed, and at least nod to a couple of people. Freelancers are in danger of having less sustaining human contact.

5. Higher risk.
How scared are you of losing your job or not being able to pay rent next month? In 2010, researchers in Barcelona, Spain, introduced the Employment Precariousness Scale to measure the psychological impact of job uncertainty.

Job insecurity haunts salaried workers too, of course, but freelancers face larger fluctuations in their income and levels of busy- or not-busyness over the day, the week, and the year. And by definition they have less access to the health, retirement, and insurance benefits that may help traditionally employed folks sleep a little better at night.

Are you a freelancer? Do you find it motivating or depressing? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Jrmllvr]

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39 Comments

  • amber

    "as a 2004 Australian study..." seriously? that was nearly 10 years ago, and the world is a very very different place. Surely we should reference more recent studies if we are going to make such assumptions... a little lazy? I think so

  • jdc

    I'm one of the hundreds or may be thousands free lancers, I feel good when the job was deliver on time, which is always, and some expect alterations here and there,which is part of the job but when there are no calls for a job,I feel depress and worried, especially when you think of the bills to pay, I quest freelancing is not for the weak heart.

  • Mike

    I've freelanced for 17 years now. While I can agree with a lot of the comments in the article, I also know that, given the choice of pulling an all-nighter for an employer or pulling an all-nighter, meeting the deadline and then walking off to the bedroom -- I sooner choose the latter! And there's no job security in the industry anymore either. I'd sooner be responsible for my own future.

  • Hrobert43

    The one legged aid in The Sopranos says to Tony, after sex, "why you Americans think you (sic) entitled to be happy?  Because it's an inalienable right of ours.  Just a random benefit of not having been born in Chad which, Hevan forbid, may happen in the next 'go round. 

  • Kristen Fischer

    I think life can be depressing, and yes, freelancers can be subject to that. The key is to position yourself so you enjoy your work--most of it at least. Freelancing isn't a free pass to happiness; find what makes you happy and then learn to be grateful for it. If you're that depressed, freelancing probably isn't right for you.
    GREAT article!!!
    -Kristen Fischer
    Author of When Talent Isn't Enough: Business Basics for the Creatively Inclined

  • Kevin Barber

    OH THANK GOD!!!  ...I thought all along it was ME! LOL!!!!  ...good to know what I am experiencing above is THE NORM.  :)   +10 years and counting.  :P

  • Michael Kincade

    As a freelancer, I agree with your thoughts in this blog.  As a problem solver, I am here to suggest some help.  I will respond to the 5 areas delineated in your excellent piece.  1.  Look in the mirror each day every 30 minutes and repeat to yourself 10 times: "Who is the boss?"  "I am the boss."  2.  I do not view this problem as unique to "Freelancers".  From the corner panhandler to the six year old at McD's, they all check their email messages at dinner.  3.  I see an offset to my higher earning friends: I save on gas money, lunch money, personal grooming and clothing. (Boxers or P.J.'s are much cheaper than suits). 4.To combat said isolation, simply repeat step number one, but instead of "I am the boss", give your reflection a name, and commence "water cooler" talk or an office romance.  And, 5. As the great FDR so eloquently stated, "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself."  Or as Ferris Bueller less eloquently stated: "Sometimes you just have to say: "What the ............"

  • None

    If you want to be a successful freelancer you'll need two things:
    1. comfortable pajamas you can wear for weeks without washing
    2. Several cats to keep you company during your long periods of isolation

  • Sandways

    I've been freelancing for 19 years and I still love it. It's definitely not for everyone but I have never felt lonely or depressed and I have lived alone most of those years. With a flexible schedule I have found opportunities to volunteer during the day. Once a month I work at a Food Pantry. I go to networking meetings, Meetup groups, meet friends for dinner, exercise etc. when I'm not working.

    I love being my own boss, setting my own hours, and working with my dogs hanging out nearby. I don't miss wasting hours of my life in traffic trying to get to and from work, dealing with office politics, asking for a raise, etc. There is no more security in being employed full time this days than there is in freelancing.

    I would say that the hardest part about freelancing is the "feast or famine" aspect. I have definitely had my "freak out" moments when work was slow and I wasn't sure how I was going to make it. I have learned not to put all my eggs in one basket. If you have one big client paying most of your income you are going to be in trouble if they go away. 

    Nothing makes me happier than working on cool projects in my own home with the dogs sleeping nearby and heading out to the mailbox to get a check!

  • Mateus

    Absolutely spot on article, I freelanced for 5 years and whilst I had some great moments in the long run I earnt 'far less' than I would have done in a Full Time job, he must be pretty bad I hear you say, the thing is I'm at the top of my profession and worked for many global agencies but still found it tough chasing my money to pay the bills. IMAGINE THAT - having to constantly ask, mither and even threathen people to get your monthly pay. 1 Client owed me over £4k, it nearly ruined me! I feel the isolation and the lack of Brainstorming also contributed but I clinged on far too long hoping things would improve. Now I'm working full time and can concentrate on my job - being Creative!

  • Sara Beth Allen

    Volunteering really helps people who work from home. I volunteer one shift at our local soup kitchen and it helps to see people on what would be a very quiet Monday night. The volunteers go to a bar after. It makes me feel proud that I can go out on a Monday night.  Just because you work from home doesn't mean you should be shut off from people. All freelancers should pick some social activities you can't do with a traditional 9 to 5. After all, you became a freelancer to be in control of your own schedule. The volunteering really helps if you looked into freelancing after a bad office experience. You'll get the positive re-enforcement that may have been missing at your old job. 

  • lindas

    I've been freelancing for 5 years and this passed summer I joined a co-working space. I would say this has been beneficial for some of the problems described above - specifically the human contact element and something that is not mentioned in the article, but is mentioned below a bit - is inspiration. I'm much more excited about my work because other people around me are excited about it. Going for a walk is nice, but joining a coworking space is even nicer. BTW I have an office with a door at the co-working space I joined which may be necessary for some people.

  • Vic

    A freelancer for 24 years, and can't imagine being in an office 9-5. But can see that lack of paid vacations, or even ability to have a vacation of more than a few days, might contribute to the depression cited.

  • Plungeandflash

    I'm an accidental freelancer (have been for 4 years) since my industry
    has tanked and I cannot find a regular full time job in my area (and I will not consider leaving for a bigger market). Now that I have hit my stride, I can't imagine going back
    to a regular office job, mainly because it feels so insecure. When one
    client does not have work for me, the others do. The thought of ever putting all of my eggs in one basket again depresses me more than having to chase down new clients. I miss coworkers, but I don't miss anything else.

  • AgentIvy

    Freelancing can be a lonely experience.  It can also be frustrating, as the division of time between the personal and the professional is not as clear-cut.  On the other hand, at least in my experience as a freelancer, the present-day epidemic fear of losing one's job is blissfully avoided.

    In my industry (advertising), there's no such thing as security.  Companies no longer nurture their staff, much less provide regular evaluations for the employee to comprehend their perceived performance.  Anyone can lose their job at any moment, and rarely is there a significant severance - two weeks' worth is a blessing (better yet, make that 10 days).  Even more rare is a rationale for the termination.  Employees regularly suffer paranoia, anger, depression, and/or malaise as a result.  There are lay-offs daily.  Chances are, terminated mid- and senior-level employees will then be replaced with considerably less experienced, lower salaried employees.  If this is happening industry-wide (which it is), candidates are faced with ineptitude as they search for their next job - website applications, poor response and impersonal interviews.  There are  very few offers, as companies fear "insulting" the seasoned candidate with less appealing compensation packages.  $100k jobs are now $60k jobs, and the interviewer is a recent college grad who has yet to hone his/her communication skills.  The industry vet is screwed.  I hear it everyday and have experienced it myself.Freelancing shelters talent from this maddening downward spiral.  Without the emotional attachment to the system, feelings are much less likely to get in the way.  Politics are no longer a concern.  When your job ends, your job ends.  You look for the next one.  You decide your rate.  You set your schedule.  And when you've earned enough to take a few days vacation, you don't have to ask permission.  It's your life.

    So, yeah, freelancing has its crap days.  In all likelihood, however, there are less of them than full-time employment.  Prepare a reasonable budget.  Schedule your day for efficiency.  Get dressed, comb your hair, take fresh-air breaks and keep the social media to a bare minimum.  Set after-work dates with friends and get to the gym a couple of times a week.  Once you've caught a rhythm, freelancing can work out quite nicely.

  • Zorglub

    I've been a freelancer for 9 years now, and cannot agree more with this article. You need not to compare to worse situations (pirates off the horn of Africa, soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, although meaningful, this is another debate.
    Why I'm having serious troubles going on, has to do with three main points. The first one is consideration. When I started, we were not considered differently than our "on payroll" colleagues, in terms of respect. This has changed to a large extent in the past 5 years. Freelancers have become more than ever a simple commodity, there is nothing human in this business anymore.
    The second point would be about career evolution. There is almost none. Of course, the projects I work on get bigger and more complex, but it's the old project routine anyway, with the same issues, the same answers...and the administrative part has grown exponential with no added value to the project itself, nor to the company.
    The third point would join the feast or famine rhythm, with which you get exhausted at some time. I've been very lucky, with very few inter-contract periods during the past 9 years and they've lasted an average of 2 months. Still, I've had enough of it.
    So now I wish to go back to a "payroll" job, where my skills will be more valued (not speaking financially), where I will have stronger and better human interactions, and where I can make a career.

  • Diane Faye Zerr

    Well I wasn't depressed at all until I read that dismal article… 

    Yes, it's a tough career choice but just like any job there are pros and cons with it. No commute, no day care needed for my son, I'm home with my family at reasonable hours, etc. Many benefits need to be weighed, but as in everything, it's a personal choice of what you can deal with on a day-to-day basis.
    The home/work blur can be solved, set LIMITS. No you probably can't eliminate all work from your home life and vice-versa, but you can teach yourself to respect your home life and spend time with the ones that matter most.

  • pulrich

    I've been "freelancing" for about nine months but found I'd rather work on my own projects than find paying clients. Of course, this doesn't make any money so I'm going back to work full-time so I can work on my own projects and while making ends meet. I am depressed about it, however, because I do like working from home, for myself. I'm a great boss.