Health and wellbeing for freelancers

When you're employed, you can take a sick day to see a doctor. Trips out to see a dentist or physiotherapist are also common, and might even be available under an employer-sponsored healthcare plan. Holidays are readily available with time off for family events and religious celebrations, too. However, when you're a freelancer, you don't have that luxury, so taking care of yourself becomes a priority.

Fortitude © Sky UK Ltd

In the UK you have access to free healthcare from the NHS, but dentistry, optometry and other specialist services can cost. If you're coping with condition that needs regular treatment or prescriptions then you need to factor this into your personal budget.

If you're working in the EU as a UK citizen, you're covered by the European Health Insurance (EHIC) scheme and if you're travelling and working, it's advisable that you check in with a local Citizens Advice Bureau or local embassy.

When you're sick you may find it difficult to take time out to see a doctor. It can feel as though every day that you're not working, you're losing money and it's all too easy to cancel a dentist check-up to go see an interesting new client. However, your health should always take priority where possible, and as you progress in your freelance career you’ll gradually feel less terrified about lost work. Not only will your clients understand, but there are always more clients out there.

Protecting your mental wellbeing as a freelancer

Working for yourself can be a solitary experience. Many new freelancers lose track of time, or even days while working hard on a project. Any anti-social tendencies are amplified, with no reason to go outside or speak to anyone. This is a quick route to damaging your mental health. While everyone is different, ground rules that keep you focused and maintain your work-life balance are important:

  • set a work schedule. You can always adjust the times later to suit your own habits if you like to work earlier in the mornings or later at night
  • turn off email alerts when you're not "at work". You can afford to let that midnight email sit until you're back at your keyboard, ready to look at it and deal with the contents
  • manage your time between clients, friends and family. All three need attention, and while you don't have to split your time into thirds, you do need to allocate energy to all of them
  • if possible, separate your workspace and living space. This will trick your brain into focusing on what your location will dictate. No emails on the sofa and no Facebook at your desk
  • find what works for you. Every brain is different. If you find yourself feeling burned out, sick, bored or tired, it may be that you need to make some changes to your schedule

Building a support network as a freelancer

Freelancers don’t have anyone else to back them up on a big job, so consider building a support network. A group of like-minded self-employed creatives is stronger and more influential than any one person.

The benefit of being able to pass jobs between your network is invaluable. If you can’t take on a job, sending it on to another creative who can later pay back the favour is a great way to stay busy. Plus there’s always the option to collaborate, either on paid contracts or just portfolio pieces. Freelancers with different skill sets and specialisations can be a great asset to your clients and your work.

Plus there are the emotional benefits of having a support network. Freelancers can often work unsociable hours and weekends, so to have friends that understand that you can’t be out on a Friday night, but are happy to go the to cinema on a Wednesday morning can do wonders for your emotional state and stress levels. 

One part of the day job you may miss is feedback and training. When you’re working solo you’ll need to focus on your own skills development. Finding a community either locally or online can promote some competition and push you to make stuff work sharing. This can also apply to business skills; you may find that your peers are willing to share their methods for speeding up invoice payments, or have recommendations for accountants and lawyers if and when you need them.

Knowing when to say 'no' as a freelancer

Saying no to a job is one of the most difficult things to do when starting out as a freelancer. Some young workers can go years before turning down a project, scared that the client won’t come back, or that you’ll be blacklisted. There are a couple of ground rules that many freelancers follow for when you should not take a job:

  • When the pay rate is not enough. Working for free as a favour can be okay, for example, a family member, local charity or piece for your portfolio, but being paid less than your rate puts everyone in a difficult position
  • When you don’t agree with the client’s ethics or morals. Your personal beliefs should inform who you work for. Some freelancers won’t work with certain press organisations or charities, or will even steer clear of political involvement entirely. Where this line falls is up to you
  • When the work breaks the law. Working on projects designed to exploit consumers, defraud investors or other criminal activities is not worth the pay cheque
  • When you don’t get along with the client. Maybe they like to swear a lot in their email correspondence. Maybe they will only meet in person when you want to work remotely. Any number of factors can come into play, but if you can’t gel, it’s going to be difficult to produce great work together
  • When you have a bad feeling about the job. Maybe you can’t find the client’s website or their phone always goes to voicemail. If there’s something that feels off, you’re usually right
  • The client hasn’t paid their last invoice. If you’re still waiting for a payment, you could be waiting a long time. Don’t start another job for someone who hasn’t paid you for the last job
  • When the client has unrealistic expectations or doesn’t have much perspective on what you do. It’s your job to explain to the client how much time and budget you’ll need for a project and make sure that no one's under the illusion that you’ll be faster or cheaper than you’ve set out in your original proposal
  • You’ve been promised a deferred payment or cut of the profits. If your client is banking on their next deal to pay your invoice, they might not be worth the risk. Make sure you have a strong contract in place if necessary
  • When you don't have the time. Don't overload yourself with work and end up not being able to pay enough attention to all of your clients and projects. A simple "I'm fully booked at the moment" can go a long way

Dealing with harassment and safety as a freelancer

When you work for yourself there's no process in place to make complaints. If you’re not comfortable with something happening in your industry, from harassment to criminal activity, you’ll need to have a plan in place to resolve this yourself. A set of guidance and principals for tackling bullying and harassment in the screen industries were published by the BFI in early 2018 and ACAS provides a more general guide for dealing with bullying and harassment as an employee.

Unions are also a potential way to have someone on your side and a reliable client contact will help a lot: if you’re working as part of a team or crew, find out who’s responsible for your safety and make sure you can get hold of them easily. 

If you feel that you are in trouble and aren't sure what your options are, the Film & TV Charity offers free confidential support on everything from harassment, depression and anxiety, debt and money advice and legal issues via their Support Line at 0800 054 00 00, or through online chat.


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