In my former career as a catering manager, I hated taking mental health days. I always felt like I was letting my team down and making life harder for them. My inability to take a day off culminated in a severe case of burnout, a depression diagnosis, six months of sick leave and finally a resignation letter with my name on it.
Since then I’ve moved onto new and greener pastures. I’ve been fully self-employed since 2017, and as the sole employee of my business there is no one around to disappoint, but with that freedom comes a distinct lack of support when I’m mentally ill.
Sickness absence rates are lower for self-employed people (1.4% versus 2.1% for company employees) which isn’t surprising considering three-quarters of business owners have no other employees or arranged cover to assist in the event of illness. But this doesn’t mean that sickness won’t come.
With Mental Health Awareness Week kicking off today, here’s some advice on how to prepare for mental health day as a freelancer.
Prevention is better than a cure, right?
Figure out what soothes you. It could be a morning walk, a lunchtime jog around the park or a weekly co-working session with local freelancers. Making time for these moments of joy encourage regular breaks and give you a sense of perspective. Put these plans on your to-do list to make sure they happen.
Know your triggers
Keep a close eye on your alcohol consumption, reliance on caffeine, sleep quality and exercise habits. Watch out for any red flags and learn to become reactive. Get more sleep if you need to and adjust unhealthy behaviours (is that third energy drink really a good idea?) and you’ll pre-empt sick days before they’re even needed.
Don’t over-schedule yourself
Our emotions are unpredictable, so you can’t expect to maintain the same level of productivity day in, day out. A good rule of thumb when planning is: figure out how long each task would take you on a good day. Then allow double the amount of time to complete the task. This means that if you’re having a bad day it won’t have a knock-on effect to other projects you’re working on. If you think you won’t meet a deadline, let the client know sooner rather than later. On days where you can’t get your brain into gear, try doing some admin work that requires less concentration.
Take regular holidays
It’s a harsh reality that most freelancers can’t afford to take a break, but I can say from personal experience that just a few days off can lead to increased productivity, creativity and improved well-being. Even a working holiday can boost your mood. Setting up automations (Facebook messages, emails, chatbots, invoicing) can also minimise the stress of taking time off.
Maximise the good days
It’s important to remember that your performance changes when you’re not feeling well. This means learning to slow down and prioritise when you’re mentally drained, but I think there’s also an argument for making hay whilst the sun shines. Freelance projects are like busses, right? If you’re feeling motivated I say lean into that good energy and work a little more than you usually would, then save the extra income for a rainy day.
Saving for a mental health day is probably the easiest (and yet somehow the most difficult) way to feel better about the whole situation. If you have a day rate then that’s a straight-forward way to figure out how much you should set aside for mental health days. Depending on your history of mental illness, seven days worth of sick leave is a reasonable amount to have in the bank for emergencies.
Consider income protection insurance
This is a long-term insurance policy designed to help you pay your bills if you’re unable to work due to illness or injury. It covers most illnesses but there is a waiting period before the payments start, so it’s still worth having an emergency stash to cover you in the early days.
Have a mental health day action plan
On top of your savings to cover loss of income, you should create a set of documents that will help you logistically manage the day. This should contain the contact details of all your clients, a template email and a list of freelancers who you can potentially outsource work to, along with their estimated rates. Make an easy to follow checklist for the day and remember to set an automated reply on your emails so that people know you’re not working.
Try to ignore the feelings of guilt that come with taking a mental health day. Undeserved guilt can actually be a symptom of mental illness, proof that time off to rest and recover is vital.
For mental health advice call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or email email@example.com.
For emotional support call The Samaritans, available 24 hours a day, on 116 123