Mental Health and the Gig Economy
As we move towards a future where more of us are working freelance, one writer looks at the pros and cons of the gig economy for those with mental health conditions
Before I get started, it’s important that I get this out of the way: I’ve had a mental illness for as long as I can remember. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression – you name it, I have it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that one of the worst things about all of this is that these are not things I can easily recover from. Mental illness can be chronic, and it’s unlikely I’m ever going to have a consistently 'normal' relationship with myself, my body or the world around me.
Mental health awareness in society is definitely increasing, generally for the better, but there’s still a long way to go. As the conversation has focused on reducing prejudice, more often than not people have a sanitised impression of what living with a mental illness is like – and often they can’t support anything that goes beyond that. It’s all 'break the stigma' when you say you’ve been down for a few days but when you explain that you’re struggling to tell whether anything around you is real (what my counsellor would call 'derealisation') you lose your audience pretty quickly. For many people – even those in treatment – it’s not a week or two of feeling under the weather. Rather, it’s sustained difficulty in your day-to-day life, alongside the kinds of thoughts or reactions that many people would find hard to empathise with, or even understand.
The fact that I’m in this for the long-haul means that I have to think practically, by which I mean I have to think about how I’m going to make a living even when life doesn’t feel worth living. Working when you’re mentally ill – which, realistically, we’re going to have to do until we reach the post-work utopia – is extra hard. The difficulties aren’t even just psychological: there are days when the physical symptoms of mental illness (ranging from exhaustion to panic attacks to insomnia) get the better of you. Because of this, and because morning commutes and unsympathetic colleagues aren’t exactly great when you’re going through a mental health crisis, freelancing can be invaluable for the mentally ill.
Freelancing and Mental Health
Yet don’t fall into the trap of believing freelancing is somehow easier than working an office job – far from it. However, as a freelancer you enjoy considerably more room to manage your mental health. Not only are you able to control your workload and environment, you’re also able to fit in the doctors’ appointments and counselling sessions which can be hard to reconcile with a nine to five. Freelancing can also be a considerable boost if you’re struggling with the self-esteem issues or feelings of purposelessness that tend to go hand-in-hand with depression.
This, at least, is the experience of freelance writer and The Skinny contributor Liv McMahon. “When I left uni I was still struggling with meeting deadlines and depression in general, but working this independently since then has really helped build my confidence back up,” she says. Elaborating, she explains that the do-it-yourself ethos of freelancing has not just helped her pay her rent, but even allowed her to hone positive coping mechanisms. “I’ve discovered the best ways of working for myself and how to pull myself out of hard moments when my depression flares up.”
However, not everyone has such a positive experience. The overwhelming isolation attached to freelancing, plus the lack of financial security, can be immensely triggering, making it easy to fall back on negative habits that could endanger your mental health. This has been the case for Isabel Webb, a freelance journalist and creative director. “When you’re freelance, especially when you work from home, it can be really easy to slip into negative patterns that damage your mental health. There will be days where you don’t see anyone face-to-face and might not even leave the house.” It can also be immensely hard to 'switch off' from work – something that can be profoundly difficult for anyone suffering from anxiety. As Webb puts it: “Because time literally equates to money as a freelancer, feeling unproductive is a double blow. I often end up overcompensating and working late nights to make up for it, which means I don’t get enough downtime and end up anxious and overworked.”
"I often find myself overwhelmed with a workload I have no capacity to deliver on..."
My experience of freelancing lands somewhere between McMahon and Webb’s perspectives. As someone who experiences changeable moods, my work patterns are defined by the state of my mental health. When my mental health is not under control, my freelance activity is marked by instability. I’ll flit between periods of high energy where I rack up commissions and crushing lows where I struggle to get out of bed. When this happens, I often find myself overwhelmed with a workload I have no capacity to deliver on and an inbox of irate editors playing havoc with my anxiety. Furthermore, given the lack of safety nets in place and the fact I have no recourse to sick pay, whenever I find myself in this situation I end up taking a significant financial hit – up to £950 at a time – which understandably provokes my anxiety even further.
But when my mental health is under control it’s a whole other story. If I’m in therapy, actually taking my medication and feeling well enough to take care of myself, flexible working feels like a gift. Doing everything at my own pace, I’m able to maintain the kind of mindful work atmosphere that isn’t easily found in a corporate environment and that’s fundamental for my wellbeing. Yet even then, I can’t help but wish there was more support out there for when I am feeling down – networks for freelancers to discuss their mental health, or any kind of stable financial income. Undoubtedly, the fear about my next mental illness downturn and what that could do to me financially and professionally haunts me even on my best days. As we move towards a future where more and more of us are going freelance due to work becoming more precarious and companies slashing their permanent staff, we need to come to terms with what that future of freelance will hold for those of us who struggle with mental health – for better or worse.