Burnout and taking on too much

With expert advice from Matthew Knight, founder of Leapers

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One of the most common questions I get asked about freelancing from the salaried 9-5ers, is whether I worry about not getting enough work. And, while that is and has been a very real worry over the last few months, there are times when having too much work on (and not knowing my limits) can be just as big of a challenge. And no less stressful.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter since the start, you might remember me talking about how difficult I found getting the balance right when I started working properly again after having my son. At a year old, he started going to nursery for two days a week. I started to pick up more work and I was over the moon and excited to be getting back to it. But I was also having a hard time letting go of my baby, and found the settling-in period at nursery much harder than I expected. Two days a week was about as much as I could manage at that point. On the flip side, I’d worried a lot about getting my business back to where it was and I was relieved when it seemed to be going in the right direction.

But I was also expecting to hit the ground running in the way I had done before - pre child. I thought I could do a full-time workload in a massively condensed amount of time while going to all of the baby groups and play dates in between. And for a while, it worked. I had so much energy and enthusiasm. I could do it all, I thought. But then my son started to walk and it all changed pretty quickly.

Trying to work in nap times and evenings and those very busy two child-free days became exhausting. I started to feel really stressed and my head was so busy and full, I found it hard to wind down. I had also just stopped breastfeeding so I was enjoying going out once or twice a week with friends - eager to make the most of some kind of freedom and social life. With a few late nights and glasses of wine added in to the mix, I caught a really nasty virus that lasted for weeks. My body was telling me to rein it in.

I was completely burned out so I had to make some decisions. I needed to work and two days of childcare weren’t quite allowing me the time I needed. My son was thriving in nursery, so I increased his days to three and started to set better boundaries. No more working in the evening or weekends unless I really needed to.

Knowing how much you can take on as a freelancer is one of the trickiest parts of working for yourself. It feels great to be in demand and busy, and the ‘one more job’ mentality, can quite quickly tip you over the edge - especially when your days off involve looking after small children.

And then there’s lockdown to contend with and our ‘new normal’ of children being sent home from nursery and school with temperatures at a moment’s notice. Something that always seems to happen when your to-do list is extra long. (It’s happened to me three times in as many months).

So how can we make sure we’re looking after ourselves when work and family life gets extra busy? It’s a subject that Matthew Knight, the founder of Leapers, a free and inclusive community project that supports the mental health of the self-employed, and anyone who works differently, is very passionate about.

I spoke to Matthew earlier in the week to find out how we can spot the signs of burnout and why making more room in our schedules to take breaks and holidays is vital to a happy freelance life.


CAT: First of all, can you tell me a bit about your freelance career and how you split your time from day to day?

MATTHEW: I've been self-employed in various forms for almost my entire working life. I started freelancing when I was 15, building websites for media companies like BBC and EMI Records, started a business with some friends when I was 21 which grew into a sizeable agency, and have worked independently since, with a couple of dalliances with ‘job jobs’.

My time currently is split between three things: being a co-parent (I have two young daughters who I have 50% of the time); running the Leapers community - a project dedicated to the mental health of the self-employed; and trying to find work which pays for all of the above as a strategist - I work with businesses to help them figure out what to do next.

CAT: Burnout is a very real problem for freelancers - especially when we are parents too, and there isn't much downtime. What is your experience of this and how can we identify when we're suffering from it?

MATTHEW: Burnout is a huge issue, regardless of how you work - the World Health Organisation recently classified burnout as a diagnosable condition, which has given it more credence with employers and healthcare professionals, but when it comes to the self-employed, as taking time off can be challenging, it's a very significant risk for anyone who is working for themselves.

The WHO define burnout as "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" - leading to feelings of exhaustion, lack of motivation, feelings of distance from ones work, frustration or even cynicism towards it, and a lack of efficacy - in short, less able to work - which in turns creates more anxiety and stress for the self-employed, as it's hard to just take a duvet day.

The less able we are to work, the more the stress, the more challenging it becomes, creating a cycle which is hard to escape.

Right now, it's really hard to identify occupational burnout, as we're all a little burned out due to Covid - many of the symptoms are manifesting for lots of people: shorter attention spans, poorer motivation and lower energy, feeling lethargic, more irritable, dreading going to work or checking your emails, increased sense of failure or self-doubt, lack of confidence and often just feeling trapped in a situation.

When you're working for yourself, there's often fewer people around to notice any changes in your behaviour too - where in a 'job' you might have a colleague to notice that you're seeming a little withdrawn, or to make you a cup of tea and check-in, as freelancers, we take on way more responsibility on our own shoulders, and often might not notice those changes, or if we do, don't talk to others about it.

Journalling can help - just writing down at the end of each day how you've been feeling, what you've been doing, and then reflecting back over the past few weeks to spot patterns or changes. Being part of online communities is really useful at the moment - where you might not be around people physically, checking in with your team in spaces like Leapers just helps you to track how you're doing, but also communicate when you're struggling.

I've dealt with burnout a number of times over my career - and never knew or recognised the symptoms, and unfortunately it turned into self-destructive behaviours, rather than being aware of the situation and finding adequate support. If i'd have known at the time that I was unwell, and had ensured I was putting adequate support and things to restore myself in place, things might be very different now.

Over time, I've learned the importance of support networks, of making sure you're communicating well with others, the value of therapy and counselling, and the importance of being aware of your own wellbeing and both reacting to when you're not well, but more importantly, pre-empting burnout and giving yourself time to rest and restore. I still don't get it right though - as much I know what i _should_ be doing, actually doing it is hard. I don't take enough time off - work gets in the way. I take too much on.

I get overwhelmed and don't accept help easily. And I prioritise others over myself - which seems like a good thing, but when it prevents you from looking after others, it's short-sighted. There's no shortage of articles and advice on avoiding burnout or stress, but glib suggestions like "take a break" don't help much if you need to work to pay the bills. There is no "hack": it takes design and planning to build a sustainable way of working which balances your wellbeing and your work - that's why I say that mental health is a critical part of your business plan. It can't be an afterthought or something you do when you're feeling down, it has to be baked into how you work.

CAT: Knowing when to say no is a big problem and there's always the fear that if we turn down work, we may not get asked again. How can we set ourselves better boundaries?

MATTHEW: It's much easier turning down work when we are already busy - the fact that you cannot work because you are already working is easy to communicate, and the prospective client understands it - you don't have capacity right now. It's unlikely they'd spit in your face and shout "I'M NEVER GOING TO WORK WITH YOU AGAIN!".

Taking time off to rest and repair is the same. You don't have capacity to work 100% of the time, and holiday or days off are just as much about capacity as having another client. Without taking rest, we run into energy debt quickly, and that leads to being prevented from working - because we fall ill, or burnout. Far better to take a planned break than find yourself unable to work in the middle of a project. It can help to set yourself a holiday allowance - just like in a job, you have 25 days of holiday to take, you need to take them all. Try and plan them long ahead, so your calendar is booked out, and you don't accept work in those times.

If you're really struggling to step away from work - this is where your support network can help too. Try and build support networks within which you can hand-over some work. Pair up with someone you trust and get them to provide holiday cover, and equally offer them cover so they can take time off.  

CAT: How can burnout affect freelancers’ mental health over time and how can we protect it better?

MATTHEW: Sustained stress is what leads to burnout, and sustained burnout leads to significant health challenges - physically and mentally. Prevention is always better than cure - so baking wellbeing in to how you work is critical. Burnout is caused by continual work-related stress and not managing stress adequately. What causes that stress is unique to every individual, so there's no single answer to working well, it requires some effort to identify what influences your stress levels and mental health positively and negatively, and then putting changes in place to manage them accordingly. It all starts with actively thinking about your own energy and stress levels.

1. Commit time to reflect on how you've been feeling and keep a journal. Even starting with just 15 minutes a week is better than nothing.

2. Don't try and change too much at once, take time to learn what affects your mental health at work before you jump into creating grand plans, and even once you've got a good idea of what you need to do, take it step by step - don't add more stress!

3. Don't do it alone - either buddy up with a small group of others where you can do this together, or be part of a community where you can share your journey and ask for advice.

4. Be kind to yourself - this takes time and effort and we can be incredibly hard on ourselves, and ultimately burnout comes from being overloaded with pressure, so adding to that pressure doesn't help. You're not a failure if you're struggling - it's a failure to not rest and ask for help.

To find out more about Leapers and how it can help you, visit https://www.leapers.co/. There's also a great Leapers Slack group that you can find by following the link on the Leapers homepage. It's a great place to meet other people in the community, ask questions and be part of wider conversations.

Extra reading

Why mental health at work matters even when you’re freelancing, by Matthew Knight

Avoiding burnout when you’re self-employed, by Ellie Pilcher

How to ease parental stress and burnout during the pandemic

The Freelancer’s Guide to Saying No, by Walt Kania


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