Welcome back to another episode of the Advanced Freelancing podcast. As you’re listening to this, it is already 2020. It’s a great opportunity to reflect back on all the things you’ve done over the past year as a freelancer or moving towards starting your freelance business.
Freelancing and Avoiding Overwork/Burnout
These are the freelancers who’ve been working for quite a long time, have a steady client base, and usually tend to be a little bit of those workaholics. So you might be bringing some of those workaholic tendencies over into your freelance business.
Now, this doesn’t mean that someone who’s relatively new to freelancing won’t benefit from thinking about the concept of overwork. In fact, I think that the more you have in the back of your mind the dangers of overwork before you get started as a freelancer, the easier it will be for you to really grow and scale your business happily and successfully.
Everyone can be affected by burnout
This is actually something that’s been spreading across traditional employees and the American workforce as well. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics information shows that the average American works approximately 44 hours a week, which is just under nine hours per day. The United States is also one of the most overworked countries in the world. So weekdays average over eight hours and average weekend days average over five and a half hours. That means we’re clocking a tremendous amount of time doing work.
Burnout can be really detrimental to your mental and physical health.
All too often, I end up working with freelancers one on one after they’re way too long down that path. They’ve already been facing some of these major challenges of feeling overworked and burned out. They’re stressed out. And they’re not eating well. They’re dreading working on client work, etc. So those are some of the very early indicators of burnout.
Many of us freelancers are very experienced, but how do we ignore those signs and symptoms and keep working anyways? In this episode, we’ll talk a little bit more about burnout/overwork, what it looks like, how you can fight against it, and what to do if you believe that you’re already overworking.
One of the things about burnout that I find really interesting is that we all know what it is once we’ve experienced it, but usually, we’re so deep into the situation by the time we’ve experienced it, that hindsight is 2020.
You’re looking back and going, “Oh, I should have known. I was really tired for two or three months. I had 12 clients instead of the eight that I’ve said my maximum would be.” But burnout has actually become a medical condition. This was one of the biggest news pieces of 2019. It’s a formal medical diagnosis specifically in relation to work related stress.
It formally became recognized by the World Health Organization and is under the code for problems associated with employment or unemployment. But recognizing burnout, even though it’s been classified as an actual condition, is still a big challenge for a lot of people. We know it when we see it. And we hear other people talk about it. But what it looks like for you might be different than what it looks like for someone else.
So let’s talk about some of the general categories under these health guidelines of what burnout can look like and remember that not all of these might apply to your situation.
You might be feeling that one or a couple of them are more influential than others. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have burnout if you don’t have every single symptom here. Burnout is categorized by reduced effectiveness in your professional capacity, an increased feeling of mental distance from your job, or feelings of cynicism and negativity in relation to your job, a general feeling of exhaustion or energy depletion.
Americans are working longer and harder than ever before. And that’s been backed up by plenty of different sources, including the American Institute of Stress. Multiple studies have backed up that this work stress is a major source of anxiety, depression, and burnout for American adults.
One common question that freelancers have is, “Well, I operate under stressful conditions quite a bit. I run my own business. I’m the head of every department in my business. How do I know if this is stress or if it is burnout?” There is a difference between stress and burnout. But it’s very hard for a lot of people to tell which one you’re dealing with. And it requires taking that big step back to look at the overall picture of your work life. So the feeling that achievement is slipping can go from stress into more of a burnout situation. Particularly if you’re in a work environment that is very grinding.
What’s the difference between stress and burnout?
Stress is something that shows up typically around certain situations. Maybe you have a new supervisor at work and you’re getting used to them. You may just have five projects on your plate this month instead of three or four. And that is a short term condition. Burnout, however, is more of that physical and mental feeling of being overwhelmed, exhausted, dreading working on your client projects, and/or feeling like you can never really get ahead.
For me, it has primarily felt like fatigue in the past. It feels like I make very little progress on things when I am in burnout mode. People who are most likely to tend into the burnout phase of things are those people who would consider themselves workaholics or who put in a lot more time and energy into their business than they would otherwise put in.
One of the things that I think is very interesting that I’ve been doing a lot of research on is this idea that we are essentially connected all the time to our work.
A lot of freelancers end up clocking more than 50 hours per week. At the very beginning of your freelance business, this isn’t that big of a problem, right? Because if you’re doing this full time and you have 50 or 60 hours a week, it might take that long to build up your marketing base. But it’s been proven time and time again that it’s very ineffective to work over 50 hours per week. I prefer working much fewer hours on my freelance business and just sticking with the premium VIP clients who are going to help my revenue match that have a full time business even though my hours do not.
Knowing the Symptoms of Burnout
You may be saying, “Well, I’m overwhelmed. I just need to put in more time. So now I’m going to start working weekends. And I’m going to start working nights. I’m going to wake up at four o’clock in the morning and put in three or four hours before my clients are even awake.” Long hours can really backfire for people, for companies, and for freelancers.
So some research out of Boston University’s School of Business found that in the traditional workplace, managers were not able to tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week versus those who just pretended. You managers did, however, penalize employees who were transparent about working less. But no research was found in that study that those employees actually accomplished any less than their counterparts who are clocking many more hours.
Now, we talked about this concept of the eight hour work day in my TEDx talk in the perspective of the Industrial Revolution.
The main reason that the eight hour workday exists was put into place in the industrial revolution to cut down on the number of hours of manual labor that employees had to put up with on the factory floor. This was really kind of an idea to make the whole concept of work a little more humane. However, the fact that it’s stuck around this long leads to this misconception that this is the only way to do work. And the most effective way to do work is putting in so many hours per week, working nine to five. That is not necessarily the truth, right?
So research that tries to quantify the relationship between productivity and the number of hours worked found that output falls significantly after a 50 hour workweek. But completely falls off a cliff at the 55-hour mark.
So much so that a Stanford University study found that a person who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those additional 15 hours. So all they’re doing is not increasing their productivity, right? That’s actually dropped off altogether. And they’re just pushing themselves further into burnout and creating a new normal, that 55 or 70 hours a week is productive. And it’s really not right or that it’s necessary, right? It’s not really necessary.
So many people who are putting in more than 55 hours a week as employees or as freelancers face a broad range of medical problems.
One of those is adrenal fatigue. If you’re not sure what that is, go ahead and look that up. It hasn’t really been accepted by traditional Western medicine yet. There’s a lot of natural paths and other people in that space talking about adrenal fatigue. It is essentially when you keep your cortisol levels, the stress hormone, so high all the time that your body really becomes depleted of that and is unable to manage and regulate stress.
So in addition to that impact in that feeling of fatigue and that feeling of decreased productivity at work, people who work more than 55 hours a week have a 13% higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 33% higher risk of stroke. So why am I harping so much on this idea of the hours worked per week? Because there’s so much variation in freelance businesses and even in employees and what their working relationship looks like with their company.
The easiest place to start with burnout is to really begin to track your time.
As a self-employed person, it can really sneak up on you. And you can realize that you’re doing harm to yourself when you start to really clock your hours. When you work for yourself, your business brain never really turns off. And when you have a lot of client projects on the mind that you have to fit into your schedule, in connection with all of the administrative and brainstorming work you have to do as a business owner, you don’t realize how much this work has bled over into every other part of your life. So you’re probably not counting those night or weekend hours if you track your time. They probably just happened, right?
Is 50 Hours a Week Too Many?
I often feel like if I put in 35 or 40 hours a week, with everything in my business, not just my freelance part of it, is when I do my best. You might think, “Well, my business is going to grow a little bit slower than if I put in 50 hours.” But you can see how this research supports that anything beyond 50 hours, is really detrimental to you and your health. And you’re not getting any of the productivity gains, either.
Other health impacts of working too much.
So some of the other health impacts of working too much include the feeling of being blue or depressed. It’s your neck and your back feel like they’re aching because you’re spending so much time in front of the computer.
Your relationships are taking a hit and members of your family are telling you that they never see you. You don’t get enough sleep, even though you’re totally exhausted. So you might lay down and sleep for five hours, but it’s sort of disconnected.
You wake up a bunch and have trouble falling asleep. You’re using alcohol to relax. And you’re becoming more reliant on these things. Maybe before you enjoyed a glass of wine at the end of the workday. But now you feel like you have to have those two or three glasses of wine just to relax after a stressful day. You also can experience productivity stalls as well. So it’s such a misconception that this idea of working more hours increases your productivity because it
actually significantly decreases your productivity.
How to Guard Against Burnout as a Freelancer
That’s why I really recommend that’s where you start with this concept of burnout. Start tracking your time.
There are many different free tools that allow you to do it. I love toggle, it’s spelled TOGGL. It is a free tool where you can categorize and use colors to show different things that you’re working on. So I have one for administrative work for my coaching business, one for my dissertation, one for writing books, and then one for my freelance business. So I have time goals or limits that I’m putting in each of those categories to make sure that I stay on track and don’t go overboard.
And when you really start tracking your time, you might think that it’s annoying. It may be annoying to sit there and go manually start and stop this timer on your phone or desktop every single time you work. But it makes you a lot more mindful of the time that you are spending at work. You can also get a report at the end of the week that tells you how you spent your time.
So not only does this help you flag when you’re putting in too many hours and are heading towards burnout, but it also gives you that heads up of, “Hey, maybe there’s some things here that I can pass off to a virtual assistant or another team member.”
Now, I’ve talked a lot about the physical health impacts of burnout. But there’s also a mental health toll too.
So, this less productivity has negative implications for what you do for your clients, but it also has negative implications for how you feel every single day. And that’s not something that should be ignored! When you are headed towards or in burnout, you don’t do as good of a job as you otherwise would do.
It’s a simple fact. I noticed, for example, that when I am heading into a burnout phase, because I am what I call a recovering workaholic and always trying to work against that and be more mindful of it, it manifests for me by starting to make mistakes on my client work. If I have one or more clients tell me, “Hey, there was an error here. This was stated as a fact, but it’s not. Or there were three spelling errors in this piece.” I start to miss things. That is my number one clue that I’m working too much.
Another sign is that feeling of dread as soon as I wake up like, “Oh, I’ve got so many things to do. I’m never going to get them done.” And then also, if you have an ongoing to-do list every single day that has more than 10 items on it consistently, that is very overwhelming. You are pushing yourself towards burnout.
But I strongly recommend starting with this concept of clocking your hours and seeing how your time is spent.
It forces you to be held accountable to where that potential for burnout is and you have a much better chance of starting to recognize the symptoms when you’re cognizant of how much time you’re spending on different types of projects. Because you can say, “Wow, I had no idea that I worked 55 hours last week.”
And the other thing I love about the timer is I almost feel like I’m racing the clock. So if I’m checking my email and that timer is running, and I’ve got that tagged as administrative time, I don’t waste time as much. I’m trying to keep that administrative time report per week as low as possible. So that really helps me to be a little bit more productive with my time as well as really track what I’m doing.
When there’s no sense of tracking there, I know it feels like, “Well, that’s one more thing I have to do. I have to remember to turn this tracker on and off. That’s kind of annoying. I’m already overwhelmed and possibly in burnout. How does that help?” This is really your lifeline that gives you that first indication that you might already be in burnout.
So in a separate episode of the podcast, I’m going to talk about what to do when you recognize burnout.
When you start to you see those hours, you start to feel some of the symptoms I’ve talked about in this episode, and how you can create a plan to escape from burnout. Knowing that burnout is a thing and that it is increasingly being recognized by the medical community as a work related condition is the first thing you should know about the entire concept. Because you have to be aware that it’s a possibility in your business and be prepared to take necessary steps to guard against it or start to notice when those hours are creeping up, or when those physical conditions of fatigue or frustration or overwhelm are starting to creep back in and become a regular part of your everyday work life.
Now, you might not be able to 100% prevent burnout.
You might already be in those beginning phases of burnout. When you listen to this episode and say, “Wow, I think I really might have a problem here. I’m doing too much work. I’ve taken on too many of the wrong clients. I’m clocking too many hours. I haven’t delegated enough.” You can help prevent it from getting worse. The worst thing you can do is let this go on and on into months and months where this becomes your new normal. And it is much harder to remove yourself from that situation and to recognize that you have opportunities available to help you.
I’ve known plenty of freelancers who have been in full blown burnout and have been able to back it up and fix it.
But it often takes three or six months because they have to fire clients and they have to redefine their business. They have to put into place a mental health plan. Go take a listen to that podcast episode here on Advanced Freelancing about why you need to create a mental health plan and what goes into that. That’s really key for preventing burnout as well. Like having a virtual assistant or having team members who can help you, all of these things are critical to laying that baseline of guarding against burnout as much as you can.
Now, if you’ve been listening to this episode, and feel like you are in burnout, of course, you’ll want to tune into the next part of this two part series about what burnout looks like and how you can address it when it’s already happening in your business.
But what I want to say to you today is don’t beat yourself up if you’re already there. If you’re already thinking, “Man, how could I let this happen to me? My relationships are taking a hit. My clients are telling me I’m making mistakes. I’m burned out. How did I end up here again?” A lot of people who are workaholics will consistently find themselves in this cycle of burnout. It is not necessarily your fault. It is a tactic and trait that you’re trying to work on. And it’s something that I’ve struggled with a lot in my business. I definitely tend towards burnout. If I don’t have systems and structures in place, I feel like I will naturally gravitate back towards that.
So hopefully in this episode, you’ve been able to hear some of the symptoms of burnout, the fact that it is becoming recognized specifically as a work related condition, and to better understand some of the negative impacts that it might have on your life in terms of your physical and mental health. If you have questions about this podcast or need more information about burnout, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for tuning in for another episode of the advanced freelancing podcast. For more freelance advice, get a copy of my book Start Your Own Freelance Writing Business—available now! Buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and more.