Today, I’m steering a little bit away from some of the traditional strategies I love to talk about when growing your business to think a little bit more big picture.  Have you ever created a mental health plan for your business?  Or at least for the busy seasons as a freelancer?  This is a topic that I feel connected to so personally, because I recently took the time to create what I’m calling my mental health plan.

Why You Need a Mental Health Plan for Your Business

Now there’s a reason I’m using those specific terms.

We often talk about self care in the context of being business owners. But we rarely put enough pressure on that to make it appear as important as it really is. Because self care is key, right? But it’s so easy to sweep that under the rug and act like, “Yeah, that’s great. Like, I love to get a massage if I could afford it or fit the time in. But whatever, I’m really busy right now, that’s not going to happen.”

And recently looking at my schedule, the number of things that were piled on it, and just sort of how I’ve changed and evolved my business model this year, I realized that I needed to have a mental health plan in place. Now, when you’re listening to this episode, we’re in the last quarter of 2019.  I did several really important and cool things this year that I’m proud of. But the timing of all of them, and not having a mental health plan or structurally fitting in self care nearly led me to burn out.

So around the time of publishing my very first book, which was in July of 2019, I did so much work for the publication and promotion of that book.  In addition I was moving to a new state for my husband’s job and doing two TEDx talks.  So writing those, editing those, memorizing those, and traveling to deliver those, just in conjunction with all of the other crazy things going on in my business, I felt that I was headed down the path to burnout. And burnout is something you really want to be aware of as a freelancer and as a business owner.

Why Are So Many People Affected by Burnout?

There have been studies showing that 40% of employees in the United States are so burned out that they just can’t figure out how to move forward.

But employees are not the only ones who really cornered the market on being burned out. Entrepreneurs can burn out as well. It can have a lot of really negative problems for your personal life. And for your professional life. It’s been tied to heart disease, depression problems, decision making, and job dissatisfaction. So lots of studies have been done about employees in big organizations and burnout.

But burnout has also really expanded into the entrepreneur world in the United States. That means more freelancers are reporting burnout, too.

I was reading some research in preparation for this episode, that burnout costs our country at least $300 billion a year. So burnout definitely affects entrepreneurs as well and can really deflate your overall job, PR, and/or passion you feel for showing up when you are fully burned out.

So when you’ve gone through all the phases, you stopped caring about everything.

You don’t care if you lose clients. And you don’t care if you get bad news.  You don’t care if you get good news.  So you never want to get to that point. And being very aware of what burnout looks like and feels like for you is important. And it’s a little bit different from one person to another.

For some people, their nutrition totally slips.  They start cutting things out of their life  that take up time, but we’re really valuable. So they might cut out exercising because they feel like they are so busy that they can’t possibly handle that right now. Or you’re building your business and you cut back on some of the things that were giving you some sanity. That might be your housecleaner or maybe childcare that you had set up so that during the hours you worked on your business you could really focus on it.

Studies Show that Entrepreneur Burnout is Real

So a recent study was completed and shared in the Harvard Business Review.  According to this study, 3% of entrepreneurs felt severely burned out and 25% of entrepreneurs felt moderately burned out.

So we’re talking about nearly a third of all entrepreneurs out there are feeling some level of burnout.  And it will vary from one person to another.   But its impacts can be far reaching.  It can really damage your business.  And it can damage your mental health.  It can make you feel very overwhelmed. If you ever get to the point where it’s really bad, you just feel like burning your business to the ground.  You don’t even care if everything just kind of goes belly up.

Unfortunately, in our society, we hear so much about hustling, working harder, or putting in 80 hours a week, if you want this to work.  We internalize that as a badge of honor.  We tout that we work really, really, really hard on our business. And doing that, in that way, for a long enough period of time, can absolutely lead to burnout.

And okay, maybe you’re able to drag your body for three to six months of being that level of exhaustion and still function relatively well. But if you hit the severe levels of burnout and shut down, you could affect your business for months, or even years from that point. So it’s far better to recognize when you have the potential for burnout.  Which as an entrepreneur with those statistics I just shared, you definitely want to create a mental health plan to prepare for that.

What Led Me to Prepare a Mental Health Plan for My Business?

I recently started working (again) on my Ph.D. dissertation.

In many ways, my PhD has been the hardest project I have ever worked on. It calls for different forms of communication, collaboration, writing, and research revisions. So even as a professional writer, it’s something I’ve really struggled with mentally.  And I took three years to completely off from my program to focus on building my business. I don’t regret doing that. But of course, it’s made it much harder to come back and start again.

So I was adding in that process of, “Okay, now that I have my business at this point, where I adjusted it from the book launch, let go a lot of freelance projects, allowed some to come to a natural close, and terminated some contracts with some clients.”

Because I was really, really tired of this summer, and recognized that I needed to take a big step back and do things differently.

So I really focused on the area of my business that was filling me up the most professionally and personally. And that was my coaching.  That was working one on one with freelance coaching clients, which is something that I really love,  It brings out the teacher background in me and I love helping other people build their business. And so I made that conscious decision to turn down money on the freelance side of my business.

For my sanity, I did not want to be writing eight or nine hours.  TEvery single day, I was kind of over that.  I felt like I’d taken it as far as I could go with my business in that sense. I had done almost everything I could do with freelance writing.  And I didn’t feel like there were many  mountains left to climb.  And it no longer felt fulfilling.  It instead felt a little bit draining.

So I finally got things to the stable point after adjusting my business from the book launch.

It’s one of the great things about freelancing too, right? We can build our business up or back down if we need to. And I love that!  As you build it down, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it means that you’re being choosier about the clients you work with.  You might end up making the same or more money when you do that. It’s very unique to freelancing in that way.

But I built my dissertation back into my schedule. And then all of a sudden, some other things started to happen.

Some other opportunities came up that I could tell we’re going to take a substantial portion of my time too.  Potential book deals came on the table and all of these things were going to have deadlines or timelines that were really close to one another. So taking on a dissertation level project, which I feel exercises my brain the most, is the hardest type of work that I do.

It is also very time consuming. It’s not like in my writing business. I’m always looking for ways to speed things up.  You spend a lot of time thinking, writing notes, and creating materials that may never actually be published in a dissertation or in a document related to it. And so it’s not as easy to speed that process up.

So when all these things sort of landed on the table at the same time, I said to my husband, “I am taking a step back this time. I know seeing all these major projects that are going to have the exact same timeline and are really going to call on me to be at my strongest, I recognized that from my first book launch. And just from building up my schedule, early on in 2019, that I don’t really want to do that in the coming year.So I am going to create a mental health plan that will help guard against burnout. Hopefully it will also help keep me from going too far down that road of feeling exhausted.”

So as a freelance business owner, I feel like this is helpful for my audience to listen to as well because we all need to have a mental health plan.

And I really do call it that name very specifically because I think it’s so important that we recognize that, as freelance business owners, we’re the CEO or the CTO, the chief financial officer, VP of Marketing, and VP of operations.  We’re everything, right? Even if you have virtual assistants on your team, you are making a massive amount of decisions to drive your business forward on a daily basis. And if you suffer from decision fatigue or just the ongoing pressure that naturally comes from playing too many roles, you need to recognize that your mental health could be affected by that.

So many freelancers are struggling to balance it all. 

So how do you know when to put a mental health plan in place?

I really believe it should be part of your business and your life at all times. Now, a lot of people might feel like, “Well, you know, things aren’t that busy right now.” It’s actually the perfect time if you start building in your mental health supports and your positive self care now, while you still have the time to do so. And you recognize that as your business grows, you’re going to take proactive steps to prevent the business of running your own company to bleed those other things out. Because there’s a lot of reasons why this downtime or your mental health plan actually benefits your business.

There’s been so many studies done.  A lot of them are talked about in various business books that have come out recently.  They say things like working beyond 50 or 60 hours a week really does not lead to an improvement in your work quality or your productivity.  So there’s definitely an upper limit cap. And yet, we hear all of this marketing talk that you need to hustle.  We heat that you just need to work really, really hard and you can put in more hours.

I’ve fallen for that right.  And I’ve definitely run my business that way and not been happy with running it that way. So a mental health plan should be in place at all times. But definitely in your busy seasons. If you’re onboarding a new client, that’s a little difficult.  Or if you’re starting a new major project.  If this is your busy time of the year as a freelancer.  Or if you’re bringing on your first VA.  Because if there’s these growth challenges and issues that you’re experiencing as a business owner, it is the perfect time to put a mental health plan in place.

What Goes Into a Mental Health Plan?

I think first of all, your time off is key if you are putting in a lot of hours. Or if you have multiple ventures going at once. Trust me, I can definitely speak about that because I’m running multiple businesses at the same time. And then having outside projects, your time off is critical.

So one of the things that I really put into place strictly with my mental health plan,I have two cell phones. One is a personal cell phone and only my family members and my husband have that phone  that phone stays on all the time.  The ringer is on all the time.  It’s essentially like way back in the day what your landline would have been right. So you can always reach me on that cell phone. That phone also has hardly any apps on it.  It really is just a very basic phone.

And I’ve had two cell phones for years.  Since maybe the second year of running my business. Because it was driving me crazy when my clients would try to text or call me on my personal phone. So it’s definitely not something new, this whole concept of having two phones.

But I had allowed my use of my business phone to get really lax.  I was answering emails. I was answering Voxer messages.  I was like all the notifications and apps are on my business phone that I used to run my business. And I noticed that my work was starting to bleed over into other hours like early morning, lunchtime, weekends, etc. So one of the things that’s part of my mental health plan is physically turning that business phone off at the end of the workday. And if I get that addictive notion to pick it up, I at least have to think carefully about if i really need to turn my business phone on or not.

Be Strict With Your Time Off

I’m turning my computer off. And I’m specifically scheduling things on the weekend again, so in the months leading up to and surrounding the book launch, I did a lot of work on the weekends. And some of it, I was excited to do.  And other work I just felt like I had to do it. There was no other time to really fit it in, especially as we were moving from one state to another.

But now I’m getting really mindful of my time off.  Where is going to be the time that I have relaxation time, creative time, and what fun things can I go do on the weekends.  Because working from home can get kind of isolating.  You can get a little bit of cabin fever.  This is true especially given that I now live in Minnesota and will probably be confined to the house a lot of the time.  During the week, it won’t be as easy for me to leave and go out and you know something for lunch due to weather. So I’m getting very intentional about my time off and who I allow into that time off. So that’s a component of your mental health plan.

Leverage Your Support Systems

So these could be things like yoga therapy, taking that dance class you’ve always wanted, or regularly scheduled activities that are forms of support.  Because they clear your mind. They force you to be outside of business mode.

When you’re a business owner, you think about your company all the time.  You might even dream about it.  When you’re taking a shower, you’re thinking about a way to grow your company.  And then when you’re driving, you’re thinking about that issue that you had yesterday with a client. So build in your supports in quiet times.  You can  you can either talk things out with other people.  This could be:

  • lunch with your friend that you scheduled twice a month
  • book club where you’re reading fiction and not business stuff.
  • volunteer work where you regularly go and completely remove yourself from your own environment
  • yoga where you’re not talking at all
  • Journaling where you are disconnecting yourself from the doo doo doo of business

It’s very, very important. So how are you going to build those in? So for me, that was building in some outside supports.  I have a dance class that I’m going to once a week now and some other things that are built into my schedule.  Even date night with my husband, where it’s not just for our marriage.

Consider What Little Things You Can Do Each Day

Now these can be so little, but can have such an impact, right? It might be the 10 minutes you spend drinking coffee before you open your computer. And before you get started working, where it’s just your time to take some deep breaths.

Working from home can mean wearing super comfortable clothes.  For me, my feet are always cold. So it’s about having really amazing socks so that I always feel like my feet are super warm. I know that when the weather’s good, I will take my dog out for a walk for 10 minutes.  Those little things that can be built into my day and don’t really have to be necessarily scheduled.  But can have a positive impact on mental health and your physical health too.  So I wake up and drink three glasses of water immediately. That always makes me feel good. That’s such a small thing, but it has positive ripple effects through your physical and mental health.

Don’t Forget Exercise and Nutrition

When you burn out, you start to be really cognizant of what your doing to your body. In fact, burnout often manifests as physical ailments. When I was getting ready to leave my teaching position in Baltimore, my body actually started to shut down. I developed kidney stones.  And I sprained my ankle. I felt like I had a sinus infection for four months.  My body was really telling me, “Hey, we’re collapsing here from working 16 hours a day, and the high level of stress.”

So start to notice what that looks like for you. It could be getting headaches or feeling the compulsion to sleep 15 or 16 hours a day. And it can manifest in so many different ways. But how can exercise and nutrition help that?  They really do work.

So for me, I’m an intermittent faster.  That means I eat one meal a day. I try to eat really nutrient dense foods and even cooking has become part of my mental health plan.  We’re trying one of the meal delivery services. So that’s three times a week, I don’t have to think about grocery shopping or choosing what to eat for dinner. And then the other days of the week, I just cook in the crock pot.

So removing that decision making ability and excess shopping time has been huge for my mental health.  I actually really enjoy grocery shopping, but I don’t like doing it more than once a week.

So exercise has become really important for me as well.  I found that doing 40 to 60 minutes of exercise will tamper a lot of the anxiety that I might wake up with if I’m in a busy season or under a lot of stress. It also helps me sleep. And then, of course, the nutrition feeds into that as well.

Lean on Support from Your Friends and Family

Do not be afraid to ask for things from your friends and family.   I’ve asked certain friends and business colleagues to stop saying “Call me anytime.” Because I don’t know what to do with that information. I don’t want to call them and they’re in the middle of dinner or they’re in some other meeting and I’ve disrupted them.

So it really helps me when they give me specific times that we can talk.  It seems like such a small thing. But I don’t want to have the back and forth or even the internal pressure of “Call me anytime.” Like please just like if you want to talk about something specific, let’s nail down a time and a place to have that conversation.

You can also ask for support from your friends and family like please don’t call me during the workday when I’m doing my work.  Or Thursday nights is going to be our family fun night and  everyone needs to be on board with this. This is the time that works for everyone’s schedule. What support can you get from your friends and family to help you through these times?

So my husband is now in graduate school again, he knows that if he needs help with his citations, or if he needs me to go polish a journal article for him, that’s a very simple way that I can support him and make things faster for him. And likewise, I’ll call on him and say, “I need to have a company meeting about my dissertation or about this thing I’m doing or I’m getting ready to present at a book festival next week.”

I know I can ask him to be there for the day.  Him coming along with me will make it more fun. And he knows that it’s really going to make me feel supported if he’s there. So think of the different ways that you can ask for little support from your friends and family.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  The worst that can happen is that someone says no. But that’s usually very rare.  Especially when you just come out and explain why you’re asking for this.

Put Limits on Technology

There’s been so many studies about how technology is affecting our lives. And there’s no doubt that it has ripple effects in many different ways. I’ve already talked to you about how closing my computer, turning off my phone, and using tools like Boomerang, helped me to get on top of my email. Even sometimes, with my coaching clients, I will just explain that I am only going to be able to check this two or three times today because I’m at a conference.  I have very clear boundaries.  I’m not going to answer messages on the weekend.  You’re free to send me them if that’s when you’re in the zone and send me emails, but just know that I’m not going to read them or respond to them.

Limits on technology can also include activities that you use to zone out or numb out when it is not benefiting your mental health.

So sometimes, I really just want to binge a couple reruns of Big Bang Theory on my iPad.  Or The Office or Friends on Netflix. And that actually makes me feel supported in a mental health way. But be aware of when that can be used as a distraction or when you’re using that as a coping mechanism. Because it can really be a sign of something bigger that’s going on if you like start bingeing at noon and then you find that four or five hours have gone by.  That’s a sign that there’s something else going on.  Maybe you don’t feel personally connected to your business anymore and you need to take that step back and ask about that.

So limits on technology can be helpful. They can also be things you implement within your family and within your household.  How are we going to spend more time together.  I’ve really been testing out how many times I can leave the house without my business cell phone especially if I’m just going to the gym or running an errand.   So limits on technology can take so many different forms. But it’s really fun to try that and test that out.

What I would love is if you could think about how a mental health plan for your freelance business based on this episode could support you, your company, your family, your physical health, and your emotional health. All too often the stigma around mental health is that we just ignore these issues.  We act like people are weak if they admit that they’re suffering from anxiety, burnout, stress, and/or depression.

All of these things are really important to be talked about. That’s a big part of the issue around why they’re so prevalent. And it’s really important to think about how a mental health plan can support you.

I’m entering what will perhaps be a crazy eight months for my business.   Because of book writing, expanding my coaching, potentially working with a new client that would take up a lot of my time, but would really line up with my passion and purpose. And so I’m being proactive about that by thinking ahead about how I can best support myself through that process.

This time, I’m saying how do I best support myself knowing that not only is this going to affect how I feel on a day to day basis, but the work products that I create.  When I’m in a better state with reduced anxiety and reduce stress my work products are going to be better. I’m going to affect and impact more people in that way by being intentional about my mental health. So I’d love to hear your ideas on how you’re going to take a mental health plan and make it a serious component of your business.

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the Advanced Freelancing podcast. Remember, you can always check out additional resources on my website betterbizacademy.com like bingeing past podcast episodes and checking out my massive volume of YouTube videos. Or if you’re interested in becoming a freelance writer, take a look at my very first book. Until next time, thanks for listening!

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.