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Working for yourself, not by yourself
A guide to tackling isolation and loneliness when self-employed

Isolation and loneliness can affect freelancers, but working for yourself doesn't have to mean working by yourself. Our guide to the issue that over 70% of freelancers say they've struggled with contains useful tips to build meaningful supportive connections.

70% of freelancers have felt lonely, disconnected or isolated whilst being self-employed. This year's Mental Health Awareness Week's theme is loneliness, and rightly so - it's an epidemic of significant proportions, not just for the self-employed, but the UK at large.

For the self-employed, it's perhaps unsurprising that so many have felt lonely at times - not only will most independent workers be working on their own, either at home or from a workspace, but additionally it can be feel at times like you've taken on a large amount of responsibility in starting and running a business, and that responsibility falls squarely upon your own shoulders - with no-one else to blame if things go wrong, no-one else to share the workload with, no-one else to get input or feedback from.

But - loneliness isn't about how many people you have around you. Even if you're sat in a busy coffeeshop, a bustling office or coworking space, you can feel lonely and isolated if you don't have people with whom you can share the things you're feeling, who that might understand what you're experiencing. How many of us have told a friend that we're exhausted, and their response is "Just take some time off!", completely failing to recognise how hard that can be for small business owners?

Perhaps when something goes wrong and you don't know who you can ask a question of, or who you can turn to for support or guidance, it can feel very lonely. Even when things are going fine, but you simply want some input on something, advice on a topic, feedback on a piece of work you're doing - if you don't have people you can turn to for this, it can feel very much like you're on your own - which in turn can have a detrimental impact on our mental health, the quality of our work, our productivity, our confidence, even our physical wellbeing.

And it can easily lead to a downward spiral - if you don't feel like you've got anyone to talk to, you might withdraw further, avoiding contact whilst you try and figure it out yourself, and so on. 

Despite what it may feel like - you are not alone.

Working for yourself does not have to mean working by yourself - indeed, making sure you have people around you, not colleagues, but people who form a support network, is a critical part of any self-employment business plan - to not only help tackle feelings of isolation, but also to help you build a sustainable business. 

Based upon years of conversations within our community, and knowing what works - here are our eight key tips for tackling feelings of isolation or loneliness at work when you're self-employed.

1/
Accept you don't have to do it all by yourself.

It's a big job, running a business - and accepting that doing it all on your own is hard is the first step.

No-one will ever judge you if you seek the support of others, or reach out to peers and fellow freelancers for input, advice and guidance. Recognising that building an effective support network is as much a part of freelancing as invoicing or marketing, will help you take steps to feel less isolated.

You don't have to do it alone, you don't have to shoulder all of the responsibilities without the help of others.

Many new freelancers make the mistake of assuming that that other freelancers are competition, when in reality - there could be a more supportive and collaborative bunch of people out there, happy to help you grow.

2/
Find support communities and share how you're feeling

Finding people who understand the experience is valuable - and there's millions of us

The easiest route to finding fellow freelancers and others who are on similar journeys is to find an online community focused at the self-employed.

Digital communities offer a really low barrier to entry, often they're completely open and free to join, you don't need to post any messages, but can just start by reading fellow members content, take some time to understand the tone and rules of the space, and in time, when you feel ready, you can start to get more involved - perhaps start by answering a question that someone else has asked, or simply saying good morning or posting an emoji on someone else's comment. Over time, you'll feel more ready to ask your own questions too, and start to share how you're feeling.

"Feeling lonely has been a problem, especially as a single parent - some times, no adult company is a drain. Plus, I'm in creative, so I thrive on having some interaction, to spark ideas, drive into nuance. Being autistic and having ADHD, I also need a lot of alone time, so it's always a balance of understanding my individual needs and what I need from clients." -- AS

Many online communities are focused at a specific sector of work, for instance blkbk is an online community for freelance graphic designers, or Freelancers Make Theatre Work is for those in the theatre industry. Some online communities target specific types of people, like Doing It For The Kids is a community group for freelancing parents. Some communities are attached to service providers, such as Crunch Chorus from the accounting platform Crunch, IPSE's Freelance Corner or YunoJuno's members slack. There are larger digital communities which also serve freelancers in general, like Freelance Heroes or Being Freelance

There are also plenty of geographic based communities which often have offline meetups too - such as Othership, who not only have an online presence, but also regular meetups in coworking spaces, or projects like Creative Mornings. Have a quick google search or check out meetup.com

We're continually updating our Communities page, which tries to list as many freelancer communities that we're aware of - but often a good starting place is a fellow freelancer - ask another freelancer what groups they're a member of.

You don't need to be exclusively a member of only one community - in fact you'll most likely start to see similar faces and usernames pop up across multiple community groups. Spend some time in the space, get to know the people, and if its right for you - you'll make some connections pretty quickly. If the group isn't right for you, perhaps its too active, not active enough or the tone and style of the conversation isn't what you're looking for - don't worry, keep looking. You'll find a tribe soon enough.

Once you've found somewhere you're happy to post - share how you're feeling. Even just the act of typing it out and telling others can feel like it helps. If Leapers is anything to go by, saying that you're feeling isolated or struggling, you'll be met by a warm response from people willing to listen.

3/
Find places and spaces

Don't rely wholly on your home as your place of work. Try and mix it up and spend at least one or two days a week not working from home.


"On a high level, the benefits of working elsewhere other than home are increased productivity and improved mental health. Getting out and being around people is something we are all really craving, and the change of environment sparks creativity and productivity. Plus it's just fun to find your favourite vibes :)” - explains Brooke Hurford, co-founder of Workfrom, a platform which helps people find spaces and places to work from.

Whilst it can be hard for some of us to spark up a conversation with a stranger, having a reason to chat to someone in a workspace helps start a potential chat - What are you working on? How do you find this space to work in? How's the coffee? Not everyone is going to be open to a chat, but in many workspaces with more open and communal areas, people are often sat there ready to connect. Establishing a habit or regular schedule of visiting the same space means you'll end up bumping into the same people who are doing the same.

Build up a portfolio of different places and spaces you can work from - but consider favouring those which have their very own built in communities which you can tap into. Increasing numbers of work spaces have forums and slack channels where you can arrange to meet people with similar skillset or potential collaborators to work with. For example Othership, a platform which helps individuals find places to work from for the day, also has an active community where its members arrange times to meet up for coffee, networking events, or just sitting together in the same space.

We've written a guide on alternatives to working from home, which has a range of suggestions.

4/
Design your behaviours.

Make sure you design how your contact time with others interacts with your needs and energy levels.

Just having those places and spaces in your portfolio isn't enough - sometimes we need to force ourselves to spend time with others and seek out connections. It's all too easy to find yourself after a week of working from home having had no social or face to face connections, especially after the pandemic having led to more people working remotely.

Booking in time with colleagues, peers, friends, family, mentors, coaches, at the gym, at meetups, with your community, with accountability buddies - it might seem an odd thing to do, booking time in with these people, but having it scheduled on a calendar helps you to establish seeing people on a more regular basis, or at the bare minimum, an amount of contact time.

For those who find social interaction harder work, this might feel like more of a chore than a benefit - and especially for those of you who need to manage your own emotional and social energy levels, it's important to not only find the types of contact time which work for you - but also when they work best for you. 

Tools like energy diaries can help you identify when you are most likely to benefit from, need or even might want to avoid checking in with people.  

Likewise, being alone doesn't mean being lonely, so whatever time you are scheduling for yourself, be sure to balance it with the time you need to recharge and for yourself.

5/
Collaborate

Finding others to work with can replace some of those professional connections a job provided.

A shortcut to making connections can be starting with your collaborators and clients - clients aren't the enemy, and can form part of your network of meaningful connections. 

Personally, I've built multiple genuine friendships with people that I've spent time working with and working for over the years. Not every client is going to want to go for dinner with you - but you'll know those who are more open to a personal chat or spending an extra five minutes talking about things that are going on outside of work.

"I work alone (physically) but generally with teams around the world. Last week I started a contract that has me in the office for a client, physically with my team, and it's the first time I've been in an office with people for well over 3 years. I felt really uncomfortable the first day, and after day 3 I realised it's absolutely wonderful. I feel so much more focused and able to problem solve quickly and still be creative - all things I thought I would lose when not working alone in my studio." -- JM

If not clients - then fellow freelancers or other professionals can offer the opportunity to collaborate on projects. Not only does collaboration bring additional services and capabilities to your project, so that you're able to offer a wider range of services to your clients - it brings with it the additional expertise and insight of another individual - someone who you can share your ideas with, ask for feedback, balance the load of the project work, and critically be someone you are working alongside. 

If nothing else, having a regular check-in with someone outside of your own head can be a powerful technique to build your own confidence, and understanding where your strengths and weaknesses lie, especially if you're stepping into a new capability space and need to feel more secure in delivering a particular piece of work.

6/
Go outside and inside your comfort zone

It's not easy - so share in the discomfort or find your safe spaces to start from.

Sometimes it can feel really hard to introduce yourself to new people, to make connections, to step outside of your comfort zone. 

Especially as an adult, especially in larger cities, and for many people who making new connections doesn't come easily - it can feel impossible to know where to turn or how to find people to make connections with. Sometimes, it will feel like a real struggle outside of your safe spaces, and anxiety or fear of messing up saying hello will prevent you from talking to someone.

One way of combatting this feeling can be finding situations where perhaps everyone is feeling a similar way - for instance, starting a new sport or hobby, a public speaking open-mic event, an improv night - any situation where everyone is doing something for the first time. 

You'll all be feeling similar things, embracing this fear and talking to others about how you're feeling might not feel as bad. For freelancers, perhaps this is a face to face training event or pecha-kucha style portfolio evening.

The opposite approach is also powerful - find a situation where you're able to be absolutely comfortable, perhaps a context in which you have years of experience, or can talk passionately and confidently about for hours. 

Finding an anchor which you find it effortless to spend time exploring creates a safe starting point from which to connect with others. You might even leave the session with people asking to follow up after. For freelancers, perhaps this is a speaking event where you'll have the opportunity to talk about your passion, or an industry event where you will meet peers.

7/
Supporting others

Sometimes finding connection means looking at how you can offer it to others first.

A really powerful technique to not only feel less isolated, but also to boost your own mental health is to support others - find opportunities within your local community or through volunteering groups or charities where you can help people in need of connection and support too. 

There's never been more of a need for connection within our communities and across different groups of people, and there's no shortage of people who are in need for that type of connection. Or it might simply be joining one of the community groups we talked about previously in the article, and spending time listening and responding to others threads.

8/
Speak to someone independent

Even just one conversation with a professionally trained listener can help immensely.

Whilst it never needs to be the 'last resort', speaking to an independent professional who is specially trained in listening can also be hugely helpful when you're feeling isolated or lonely. 

Not only does it create a space for you to honestly and openly share how you're feeling without fear of being judged, professional support can often help you build your own approach to moving forward. 

Even just a single conversation with someone who knows how to listen can be transformative.

There are plenty of free and affordable options for being able to speak to someone - and whilst lots of people might feel that talking to a therapist, counsellor or helpline might be only for people who "need help", these routes are truly for anyone who just feels like having a conversation could be useful.

Helplines can be a great starting point - they're often free, and put you in quick contact with a trained professional who is happy to listen and talk. Whether it be a general helpline like Samaritans, or industry specific helplines like the Film & TV Charity's phoneline for those in the entertainment industry, NABS phonelinefor those in media and advertising. There are plenty more, so have a quick google, they're often run by industry bodies.

Therapy and Counselling can feel like taking a huge step, but again, can provide a much needed space to talk. Many NHS regions will have provision of talking therapies through their IAPT programmes, use the NHS website to find something localto you. 

If none of these routes are appropriate, you can also speak to someone privately - using a platform like "Counselling Directory" or via the BACP.

If you're feeling at risk or in danger of hurting yourself or someone around you - call 999 or visit A&E. Mental health is as important as physical health, and a mental health emergency is never a waste of anyone's time. 

Summary

There's no magic solution to improving your mental health or tackling issues like loneliness - it can be a long road towards improvement, and paradoxically, it's easier when you have others to support you on your journey. 

Don't try and do too much at once, as you'll feel overwhelmed, and most importantly, recognise that different things work for different people - you'll have a sense of what you are more or less comfortable doing, and taking small but consistent steps forward is always better than trying to do a million things at once.

Most importantly, try and be kind to yourself, you've already taken the first step in looking for support, by reading guides like this, by searching for ways to improve things, and knowing that we've written this guide because of the numbers of people who are feeling the same - hopefully helps you to recognise that you're not the only person feeling this way.

If you're not sure where to start, take the first step by joining Leapers, and our community will be sure to not only help you find the best support for you, but also make some meaningful connections as a freelancer.

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