“Do you think you’ll be okay working from home?” my colleague asked me when I confided that I wanted to quit my part-time job to work on my business full-time.
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, you know, with the anxiety and all…”
Crap, I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d been too busy focusing on other questions: would I make enough money? Would I turn into a lazy git with an extra two days a week at home? Would I ever get out of my jammies again…?
I hadn’t even thought about my mental health. But my colleague had a point — working from home, alone, can be a huge shock to the system for anyone, never mind someone with mental health issues.
On the surface, working from home can seem like the perfect solution to working with your mental health struggles. Had a bad night? Have a lie in and start work an hour or two later — without a commute, you can easily work around that. Need a mental health day? No need to ask the boss, just take the day off and make the time up at the weekend/when you’re feeling better. Stressed by office politics or the daily train journey? Not any more!
Only it’s not that simple.
Loads of people struggle to switch off from work. When you work from home, it’s even harder. And when you’re running a business, it’s harder still. It becomes almost impossible to switch into relax mode. You inevitably find yourself checking client emails at midnight or catching up with work-related social media at the weekend. Your boundaries start to blur. Work-life balance? No chance!
And then there’s the social isolation to contend with. Because those co-workers that used to drive you crazy were actually helping your mental health (well, some of them were…). They provided you with human connection, feedback on your work; they were a springboard for your ideas.
Working from home is a big decision — hell, if you have anxiety deciding which socks to wear can be a big decision — so I’m going to share a few of the things that are helping convince me that it was the right one. Why not see if any of them will work for you too?
Don’t over-extend yourself.
Folks with anxiety are often people-pleasers. The “no” word just doesn’t come naturally. Add a generous dose of ambition or financial fear to that mix and you’ll end up with a freelancer facing burnout. Which is bad for anyone, but if you have a history of mental illness, it doesn’t matter how convinced you are that you ‘have it under control this time’, a serious bout of stress will mess with your adrenaline and cortisol production and send you spiraling.
Be meticulous when you’re planning your schedule so know how much spare time you have every week for taking on extra work. No reasonable client will expect you to start work immediately so don’t feel bad for telling them that you can’t fit them in until next week/next month. They will wait!
And don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to do ALL THE THINGS. Yes, being active on social media is important but you don’t have to be on every platform, all the time (Andrew and Pete have a great video on this), and yes, starting a newsletter/creating an email marketing campaign/launching a webinar/writing an eBook could work wonders for your business but you don’t have to do them all right now. Or ever.
In fact, even when you do decide to tackle some of these projects, you don’t have to handle it all on your own; outsourcing to a VA, a marketing expert or a copywriter (Oh hey, I’m a copywriter! There, plug over), can help you avoid overwhelm.
The main take away: pace yourself.
Watch out for avoidance.
By quitting your job to be a work-from-home-entrepreneur, you’ve thankfully managed to escape from some of the things that were exacerbating your mental health issues. Maybe it was the packed train that always triggered a panic attack; maybe it was your boss whose specialty was gaslighting and confidence crushing. Yay, you don’t have to worry about either of those things anymore!
Which is great, as long as you don’t find yourself entrenched in a pattern of avoiding the things that make your anxiety worse. Because you know, and I know, that if you have a fear of driving, for example, the way through it is to get behind the wheel. If you have a fear of public speaking, you need to get up on that damn stage. The only way to squash the things that frighten you is to face them.
And if you want your business to be a success, you’re going to have to face some scary situations. Networking meetings where you have to pitch your services to a room full of strangers, cold calling prospective clients, asking clients for feedback on your work…
I’m not saying for a minute that you HAVE to do all of those things but being vigilant of your own behaviour and motivations could be helpful. Yes, it’s a huge relief that you don’t have to take a crowded train every day, but never being able to take the train again? That’s maybe not a track you want to go down…
The main take away: try not to use working from home as an excuse to avoid anxiety-inducing situations.
(A wee disclaimer here — I know that if you’re in the throes of a mental health crisis, me saying ‘face your fears’ isn’t going to do a thing to help. It’s as bad as saying ‘snap out of it’ to someone with depression (please, never ever say that to someone with depression.)Take this advice only when you feel that you can cope with it, or ignore it completely as something that just applies to me. Above all, be kind to yourself and only put yourself under as much pressure as you’re able to handle.)
Get out of the damn house. Regularly.
I thought I was safe enough on that score: I do the school run twice a day and the dog demands plenty of walks. But while that’s enough to make sure I get dressed and leave the house every day, my world started to become smaller when I went full-time self-employed.
The four walls of my home office were beginning to feel like confinement rather than comfort.
For me the answer was karate. I now train at my kids’ dojo twice a week and as well as appreciating the hell out of the endorphin rush, I love that it allows me to be part of a community. I enjoy meeting new people, making connections and having at least two hours every week my mind can’t wander back to work (because if it does I’ll end up getting punched in the face!).
For you it might be a different kind of exercise class, it might be making the commitment to go for a long walk every single day or it might be that a co-working space is exactly what you need to avoid freelance isolation. Find something that appeals and promise yourself you’ll leave the house at least a couple of times a week, preferably more.
The main take away: no matter how introverted you are, you need human connection. Find a way to make that happen, on your own terms.
Set scary goals — but don’t forget to appreciate now.
If there’s one thing you’re good at when you have anxiety, it’s living in the future (when you’re not dwelling on the past, that is!). Which can be helpful when you’re building a business. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never going to figure out which steps you need to take to get there.
Problems arise when you spend all of your time focusing on your big, scary future goals.
Instead of thinking ‘woo hoo, I just scored a new client’, you think, ‘fine, but where’s the next one going to come from?’ Instead of appreciating that you crushed your income goal for the year, you start panicking that it was a fluke, you’ve peaked too soon and next year you’ll crash and burn.
You fall prey to the ‘what if’ voice in your head (I call mine Voldemort because it’s a manipulative, falsely seductive, joy-stealing creep and one of these days I’m going to figure out how to turn him to dust). Instead of enjoying the moment and the small successes as they mount up (and big successes, by the way, are nothing more than a series of small successes gathered up over time), you spend your time focusing on the future and everything that could do wrong.
So how do you overcome this?
I’ve found two ways, and they may make you roll your eyes…
Gratitude and mindfulness.
Now, I know they sound a bit out there (I’m always suspicious of anything you could label ‘woo’) but surprisingly, they’re both backed by science.
With gratitude, it’s very much a case of ‘you find what you’re looking for’. Go through life thinking everything’s shit and people are all horrible and — boom — that’s exactly what you’ll find. You’ll see the bad stuff and the good will wash over you, unnoticed. You’ll focus on the social media posts you created that got no engagement, you’ll be swamped by awkward clients that take advantage, you’ll feel like your business is more trouble than it’s worth.
If you’re a glass half empty sort, it’ll take a bit of time to change your mindset but it can be done.
My advice is to start a gratitude practice. Every day, find 5-10 things to be grateful for and make at least a couple of them relate to your business. At first, you might have to look really freakin’ hard because a lifetime of negativity is a tough habit to break. But there’s bound to be something. Did you get a new follower on Twitter? Did a client pay their invoice without waiting for a reminder? Did you feel like utter crap but manage to put in a couple of hours at your laptop anyway?
The more you practice looking for the small victories, the more accustomed your brain will become to finding them. The theory is that, eventually, you’ll automatically start to focus on the good stuff without any effort.
And when that happens, you can look to your big, scary five-year goals with confidence and optimism because you’re super aware of the business successes you’ve already had.
Initially, I was suspicious of this one, thinking it was just another wellness fad (because self-care, y’all!) but the science behind why it works is pretty compelling. I won’t go into it all here partly because it would take far longer than I have to write, but mostly because science is not my strongest subject. Others have done it far more justice than I ever could.
The nutshell version though is that a regular mindfulness practice will help you acknowledge your thoughts and emotions without falling prey to them. It brings you back to the present moment and allows you to detach from your whirlwind of thoughts long enough for logic to penetrate (your client hasn’t emailed back because they’re in a meeting or it’s their day off — it’s not because you screwed up, sent the email to the wrong person, are a horrible failure etc etc).
I’m constantly trying to find ways to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my daily work schedule and really do feel the benefit.
Get started now with my current favourite guided meditation
Or this body scan meditation.
And some further reading that I’ve found helpful:
The main takeaway: gratitude and mindfulness are not just for woo-merchants — and they can make you feel pretty peaceful. Worth a try, right?
This doesn’t just apply to your clients — you need to set (and stick to!) your own boundaries too.
Again, if you’re a people-pleaser, this won’t come naturally. And leaving emails unanswered can be torture if you’re an anxiety sufferer. But, I promise your client isn’t expecting a reply to their email on Sunday afternoon (and if they are, ditch them now!).
Your mental health demands that you take adequate time off from your work. That’s just good sense whether you have a mental illness or not.
Decide what time your work day finishes and then pledge not to check your emails again until you start work in the morning. Make it clear to clients that you don’t work weekends and they’ll have to wait until the next working day for a response.
And take holidays! I appreciate this can be hard, especially if you’re the main breadwinner in your family or the sole earner but it’s soooo important. Failure to take the enough time off is a recipe for mental health disaster and will ultimately have a much greater impact on your earning potential than taking a few days off when you need some R&R.
If you struggle to schedule holidays, sit down at the start of every business year and map out which weeks you’re going to take and then make sure all of your clients know about them. Hopefully they’ll have the decency not to ask anything of you during those periods and you’ll find it easier to take the time, guilt-free.
The main take away: there are no prizes for working 60 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, no award for hustle. Take a holiday!
Working for someone else can be great for people with anxiety — you have regular appraisals so you know what you’re getting right and how you can improve your performance. You have colleagues to support you when you’ve had to deal with tricky projects or impossible-to-please clients and you have a sounding board (AKA reassurance) for any new ideas you want to try out.
When you’re self-employed you have none of that. You hope that you’re doing a great job, but without regular feedback, how do you know for sure?
You may think you’ve had a great idea but without someone cheerleading you on, you give in to self-doubt and your idea fizzles out.
And those bad days that we all have? Without someone to moan to, you internalise the stress and it begins to fester.
Luckily there are a few solutions you can try:
Firstly, start listening to your clients. Their feedback is as reassuring as any appraisal. You should be asking for a testimonial after every project or encouraging every customer to leave a product review for you but even if you don’t currently do that, try listening to the things your customers aren’t saying.
If they come back to you time and again? They’re telling you that they value your work.
If they pass your name on to their friends and family? They’re telling you that you’re great at what you do.
Take note of these victories and look at it every time imposter syndrome rears its ugly, lying head.
Secondly, find yourself a business champion — someone (or several someones) who you can turn to for advice when you have a great idea or who’ll commiserate with you when you have a crap day or awful client. This could be a business buddy (my sister is mine!), a business coach, a mentor or a membership community (I belong to Atomic and it’s great for helping you feel that you’re not in this thing alone).
The important thing is that you build yourself a little business tribe that you can turn to whenever loneliness sets in.
The main take away: you’re not alone, your tribe is out there somewhere. You just have to find it.
There, doesn’t that sound like I have it all worked out?
Ha, I wish!
In truth, working your way through mental illness is a huge adventure in trial and error. As is self-employment. But if you’re thinking of taking the leap to working from home or you already are a self-employed home-worker feeling the strain, some of these might work for you. I hope they do.