Since early 2020 when work-from-home orders were imposed, many an office employee will have experienced work the way freelancers typically do. The mechanics of freelancing are now applicable on a larger scale and raising awareness might help full-time employees to be mindful of the challenges a home office setup presents.
A Freelancer’s Typical Work Setting
There is a clear distinction between being self-employed and working on a freelance basis. In simple terms, every freelancer is self-employed but not every self-employed individual works as a freelancer. Typically, freelancers are found in fields such as writing, translating, illustrating or designing which dictated by the nature of the work might involve only limited interaction with others. Most freelancing jobs are result-orientated tasks where the client defines the desired outcome at the beginning. Depending on the job, there may be no further interaction with the client required until the job is completed. Other times, there will be discussions with the client at certain stages of the project to make sure there are no misunderstandings, and contents and timelines are on track. Formerly, this would have involved a certain amount of personal contact, during which the freelancer would present his work, the client provide feedback, and the freelancer continue with the task accordingly. In today’s digital world, many of these evaluation stages will not be conducted face-to-face but rather offline via remote means especially when different geographic locations are involved. Taking these factors into account might help to explain why the freelance service provider of today may be exposed to minimal real-time face-to-face contact, if any at all.
The number of working hours in a week for employees and freelancers is about the same. The difference is that a full-time on-site employee on a 40-hour working week will potentially have social interaction during eight hours a day plus, if using public transport, the commute to and from work. Often the freelancer will not be part of a team and therefore have only limited exposure to personal interaction. If a deadline has to be met, the freelancing worker may be periodically putting in very long hours for days on end. As many freelancers work from home, the lines between professional and private life become increasingly blurred. The little time left will be dedicated to the bare necessities of human functioning i.e., eating, drinking, and sleeping. If the freelancer in addition to working on their own also lives alone, they might see a week pass by with virtually no contact to others. Factor all of this in, and it may come as no surprise that some freelancers could be heading down a slippery slope as far as their mental health is concerned.
How Things May Play Out
The lack of social interaction may over a longer period of time lead to feelings of loneliness if not addressed adequately. Freelancers might neglect leisure activities, spending time with friends and family, or playing sports and not show the same determination and self-discipline as they do completing a paid job. At an early stage, freelancers may not realise potential deficits or, on the contrary, enjoy the flow of adrenaline and the financial reward when a job is completed. Yet they run the risk that over time this chosen way of life might have adverse effects at a later stage.
When choosing freelance over employed work, professionals are usually aware of the major requirements of their future occupation. Whether this choice also takes into consideration the emotional consequences of such a career may not always be the case. There is research suggesting that the self-employed may be more susceptible to negative emotions such as stress, fear of failure, mental strain, grief, and loneliness compared with employees. In contrast to the view that freelancers are prone to becoming socially isolated with its resulting negative emotions, there is research positing that loneliness is merely one of the potential outcomes typified by having only few relationships. Individuals who may be socially isolated need not inevitably feel lonely, and lonely people are not essentially socially isolated. Where the number of social contacts is low, some might feel lonely whereas others may feel adequately embedded. What constitutes a sufficient number of social contacts or adequate level of interpersonal interaction will depend on the individual circumstances of the individual which only she or he can judge. For example, a new mother in her late twenties freelancing as a translator may be fully embedded and socially satisfied by living with her partner, family, and baby. A 44-year-old divorced man living on his own, on the other hand, may feel lonely despite having 500 contacts on social media channels.
Humans thrive on social interaction where a lack of face-to-face contact may manifest itself in feelings of being left out, becoming increasingly withdrawn, and not interacting with the outside world on a sufficient level. Specific coping strategies are useful when problems emerge. A promising path to getting work-life balance back into equilibrium lies in taking a step back in the developmental stage. As a youth or adolescent, you generally shared more, interacted more, relied more, played more, laughed more, and spoke more. Setting time aside which is solely reserved for personal enrichment and not work is a prerequisite. What and how an individual chooses to fill their social calendar is almost irrelevant and down to personal preference. One common denominator should, however, not be compromised: it needs to involve face-to-face, real-time interaction, and verbal communication.
While there is an underlying risk that freelancing work may lead to feelings of social isolation or loneliness, this is per se no valid reason not to pursue a career in a line of work in this setting. The ability to thrive in an essentially self-centred workplace may well be a common denominator of most freelancers. The rewards, typically the sense of autonomy and independence, may in many cases outweigh potential negative effects.