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With her new book being your go-to guide for all things freelance, who better to share the secrets of how to protect your mental health while bossing your own business, than Fiona Thomas?

If you’ve struggled to get back into the regular nine-to-five rhythm, or are in need of a career change, then setting up as a freelancer might seem like the perfect solution. No boss, no problem, right? Being self-employed certainly comes with some mental health benefits. Flexibility, creative freedom, and a sense of accomplishment – not to mention the option to plonk yourself down in the trendiest café and call it your office. But the truth is that freelancing can be just as mentally draining as the traditional workplace. Here are my top five tips on how to support your mental wellbeing, and give yourself the best shot at being a happy freelancer…

1. Get paid on time

Late payments are, unfortunately, a common problem for most freelancers. I have lots of lovely clients who pay on time, but that’s not always the case. To keep your stress levels in check, don’t hang around. Always send invoices as soon as work is completed. Make sure that your payment terms are clear and set out in writing — ideally as part of a contract — before you start work. If possible, take payment upfront (or at least a percentage) to make life easier. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of what date you sent each invoice, and don’t be afraid to send email reminders when they are overdue. Remember, you’re legally allowed to claim interest and debt recovery costs on late payments. More information on this can be found at gov.uk.

Illustration | Rosan Magar

2. Increase your rates

They say money won’t make you happy, but as a freelancer who has spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about my finances, I can tell you that increasing your income, even slightly, will have a tangible impact on your mental health. Having the “I’m putting my prices up” conversation is a toughie, but one that I’ve had success with on multiple occasions. First up, don’t just pluck a figure out of thin air and expect your client to blindly accept the increase. They can research your competitors and find out what they’re charging, so you should do the same. This will give you a range of figures to work within, taking into account what your current rate is. Open up a dialogue, either on email or by phone, and make it a two-way conversation with a professional tone. Don’t get angry or upset. Just be honest about your expectations, and cite examples of the work you’ve done before to back up your right to be compensated fairly.

3. Financially plan for holidays

In the UK, full-time workers are entitled to a minimum of 28 days paid annual leave, and yet research by IPSE, trade body for the self-employed, shows that the average freelancer takes just 24 days of holiday per year. Time off can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity, and when time off equals a loss of earnings it’s even harder to down tools. But with careful planning, you can (and should) schedule regular time off throughout the year.

The secret is to build paid holidays into your pricing strategy. When setting future income goals, assume that you will only be working 45 weeks out of the year as opposed to 52. Then take your goal salary and divide it by the number of weeks you can carry out paid work. So for example, if you’d like to earn £30k a year you’d need to earn £666 a week (over 45 weeks) to hit that target. This gives you a great starting off point for pinpointing your day rate or pricing packages that will give you enough money to take the time off that you deserve.

Be bold and set working hours that allow you to do the things you love, whether it’s sleeping until midday or going for a run in the afternoon

4. Socialise with other freelancers

Studies show that being socially disconnected can have a real impact on your physical wellbeing, so if you want to minimise your sick days (and improve your networking skills) then make an effort to talk to other freelancers. The social support that comes from freelancing communities – such as membership sites, group business coaching, or Facebook groups – can help to reduce the stress that comes from self-employment. Friends and family often have no frame of reference with the complications that come from doing your first tax return, or dealing with toxic clients. But you can bet your bottom dollar that a fellow freelancer will not only get it, but they’ll have some sound advice to help you rise to the challenge.

5. Be the boss you wish you’d always had

Don’t fall into the trap of letting your business run your life. The whole point of being freelance is to break away from the shackles of the rat race, and build a career that works for you. Be bold and set working hours that allow you to do the things you love, whether it’s sleeping until midday or going for a run in the afternoon. During lockdown, I didn’t sit down at my desk until 10.30am most days, and it felt like such a luxury to give myself the time I needed to get my motor running each morning. Think about all the perks you wish you’d had in previous jobs. Maybe you would have liked a daily yoga class, access to counselling, or an extended lunch break. As a freelancer you’ve got the power to implement these things into your working life, so do it!

Fiona’s new book ‘Out of Office’ is avaiable now (Trigger Publishing, £9.99)

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