Self-employment often means working alone, but you don't have to be lonely...
Updated: May 9
Freelancers have a lot of flexibility and autonomy, but along with those positives come, of course, the down sides.
And one of the biggest is, arguably, loneliness. Something which was exacerbated during the pandemic and lockdowns, and is highlighted in this year's Mental Health Awareness Week, where the theme is loneliness and isolation.
For the self-employed, the feels of working alone for days, wondering if someone has read our email, fretting whether we’ve said the right thing on slack or messenger, wishing we could have a coffee break with ‘in real life’ people, longing perhaps for the social side of office or shop life is a long-term challenge. It’s a real and ongoing juggle for us – many are thinking of returning to the office, gradually, but for freelancers the loneliness I’ve described could continue.
I asked for some advice and tips from people who have researched – and lived – the subject, and I am hoping that they'll ring true not just for freelancers but those working from home or remotely, too.
Three main types of loneliness
Cheryl Rickman is author of Navigating Loneliness: How to connect with yourself and others, and told me there are three types of loneliness. “It’s important to understand the different dimensions of loneliness. There are three main types of loneliness, all of which come from a lack of connection. Emotional loneliness is caused by a lack of close relationships with people to confide in; social loneliness is caused by the relational lack of a trustworthy and supportive social network and existential loneliness is a feeling of collective detachment from others. Each type of loneliness corresponds with three main types of connection: inner circle, middle circle and outer circle, each of which can go some way towards providing a defence against their corresponding type of loneliness.”
Cheryl continues: “Emotional loneliness requires the development of deeper relationships with one or more person you can trust and confide in. Whereas, the type of loneliness that is perhaps more common for freelancers to feel is social loneliness, because freelancers are working alone without support from management or colleagues. As such, it’s important to try to cultivate connections with those who are in the same boat. Loneliness is about a lack of companionship; feeling isolated and left out from others. This is why you need not be physically alone to feel lonely. You can spend a lot of time by yourself and enjoy the solace of solitude just as you can be surrounded by people, at home or at work, yet feel incredibly lonely. For a freelancer, feeling supported by other freelancers can be a positive antidote to the isolation of working solo from home. Connecting with a group of people within a freelance network, individually and as a whole, can contribute to a feeling of belonging and counter feelings of social loneliness.”
So, what can we freelancers do? Cheryl has four key pieces of advice:
1. Get out of the house and tap into the flexibility and work-life balance that working from home can offer. If your work is such that you can work from anywhere with a web connection, hit the road occasionally and work from a coffee shop, a library, anywhere you’re not alone. Just escaping the confines of home can make a big difference.
2. Synergise connection with tasks. Freelancers are often busy juggling working on projects with working to secure work. With busyness sometimes getting in the way of time to connect, you might need to get creative. One idea is to synergise multiple tasks into the same time period. For example, if you need to walk the dog, discuss a project with an editor, and post a parcel, walk the dog to the post office and talk to your editor on the phone while you do so, then schedule in some time to spend in face-to-face connection with a friend.
3. Schedule positivity-boosting activities during regular working breaks to counter the negative impact of loneliness. Try writing down three things you are grateful for, performing a random act of kindness or making a thank you card during your lunch break then delivering it.
4. Cultivate more connection outside of work. Connect more outside of working hours to counter the deficiency that is causing loneliness. Volunteering can be a wonderful way to meet new people and feel part of a community working together for a good cause. Other benefits of volunteering come from the good feelings which being of service gives us.
Physical vs emotional loneliness
Next, I asked Gill Hasson, author of Lonely Less: How to Connect with Others, Make Friends and Feel Less Lonely, which came out on June 17 2021, if we can suffer a different kind of loneliness as freelancers. (You can follow her @gillhasson) “Yes,” she said. “Firstly, there’s the loneliness of being physically separate from others. You’re in a room/office/workshop alone without any one to have a quick chat with, go for coffee or lunch with and share ideas with. It is, after all, with those small interactions with colleagues that connections are made. Whole days can slip by without you actually have seen or spoken with anyone. You can feel quite isolated.”
“Secondly, you have to make all the decisions. And every decision you make has a direct effect on you, your welfare, your income your career. You may struggle to get help, advice and support when you run into problems with your work. Which just add to your sense of being alone."
"Thirdly, you may well feel that friends and family don’t understand your work life; that there’s a disconnect between their working day and week and yours. For example, others often think you’re always free to run chores and errands and take time out to take family members for their appointments. Or they can’t understand why you often need to work at weekends or in the evening. It’s frustrating and leaves you feeling very much on your own.”
Gill’s top three tips are:
1. Do take a proper lunchbreak. There’s probably other people - neighbours, family or friends - nearby who also work from home. Arrange to meet up with those people. Meet for a short walk, a sandwich in the park, a snack in a cafe or pub.
2. Do make plans for after work too. Plans that involve meeting up with others; family and friends. As someone who works from home writing for large parts of the day, I rarely feel isolated because a few days in the week, I meet up with a friend or neighbour for coffee, lunch or a walk.
3. Join associations, Facebook groups and other social media groups for others that work in the same profession / industry as you, and attend conferences, and training. This is an important thing to do because the other people are, in many ways, your colleagues. Connecting with others in social media groups and events can provide support and sharing of ideas.
Loneliness vs being alone
Finally, some words from Chez Spector, founder of the Alonement community, who spoke to me for the Freelance Feels podcast. She credits journaling with helping her find peace with freelance loneliness.
“Quite a lot of the conversations I have with people now are around loneliness. Even the word alone, which can be a very neutral word, the contexts in which we use it are often quite negative. ‘I feel so alone’… nine times out of ten, that’s a bad, negative statement. So, the fact that people can’t immediately get their head around the idea that Alonement can be a good thing, not only do I understand that, that was me for 27 years before I created this concept!”
For her, a version of ‘morning pages’ is a great way to remove mental blocks before the day. “I would have a ‘morning meeting’ with myself. Without doing that, I’d be overcome by fear and mental obstacles around doing all these big scary things. It’s a constant process of cheerleading for yourself. And not to say you get that from the office, but you think you might, you live in hope of that rather than looking for it from yourself.”