Low pay. No work-life balance. Leadership with no vision. Unreasonable production expectations. Pressure to do unpaid work.
If most of us heard all that about a traditional job we’d label it “toxic” without a blink. But how many of those traits could describe our freelance businesses?
How many of us think it’s ok to work long hours with rates that can’t cover basic benefits? How often do we hear it’s normal to grind 50 to 60 hours a week (or more) because “that’s how freelancing works”? How many of us are just out here in this freelance life with no strategy?
Now, I’m not talking about when we’re starting out. I mean as an ongoing standard for our freelance work. If we’re being honest? I bet a lot of us wouldn’t work for ourselves if we were employers…but just because it’s us, we put ourselves through situations we’d never want someone we care about to deal with.
But we don’t just do these things to ourselves randomly. Most of us are just replicating what we’ve seen after years of employment (and even in school). We’re just treating ourselves the way we (and everybody else around us) have been treated.
I want to talk about how to turn all that around.
You know I’m a big believer that the vast majority of us have an opportunity to use freelancing to improve our work lives. The thing is, that doesn’t happen if we don’t deliberately interrogate some of our attitudes toward work and question some of the standards that an employer-centered culture has left us with.
So…here are a few simple ways to get started.
Accept and celebrate the fact that you’re in control.
Some of us are reluctant to call our freelance work a “business”, but ultimately it is. And looking at it that way is a big opportunity…probably one of the biggest you’ll have in your life.
That’s because your status as the captain of your work life means that you can respond to almost any issue that comes up in your freelance work. You might not have an immediate solution, and you might have to reach out for input to get some direction, but you have options.
Acknowledge the trauma.
Workplace trauma is real, and it’s not limited to people with physically dangerous or emotionally taxing jobs. Not everyone is carrying it, but all it takes is an abusive manager, a toxic organization, or oppressive industry norms, and you could be dealing with mental health issues and even PTSD from your work.
Work can be a significant source of adult trauma and the first step in not replicating it in your freelance work is admitting it’s a possibility in the first place.
Start on a lifestyle goal.
Not a career goal…I’m talking about a vision for your life that doesn’t center your work.
If it seems like a lot to try to envision right now, that’s ok. It takes time to see what you want—you’ll need to tune in to what you enjoy, talk to people who’re further in the journey, and really examine the pressures around you. As you work that out, you’ll be able to shape a healthier picture of where your work should fit in a bigger, healthier picture.
When I started freelancing, I already knew I liked spending my time cooking, training martial arts, studying language, and traveling. I knew I wanted to sleep better and prioritize my health with a lower stress life. I knew I wanted to dedicate much less time to my work (but I also didn’t want to be broke). That’s how I came up with my goal of being location independent and making twice as much income while putting in half the time (a 20hr a week cap so I could live the way I wanted).
Your vision might look completely different…it might even change a few years from now! The point is to step away from being the kind of “employer” that expects their “workers” to center their lives around their careers.
Give yourself space from employer-influenced environments.
This one’s going to vary from person to person, but consider this—this survey found that 97% of Black “knowledge workers” don’t want to go back to full time in person environments.
97%. Ninety…seven. Employment “normal” was so bad that nobody wants to go back.
When you think about what makes those environments so 97%-of-people-want-out terrible, it’s things like microaggressions, pay gaps, and code-switching, but it’s also long commutes, inflexible schedules, abusive managers, and uncomfortable (or even dangerous) physical environments. (I mean…79% of white people don’t want to go back either…which says a LOT about the environments employers have created.)
So make sure you’re not replicating the same things unintentionally in your freelance life. Ask yourself:
- Am I making my office space as comfortable and inviting as possible?
- Am I giving myself the freedom to stop when I’m getting too task oriented?
- Am I taking breaks to move and take care of my body?
- Am I forcing myself to take on clients and go to events that I dislike just because it’s “good for business”?
- The things that I’m “pushing through”, are they actually improving my business and my life?
Never forget that, as a freelancer, you have the freedom to shape the life you want.
Turn the critiques around.
So you’ve probably read a few (or a lot) of articles about all the things employers are doing wrong…but have you ever turned the mirror back on yourself?
Seriously…the next time you see an article that critiques a toxic workplace or a dead-end job…ask if you’re subjecting yourself to the same things. But remember that we’re not only talking about production work. We’re talking about your entire freelance work experience.
So, for example, let’s say you see a list that mentions employees being tired, depressed, or anxious as a sign of a toxic workplace. You might think “well that’s not me” (at least not right now), but is it generally true for other freelancers in your niche? Are there constant complaints of overwork for low pay? Are you putting in any effort to build some sort of career path or are you stuck in dead-end freelance work?
I make a regular practice of reading this articles and asking “am I doing these things to myself?” and let me tell you…it really will make you want to do better.
Once you start rethinking your role as an “employer”, there’s a good chance you’ll start looking at yourself as a terrible (or at least negligent) one…but honestly, try not to be too hard on yourself. Learning to treat ourselves well in our work is a personal journey and one that flies in the face of a thousand cultural norms.
It’s a lot, and it’s a life-long process…but the payoff is real, and you’ve got a great employee who deserves it.