Stress is a part of life, especially when it comes to work. While contracting isn’t intrinsically stressful compared to full time jobs, it does intrinsically remove certain counterbalances to stress – such as managers and fixed hours. This means that unhealthy levels of stress can develop if you don’t keep on top of things, inside your head and out.
I personally have a low to medium tolerance to stress and generally try to avoid it, but paddling your own canoe means steering through rapids from time to time. So here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years that can help make sure you keep your stress levels in check.
1. TAKE PROPER BREAKS
Full-timers know when they can clock off. It’s written into their contract, and if everyone else has gone home and the lights are turned off that usually gives them a clue too. But contractors – especially those of us who frequently work in the evenings – don’t necessarily have that threshold. Giving yourself permission to stop and do something else comes more easily to some than others. I often find myself replying to emails late at night, or even worse, taking my laptop with me on breaks, to keep things ticking over. Whether it’s a lunch break, an evening, or a summer holiday, you have to protect your brain from ‘permawork’ overload. There are apps you can get to ‘pause’ your inbox out of hours, but there’s no substitute for old fashioned self-discipline.
It’s especially true if non-work stress is high. A few years ago I was working too much whilst trying to move house – partly because it felt necessary to pay for the whole operation. Result: I became so run down I got shingles and had to take three weeks off.
2. STAY ORGANISED
Organising yourself is just as important as paid work and if you allow jobs – like invoicing – to mount up, you’re simply creating a great big pile of stress to wade through sooner or later. A disorganised work situation leads to a disorganised mind, and this is draining, stopping you functioning at your best.
The ongoing ‘meta’ stress for any contractor is, of course, ‘what if I don’t make enough money this month?’ That never really goes away, you just learn to ignore it. It motivates you and keeps you sharp, but it can stop you being smart with your money. You can become overly cautious. So make sure you invest in your wellbeing. Buying a nice comfy chair in your office, to replace the old hunched over ‘stress position’ one, will increase your productivity and pay for itself in no time.
Also, if you can, put money aside. If at some point you’re finding work very stressful and need a break, it will be a lot easier to take time off if you have a financial cushion.
3. LEARN HOW TO SAY NO
Taking too much on is an excellent way to burn out. Of course, when you’re just starting out, how do you know how much is too much? You don’t, so always err on the side of caution. Time is money and it can be tempting to always accept every offer and worry about how you’ll fit it all in later. You still need to do those little things like sleeping and eating and seeing loved ones, and the more you work beyond a regulation 35/40-hour week, the more you’ll see your efficiency and productivity drop off.
Not only that, saying no feels really good. It reminds you that you’re in control. And that is why you became a contractor, after all.
4. GET OUT MORE
You won’t really combat stress if your breaks consist of staring at your computer or phone. So ditch the screens and get some regular sun in your eyes. This is especially important when sunlight is at a premium in the winter.
Moving your body is important, too. Both are proven to help your body and mind relax better, but there’s a whole other level of value to a contractor. The second ‘meta’ stress for the self-employed is ‘What if I get sick and can’t work?’ (see above for notes on how best to get Shingles). Staying healthy and fit will help reduce that risk, as well as keeping your brain at its best.
It’s also good to socialise with other contractors when you go out, especially if you work at home a lot. Offloading the gripes and groans of your working week with a bit of ‘watercooler’ chat is basically freelancer therapy.
5. REMEMBER…IT’S ONLY WORK
Sometimes things will get on top of you and you just have to battle through. Jobs might go wrong, clients may pay you late. It happens. And if you’re a professional, dedicated person, you may find that you take it personally and bend over backwards to make your clients happy. But bending can lead to breaking, and very few deadlines are more important than your overall health. So if it’s all getting too much, remind yourself it’s only work, keep things in perspective and make time to get yourself back into a better place. If you’re struggling to do that, reach out for a helping hand, such as asking your clients for some flexibility. Better to do that than powering through and burning out.