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Freelancers are taking back control.
The freedom and autonomy that comes with being your own boss is a captivating prospect for many people, but those who spend most of their time working at home are more likely to struggle with their mental health than the wider population.
When freelance writer Kate Morgan came down with a “rip-roaring fever” this winter, her flu symptoms weren’t the only thing making her feel dreadful. She was also grappling with intense anxiety over what was going to happen to her paycheck.
“Obviously I’ve had colds,” Kate tells Supermaker. “But this is the first time I’ve been out-of-commission sick. The nature of the beast is that my income depends on my rhythm of work. I was freaking out.”
At home alone in rural Pennsylvania, what might be seen by an office worker as a chance for a few day’s recovery suddenly felt catastrophic.
Kate is one of 57 million freelancers in the US, a group that’s expected to account for 50% of the country’s workforce by 2027. This is a shift being seen around the world; over in the UK, for example, the number of freelancers between 26-29 has risen by 66% since 2008.
The freedom and autonomy that comes with being your own boss is a captivating prospect for many people, but it’s also sadly true that those who spend most of their time working at home are more likely to struggle with their mental health than the wider population. As well as grappling with loneliness and isolation, freelancers are more likely to experience depression and suicidal thoughts, while the stress that comes with navigating unpredictable workloads (and clients who don’t realize how their behaviors might contribute to or exacerbate these challenges) is also taking its toll.
According to a recent survey from mental health support platform Leapers, the top causes of stress for freelancers include irregular income (cited by 85% of respondents), unpaid or late invoices (65%), and having to justify their value to clients (69%). The survey also found that 78% find the lack of clarity clients provide on projects stressful, while 72% struggle with the fraught experience of being ghosted by their clients.
But instead of suffering in silence, freelancers are starting to band together, creating their own networks and organizing to support the mental health of their community.
When Kate’s anxiety took hold, she sent a message out to a freelancer network she belongs to. “I just needed validation, camaraderie, and commiseration,” she says. “I knew the answer was to focus on [myself]—but sometimes you just need to hear it from other[s].”
Kate was about a year into her freelance career before she was introduced to Binders Full of Women Writers, a private Facebook group set up in 2014 that serves as a space for women and non-binary writers to share job opportunities and discuss professional struggles. Today it has over 46,000 members and has spawned various subgroups catering to different focus areas and identities.
“That first year was rough,” Kate recalls. “I made very little money and I cried a lot. I didn’t have any of these resources and I was brand new to the idea that this is how people work. The utter aloneness of it was really hard.”
Harriet Marsden, a freelance journalist based in London, similarly found refuge in social media groups. “When I did find myself in a low place, and I didn’t feel able to leave the house, [or] get out and see people, social media—Twitter in particular—became my lifeline,” she tells Supermaker. “It was the only thing [that made me feel like] I still existed. Without it, I would have been completely cut off.”
The conversation has since partially moved away from Twitter and into private Whatsapp groups. Harriet is part of three such groups made up of other freelance journalists, most of whom she had never met IRL at the time of joining. She says that access to such private spaces has been crucial. “Journalism is a small industry,” she explains. “If you want to rant about an editor that’s really fucked [with] you, you can’t talk about it on Twitter.”
For those without access to these invite-only groups, alternatives are available, often in the form of newsletters that provide professional advice. Some, like Freelance Writing Jobs by UK writer Sian Meades, or Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week, ask readers to tip if they enjoy reading (or land a job), while others offer paid tiers for more regular content and access to group discussions such as The Professional Freelancer, which has also organized co-working days for freelancers in London. Some are more explicit about their goal of providing emotional support, too, such as Freelance Feels, set up by Jenny Stallard last summer, with the goal of bringing “honest dialogue about freelance mental health to the fore.”
Others are morphing into more formidable activist organizations. Set up by creative strategist Matthew Knight in 2017, Leapers began as a Slack channel for people who wanted to chat about the ways in which work was changing. As its membership grew, the focus shifted to providing support for those who were becoming part of this transition—‘leaping’ from full-time employment to the unknown world of freelancing. Today it has over 1,600 members across almost every time zone, campaigns alongside mental health charities and even provides training and consulting for employers to help them improve their relationships with freelancers.
“The vast majority of stresses [that freelancers struggle with] are caused by these external factors. Clients behaving badly, lack of well-defined contract terms, late payments,” Knight says. “[The problem is that] there’s never anybody who has accountability for freelance workers in a business. It’s not an HR issue, it’s not a legal issue. It’s not a finance issue. [It’s] out of sight, out of mind.”
Meanwhile, Study Hall, launched in 2015, started life as a side project by writers Enav Moskowitz and Kyle Chayka, in response to their own feelings of isolation. “We liked being freelancers, we liked the independence, but it sucks to not feel like you have friends and comrades and colleagues,” Enav says.
Today, Study Hall encompasses a newsletter informing members of what’s going on in the media industry, as well as what work is available, a database of contacts, pitching guides and access to a Listserv forum and Slack group. Membership is tiered, costing between $2 and $11 per month, and there are also subsidized offerings for marginalized journalists. In the past year, Enav says, the community has exploded from under 1,000 members to more than 3,000.
What Study Hall and groups like it provide is more significant than a place to vent, Enav points out. “It’s not just about community—it’s about trying to organize for more protections and more money,” they tell Supermaker. “One of the best things about Study Hall is how much transparency we’ve inspired. Now it’s not a weird thing to say how much you are getting paid for something.”
By coming together to provide emotional support and discuss the highs and lows of their working lives, freelancers are—sometimes intentionally, but not always—stoking a powerful grassroots movement.
Freelancers who discuss experiences that left them questioning their personal and professional values are essentially warning others against working with certain clients, while discussions around pay are revealing which companies are playing fast and loose with rates and payment terms. “People feel so powerless. Study Hall has helped them understand that they can basically say ‘fuck you’ to these companies that rely on our labor,” Enav points out.
Perhaps more importantly, the space also alerts freelancers to the clients they should aspire to work with. “You end up with a whitelist of brilliant payers and [organizations that are] good to work with,” Matthew says. “We’ll see that shift of people moving to organizations that support them. And in the long term, it’s going to hit bottom lines. Even if an organization doesn’t care about its people, they care about profitability.”
At an individual level, Harriet agrees that increased transparency around pay has made it easier to negotiate better rates for her work. “In terms of financials, these groups are invaluable,” she says. “Everyone is trying to screw freelancers, so if we didn’t talk to each other about what we can charge and what we are worth, we’d never get it.”
As hirers start to wise up to the fact that freelancers are enthusiastically discussing how organizations treat them, freelancers can hopefully spend less time fretting over unpaid bills and fighting to prove their worth. In turn, this should make for a happier workforce—an important shift, given that one study reports that 80% of workers who think they are not appreciated find their job has a negative impact on their private life.
“Freelancing is this really singular thing. You’re doing this work, it’s really individual and you’re doing it alone—probably in sweatpants on your couch. But you still need colleagues,” Kate says, reflecting on five years spent working for herself. “That’s how I think about Study Hall. It sounds cheesy, but I think about these people like my colleagues.”
Kate says she can identify a marked difference between her first year as a freelancer and now that she has become involved with freelancer communities. And though these spaces have helped her to hone in on her professional marketability and industry know-how, they’ve also had a profound impact on her mental state.
“In terms of my mental health I’m in such a better place when it comes to work and my outlook, not just because these communities are good, but because they exist,” she concludes. “There are other people out there who are all feeling the same way I’m feeling, who can say ‘I’ve been there.’”