Some people embrace the flexibility and freedom, but there’s also the isolation and insecurity to contend with
Ask a group of freelancers what the biggest perk of their job is, and someone will invariably say “working in your pyjamas”. For me, not having to get suited and booted every day isn’t just a perk, it’s a necessity, because some days I just don’t have the energy. I have depression, and that is why the decision to work for myself, in the safety and comfort of my own home, was one of the best I have ever made.
Depression doesn’t mean I’m always low; there are long periods where you wouldn’t be able to tell there was anything wrong at all. But during a relapse, the fact that I don’t have to slap on a fake smile and spend all day with a group of people who almost certainly don’t understand what I am dealing with, is an incredible relief.
About 4.7 million people in the UK are living with depression, according to the Depression Alliance, and just this summer figures released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed that prescriptions for antidepressants had topped 50m a year for the first time.
Despite this, depression is frequently misunderstood. And no wonder: causes are seldom straightforward, ranging from inherent chemical imbalance to life circumstances, while symptoms can be both emotional, such as a sense of hopelessness or an inability to feel joy (or indeed anything), and physical, including sleeplessness, weight loss/gain, and chronic fatigue.
Mental health issues carry a stigma and can be tough to talk about, especially at work. In a 2008 study by the Depression Alliance, 79% of respondents felt that disclosing their illness to colleagues could be detrimental to them. Working from home, it is very rare that I have to try and explain my illness to anyone, least of all a boss who can’t quite comprehend why my productivity has taken a nosedive despite the fact I’m not coughing or running a temperature.
But perhaps the most precious advantage of all is the flexibility that comes with working for yourself. As a freelancer I am in control of what I do and when. Even knowing that I have this choice can avert the sense of panic and paralysis that the thought of having to go into an office would bring.
Eve Menezes Cunningham, who runs the Feel Better Every Day consultancy on a self-employed basis, has experienced not only depression but also anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She says the flexibility of working freelance has transformed her life.
“I’ve learned to listen to my body and mind more,” she says. “I can work crazy hours some of the time and take it easier when I feel the warning signs of burnout. It is much better for me to be able to control my own work and lifestyle rather than being back in a corporation.”
Of course, no situation is perfect, and freelancing also brings with it a number of factors that are likely to exacerbate depression – the blur between home and work life, for example, and the weight of responsibility that comes from being your own boss.
“When you don’t have a boss you don’t have anyone to direct you – all the responsibility is on your shoulders,” says occupational psychologist and career coach Sherridan Hughes. “Also, at work you have a defined role: a salesperson isn’t an administrator, and vice versa. When you’re freelance you have to have all these different roles, some of which may not be your natural character, and that can be very stressful.”
The financial implications of not having a regular salary would weigh on anyone’s mind, but when you are suffering from depression those worries can become all-consuming. To make matters worse, you are also most likely to struggle to motivate yourself to get more work.
Probably the most dangerous aspect of self-employment for the person with depression, however, is the potential to become isolated. Lack of colleagues means there is a risk no one will spot the signs of a low patch, while the very fact that you don’t have to put on that brave face means you could go the other way and spiral into negativity unchecked.
In 2008, the New Economics Foundation identified “Five Ways to Well-being“, one of which is simply to “connect”, and the Depression Alliance has recently launched a prototype social networking site for members called Friends In Need, to provide the opportunity for them to meet both online and offline.
“Depression causes loneliness and isolation, and loneliness and isolation cause depression,” says the Depression Alliance’s chief executive, Emer O’Neill. “So if you work by yourself from home it is important to socialise; it is important to get that human connection and that support.”
When Andrew* left his job to go freelance, he found the isolation oppressive. “Your spare bedroom or wherever you work can seem a bit like a prison cell,” he says. It was only when he took on a project which required him to get out of the house and meet people, that he realised freelancing full time wasn’t for him. “Oddly, I’m not a gregarious person,” he says. “I don’t go to the pub at lunchtime and after work I’d rather get home to the family. But human contact at work is essential for me. Without it I would easily slip back into isolated depression.”
I rarely miss having colleagues face-to-face. I fulfil my social needs by making sure to book in coffee dates with friends; my husband phones regularly throughout the day, and I am permanently logged into Skype so my sister, who lives abroad, can “drop by” for a chat. In the end, it comes down to personal choice.
Is self-employment the best option for people with depression? Clearly there is no black and white answer. Just as every individual is different, so every individual with depression is different. All I know for sure is that I couldn’t go back to an office job. I am far too comfortable in my pyjamas.
• Andrew is not his real name