05 January 2023

Avoiding Burnout: 8 tips for freelance consultants

Avoiding Burnout

We’re more likely to burn out when we are stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. When we are lonely. When we feel out of control. When there’s a lack of balance in our lives. The effects can be devastating: depression, exhaustion, increased susceptibility to physical illness, insomnia - even heart disease.  

In 2019, the World Health Organisation classified burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ and most companies are now keenly aware of the impacts it can have on their employees; indeed many are working hard to reduce workplace stress and offer targeted assistance to those in need. As a freelance consultant, however, you need to create your own structures of support.

To help you on your way, the Choix team have put together some tips around how you can avoid burnout, look after yourself, and flourish - in 2023 and beyond.  

1. Build a financial buffer

Financial worries are a major contributor to feelings of stress and anxiety. And while freelancing can be more lucrative than permanent employment, it’s also typically more precarious: projects get cut and fall through all the time. Building a buffer to cover 6-12 months off-contract means you can feel confident that you're protected in the event of future lean times. 

A solid buffer also means you’re in a better position to say no to work you don’t want and focus on the projects that excite you. It also means you’re more likely to take full advantage of the flexibility freelancing affords. You can make an active choice, say, to take three months off to travel / write a book / generally follow your bliss - activities which, in turn are likely to replenish and recharge you and thus further help you to avoid burnout!   

2. Structure your time. Set boundaries. Communicate them

As a freelancer it’s easy to feel that you must be available for your clients 24/7. It’s easy to end up working much harder than you ever did in a permanent role. But if you’re always ‘on,’ there will be a cost, so take control now.  

Structure your days: maybe you want to work the same hours every day, maybe you want to work late for a couple and take a 2 hour break for lunch - so you can go for a run / have lunch with a friend / cook a proper meal. Maybe you want to spend an hour a week on business development outreach. 

Set some boundaries. You might decide to check your work emails only between 8am and 6pm. You might choose to put WhatsApp off limits for work. You might not check emails at all on the weekends. If you have clear boundaries, you can also set expectations with clients at the beginning of a project. And if you need to flex, say in the context of an urgent deadline, that’s fine - just make sure you don’t let them slide for too long! 

A great way to help yourself stick to the boundaries around your time, is to know what you’re doing with your non-work time. So book in your exercise classes, poetry workshops, time with your friends, your kids - whatever it is that relaxes and nourishes your self and soul.  

3. Maintain in-person contact with other humans!

While it’s great that most organisations are now far more flexible in allowing home-working, there’s such a thing as too much time on your own, and loneliness is recognised as a major cause of stress for freelancers. 

A couple of days a week in a client office can be really energising. It can also help with project delivery - you’ll get a better sense of the organisation you’re working with, build stronger relationships, ‘see’ things that you won’t on zoom. 

If this isn’t possible, you could join a co-working space or work from a local cafe or library a few afternoons a week. Perhaps there’s a freelancer meetup in your area where you can pop along and chew the fat - or can you set one up? Might a monthly meeting with a mentor or coach be useful? 

Outside of work, again make sure you’re giving time to your social life: staying in touch with the people who matter to you, making new friends - having fun!

4. Look after your body

Keep moving during the day. Excessive screen-time is draining and damaging for the eyesight. Sitting for long periods can have terrible consequences for your back. 

So take regular breaks. Have a wander at lunchtime. Go for a walk around the block a couple of times a day. Look after your mind while you’re at it: set yourself little attention-sharpening tasks - noticing every tree that you pass for example, or taking photographs: things that connect you to the world beyond yourself. 

Do exercise that you enjoy. Regularly. Eat well. Give yourself enough time to sleep. 

5. Curate your clients & projects - what’s the best mix for you? 

A difficult client can be phenomenally stressful. As can boom-bust project rhythms where you have ten on the go and then none (because you’ve had no time to build your pipeline). Or maybe you thrive on this.

The important thing is to identify the best mix for you: do you prefer to work on one project at a time? Would you benefit from finding a retainer where you work, say, a day a week for a particular client and fit other clients around it?

Think back - which projects have you enjoyed / clients you have enjoyed working with? Who would you go back to in a heartbeat. On the other hand, who / which context has stressed you out in a negative way - where did you come away thinking ‘never again.’

Create a checklist of indicators that a client / project will be right (or wrong) for you. And use it! 

6. If you’re sick, rest. 


It can be tricky. As a freelancer, you don’t get sick pay (another reason why a financial buffer is so important). However if you don’t take the time to recover properly when you’re sick, you’re only kicking the can further down the road.  

You might worry that it looks bad to take sick days - but it can look a whole lot worse to turn up sub-par to an important meeting. Remember, most clients are also human, and thankfully the ‘push on through’ attitude to sickness is losing ground to the more sensible concept that if you give your body a chance to heal, you’ll be back up to full productivity a lot faster.

7. Take Breaks. Switch off

All kinds of breaks. Short. Medium. Long. Breaks at the weekend. Breaks from your devices. Breaks between projects. Holidays. Breaks where you focus on your hobbies, work on a passion project. Breaks where you do nothing but stare at the sky or read poems. 

Take breaks seriously. Prioritise them. They are as important as your work. They’ll help you to do it better. They’ll also help you to avoid getting sick. It’s a virtuous circle. 

8. Pay attention to how you feel - on an ongoing basis!

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It creeps in over time. The good news is, if you keep regular tabs on your physical and emotional state, you’ll be able to catch yourself in the early stages and take preventative action.

According to Mental Health UK, common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed 

So check in with yourself on a regular basis: what’s your general mood, how are you feeling about your work, your health, your life? Try a 10 minute journal entry every week / every couple of weeks. If you don’t like writing about how you feel, try a sketch instead, or create a weather report. 

If you find yourself slipping slowly (or quickly) towards burnout, it’s time to stop, take a break and work out how to redress the balance. 

I realised about 6 months into freelancing that I was working longer hours than I’d ever worked before and it just wasn’t sustainable. I made a conscious effort to find a better balance - spend more time with my kids, cook, sing… you know! You have to stay vigilant though - you have to make sure you’re maintaining the balance and not always saying yes to literally everything that comes your way - it’s easy to slip off!
Priya Sivaraman, Choix Network Member

N.B. for further guidance on what you can do if you think you’re already in a burnt out state, this article from online counselling service Betterhelp is a good place to start

At Choix we help freelance consultants to connect with great opportunities. If you have questions, please email us at hello@mychoix.com . Click here to apply to join our outstanding network. 

Additional articles that may be of interest include our Tips for Freelancers, collated from conversations with Choix Network members, Who Am I - a guide to positioning yourself as a freelance consultant and What’s the Plan, a DIY career development workshop for freelancers. 

Take breaks seriously. Prioritise them. They are as important as your work. They’ll help you to do it better. They’ll also help you to avoid getting sick. It’s a virtuous circle.