What became a freelance burn out course was originally a fat book of over 65,000 words. I originally wrote ‘how to keep working while you’re dying on the inside’ as a book about freelance burn out. It became a course because printing costs seemed prohibitive and the pandemic created a necessity. There were so many people that were facing pressure that could lead to burn out, I figured the best way to help as many people as possible was to chunk the book down, turn it into lessons and get on with it via the Patreon.

The principles may work really well for COVID-19 and the stress related challenges there. But it is still a fundamentally built around freelance burn out.

When you’re a creative, self-motivated, and applied person (spoiler alert: you’re a freelancer so this is most definitely you), losing our connection with work can be hard to deal with.

Actually, hard to deal with may very well be the downplay of the century.

While people get into self-employment for many and varied reasons, all the ones I’ve ever met value their connection with work. It’s a huge part of our identity. It gives us satisfaction and meaning in life. Plus, many of us choose it because we want freedom, creativity and stretching ourselves to be the hallmarks of our career.

We take on a lot of risk, responsibility and stress because work is that important to us. When our relationship with work changes, we are not the ones content to accept the change and rest on our laurels. Challenge-seekers by nature, we invented our own jobs, for goodness sake! We did that knowing we were setting ourselves up for a wild, adventurous ride. One filled with projects we could be proud of and opportunities we could grab.

What happens is the nature of our relationship with work changes. We grow in capability. The challenge starts to wane. But unlike the situation of getting a promotion and moving onto the next big thing, we can get stuck.

Reasons why freelancers burn out include:

  • You’ve built up a reputation and a rolodex of clients expecting you to do a certain set of projects using a specific set of skills
  • Being popular for what you do means most of the time will be spent is servicing clients in the area you’ve become disinterested in. Motivation drops, procrastination sets in. This leaves little time for study, learning new things and experimenting
  • With skill comes seniority and with it, great income. You may become accustomed to a certain standard of living and don’t want to or cannot lose that income trying new things
  • Our awareness of the industry grows. With it, our concerns about what our peers and clients may think of failures increases. It means we train ourselves to take less risks.

The reasons for getting stuck can be many and varied. The one thing that is constant however is the longer you remain stuck, the harder it is to kick free. And the more likely burn out will result. Building a freelance burn out course is about helping you avoid that happening in the first instance by creating better habits.

Freelance burn out usually falls in three categories

To create a freelance burn out course, you need to delve into the whys and wherefores of burn out itself.

Usually, burn out falls into one of three categories:

  • You’re experiencing an occupational mismatch. This is when you start to feel the work you do is ineffective or meaningless. This sensation continues to grow. It swallows up both your enjoyment of inspiring tasks and your tolerance for the day-to-day, less interesting but necessary items. You may feel as though you’re having an existential crisis or your purpose in life or career. Or you may know what you want to do but feel like it’s out of reach. Most of the time, you feel as though your creative energy doesn’t have an appropriate outlet – it’s like you can’t make space for it because of competing demands
  • External influences are hampering your progress. Here, devoting energy to thorny people and problems of their making may be taking its toll. You could be dealing with stakeholders and working partners that keep changing the goal posts. Their lack of direction may feel contagious. You may start to feel as though you are being asked to do things a lot that simply don’t make sense, let alone have meaning. Or perhaps you’re being exposed to toxic relationships where bullying, humiliation and/or negativity are a regular feature. It may also be structural issues such as working in fields where the aims are lofty, but the resources are low, leading to systemic industry issues that make you feel as though you are robbed of your power
  • You’ve fanned the flames of individual burn out. This is when negative self-talk rules the roost and nobbles you from the inside. Its hallmarks include self-criticism, perfectionism and neuroticism. Your highly aroused by situations and find it difficult to lower the temperature back to safe levels. Over time, it brings self-doubt, a genuine inability to connect with the work, and a loss of identity through being unable to connect positively with your self-image. You seem to attract negative people and situations that continually affirm these feelings.

No matter the cause, freelance burn out is a lot like a major blockage in the creativity and choice systems. It’s a like a blockage of possibilities laced with a loss of control. You and your potential are out of synch with one another. You stare across the abyss to what it means to be working on meaningful work. Something or someone appears to be getting in the way.

The other problem too is that the longer you feel the burn, the harder it is to imagine a future out from underneath it. Confidence dwindles along with our ability to cope. Our enthusiasm seems to die with it, and we enter a situation where we do what we can to survive. This convinces us that the ability to thrive is further and further away.

Yet freelance burn out is a place where knowledge is power. Action is your best friend. And incremental progress is your saving grace.

What we do in the freelance burn out course, dying on the inside, is about activating healthy habits across ten units to make you feel stronger and more empowered. It’s also about reflecting on the ideas that maybe don’t service us as much as we think.

How do you know if you’re burning out or under stress?

There’s no point in doing a course on how to avoid freelance burn out if you’re the most happy little freelance clam that ever dug into warm sand. You can usually spot if the stress of freelancing is starting to enter more problematic territory.

Does this sound like you?

  • You wake up tired, even after going to bed early
  • You find it difficult to stay present in the moment
  • You are wrestling a high-volume workload that often spills into overtime or working on weekends when you’d prefer not to
  • You question if you are moving fast enough with your business
  • You worry your contemporaries are leaving you behind
  • You feel as though you’ve lost control over the work you do
  • The work you do is repetitive and doesn’t invite creativity
  • It takes you longer to psych yourself up to do the work than it used to
  • Procrastination is a big feature of your workday – from social media scrolling to tidying your desk and organising work files
  • Small tasks, especially repetitive ones, such as admin frustrate you
  • You have started to dread communication and feedback
  • You’ve begun to shy away from interactions – online and face-to-face
  • Interruptions when working seem to have more impact than they used to
  • You can no longer tell if your work is of an agreed standard
  • You appear to be repeating the same challenges over and over again

Any of this feeling eerily familiar? It’s time to make a change to connect with work in a meaningful way. You don’t have to be experiencing freelance burn out to recognise that may not be the best way to feel about work. In fact, it’s better to get on top of it before it becomes an issue. This isn’t a freelance burn out recovery course. It’s about making sure you get better habits to either avoid burn out or to find a better way forward if you have experienced it previously and don’t really want to go there again.

I also want to say that a freelance burn out course is about teaching you good working habits and helping you avoid burn out. This isn’t about replacing a psychologist or in depth treatment to deal with stress. There are people out there who overstep the mark and I don’t want to be one of them. So, I have an expectation you’re coming to this little freelance burn out course before you get there. Not after you’ve been charred to ash.

You are not alone

We’re living in a tough world. We’re expected to be switched on and fabulous a lot of the time. High stress impacts and burn out are affecting more people. 1 in 5 Australians now report taking time off from work because we’re stressed, anxious, depressed or otherwise feeling mentally unhealthy. Untreated mental health conditions cost the Australian economy approximately $10.9 billion a year. And that’s without significant research into self-employment or freelancers added to the mix.

You might be startled to know that we’re in crisis when it comes to work and our relationship with it in Australia. Over 60% of Australians feel insecure about their work. 40% of people have had their regular role casualised.

A Victorian study found that 17% of our suicide total can be attributed to work. We also have an extraordinary workplace bullying rate, with 5-7% of workers experiencing bullying within the last six months. And 40% of Australian workers experience it early in their career. Again, the bullying can and sometimes sadly does circle back to suicide.

In the 2019 survey reported entitled The State of Australian Freelancing produced by the Freelance Jungle, 16% of people had chosen freelance life due to redundancy, being squeezed out, fired or toxic culture. 22% wanted a better working relationship to spend more time with family. 7.5% wanted the ability to manage their physical and/or mental health better.

That sends a fairly strong message that traditional workplaces aren’t catering to basic human needs such as respect at work, time to have a life or the ability to look after ourselves.

When I had the pleasure of sharing the stage in 2015 with former head of research for Beyond Blue Nick Arvanitis at Vivid Ideas, I found out that while 7 out of 10 companies aspire to be mentally-friendly workplaces, it’s more like 4 out of 10 that are willing to put in the hard yards to get there.

That’s a huge gap in desire and activation.

Is it any wonder that 2015 research conducted by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) found that 26% of people were experiencing burn out?

We all know the jokes about workplace flexibility and caring companies being reflected in being able to take the extra hours home. Or offsetting long hours by throwing beers at us in the evening and free yoga in the morning. Sadly, it looks like this is the reality.

Workplace flexibility is not a true reality in Australia. We found that out in spades with COVID-19 as the mad scramble occurred to keep people employed while needing to be socially distant.

Yet you would think that as self-employed people, we would be able to circumvent the issues the traditional workplaces face. Anecdotally, many people have chosen freelancing in Australia because we’ve worked out the structures don’t support us. Just as there doesn’t seem to be a survey of freelance burn out as such, there also doesn’t appear to be steps via a freelance burn out course about avoiding it. If anything, most of what is on offer focuses way too much on action Jackson stations and not enough on worklife balance. Which is ironic when you consider most of us chose freelancing for the apparently flexible lifestyle in the first place.

We created our jobs to support-

  • Family and maternity needs
  • Mental health issues
  • Physical health issues
  • Unexpected diagnosis
  • Disability management
  • Living regionally
  • Escaping and recovering from toxic workplaces
  • Travel
  • Study
  • Making more money and/or work less hours
  • Having more autonomy
  • Challenging ourselves
  • Creating space for side projects, entry into the start-up scene and more

The freedoms we covet are traded for the promise of jobs and rush fees with too much ease. Our feelings of financial insecurity are exacerbated by the feast and famine nature of freelancing. We lack workplace protections, so we feel vulnerable and say yes too readily. Our bosses are many and varied, making leadership inconsistent. Yet we appear to have deeply ingrained attitudes and habits, especially when it comes to overwork and accepting poor working conditions (e.g. late pay, abusive clients etc). We recreate workplace toxicity and invite freelance burn out in the process.

We’re adept at putting up and shutting up with situations that are not healthy.

As a result, the 2019 Freelance Jungle survey had 18% respondents who were burning out or had already done so. A further 30% identified apathy, disconnection and procrastination, some strong symptoms seen in future burn out cases, as real concerns. Hence the need for a freelance burn out course. We’re often adopting the business bravery myths to the point where we put ourselves at real risk here.

It becomes difficult to stay in the headspace needed to produce quality freelance work. Why? Because the freedom to have a lifestyle we design for ourselves means we often don’t get around to designing it at all. We have no contingency plan for the demands of a wildly successful freelancing career.

We’re freelancers, not psychologists. That means we’re often woefully under-prepared for the amount of client wrangling we have to do. And we rarely, if ever, consider our role in terms of leadership.

We don’t help ourselves by being caught up in websites that invite scarcity and encourage us to outbid other freelancers. Or by the glorification of overwork freelancing that translates into eating tinned corn at the desk and joking about it with our peers. The desire for fame and a big juicy profile replaces the freedom.

Mainly, we forget why we started freelancing in the first place.  It’s time to get that back.

Why run a freelance burn out course on Patreon?

2020 saw me test this little freelance burn out course on Patreon. I chose this mechanism for a few reasons. The first being that I had to turn ‘How to keep working when you’re dying on the inside’ from a book to a course- and then had the added pressure of doing it at break neck speed. Cost made the book impossible but the course viable. It also gave me the opportunity to test it without too much pressure. As I changed the book into a course so quickly, I didn’t want to do a huge, expensive roll out. Offering it on Patreon meant people could commit to $20 USD a month and receive two lessons for five months.

Some people dropped off. Many more came. I am yet to get the feedback form. It wasn’t as interactive as I liked because no one really wanted the group coaching elements and preferred to read and listen and turn up to class. And I will be checking homework in any subsequent runs, too.

What I found as well was that my confidence as a teacher grew because I was able to avoid a lot of pressure. It means that I can also build the freelance burn out course elements more, make it more interactive and teach it with greater emphasis on homework, as a two day stand up course in a classroom and more.

How things will shake out next year with the re-run and expansion depends on three things:

  1. Current student feedback
  2. What COVID has planned re: travel
  3. What I discover along the way as I translate it from a Patreon course to the next format

Curious as to what’s next for freelance burn out course, “how to keep working when you’re dying on the inside”? Register for updates via the FJ newsletter or join Patreon for the inside scoop.



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