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Health and wellbeing

When you're employed, you can take a sick day to see a doctor. Trips out to see a dentist or physiotherapist are also common, and might even be available under an employer-sponsored healthcare plan. Holidays are readily available with time off for family events and religious celebrations, too. However, when you're a freelancer, you don't have that luxury, so taking care of yourself becomes a priority.

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We're lucky in the UK to have free healthcare from the NHS, but dentistry, optometry and other specialist services can cost. Be sure to factor these into your personal budget if you're coping with condition that needs regular treatment or prescriptions. If you're working in the EU as a UK citizen, you're also covered by the EHIC, the European Health Insurance scheme. And if you're travelling and working, it's advisable that you check in with a local Citizens Advice Bureau or a local embassy, as this is beyond the scope of the toolkit.

Working for yourself can be a solitary experience. Many new freelancers lose track of time, or even days, while working hard on a project. Any anti-social tendencies are amplified, with no reason to go outside or speak to anyone. This is a quick route to damaging your mental health. While everyone is different, ground rules that keep you focused and maintain your work-life balance are important:

  • Set a traditional work schedule, such as 9am-5pm is a good start. You can always adjust the times later to suit your own habits, if you like to work earlier in the mornings or later at night.

  • Turn off email alerts when you're not "at work". You can afford to let that midnight email sit until you're back at your keyboard, ready to look at it and deal with the contents.

  • Manage your time between clients, friends and family. All three need attention, and while you don't have to split your time into thirds, you do need to allocate energy to all of them.

  • If possible, separate your workspace and living space. This will trick your brain into focusing on what your location will dictate. No emails on the sofa, and no Buzzfeed at your desk.

  • Find what works for you. Every brain is different. If you find yourself feeling burned out, sick, bored or tired, it may be that you need to make some changes to your schedule.

When you're sick, you may find it difficult to take time out to see a doctor. It can feel as though every day that you're not working, you're losing money, and it's all too easy to cancel a dentist check-up to go see an interesting new client. However, your health should always take priority where possible, and as you progress in your freelance career you’ll gradually feel less terrified about lost work. Not only will your clients understand, but there are always more clients out there.

Some like to print off gorgeous typographic posters emblazoned with their mantras, while some just like to write "GO TO BED" on a post-it note stuck to their screen. Whatever works for you is the method you need to maintain.

Freelancers don’t have anyone else to back them up on big job, so consider building a support network. A group of like-minded self-employed creatives is much more formidable than any one person.

Primarily, the benefit of being able to pass jobs between your network is invaluable. If you can’t take on a job, sending it on to another creative who can later pay back the favour is a great way to stay busy. Of course, you have to trust that your circle will return the favour the next time you’re looking for work. Shared workspaces can be cheaper especially when split between multiple users.

Plus there are the emotional benefits of having a support network. Freelancers can often work unsociable hours and weekends, so to have friends that understand that you can’t be out on a Friday night, but are happy to go the to cinema on a Wednesday morning can do wonders for your emotional state and stress levels.

And there’s always the option to collaborate, either on paid contracts or just portfolio pieces. Freelancers with different skill sets and specialisations can be a great asset to your clients and your work.

When you decide to go freelance, your reputation becomes much more important. Word-of-mouth is one of the most valuable ways to get hold of new clients. It’s free, and has a great pitch success rate. Of course, your experience and portfolio will play a big part in securing work, but your personality, communication skills and even sense of humour can play a big part.

Try to manage your communications with clients, stay professional where you can, and feel free to chat to your clients outside your own projects. If a client wants to know how possible it is to do some work with VR, put on a show at Edinburgh Fringe or develop an app, give them some advice. It doesn’t take long, and improves your standing as a knowledgeable professional in your field, whatever that field is.

Saying “no” is one of the most difficult things to do when starting out as a freelancer. Some young workers can go years before turning down a project, scared that the client won’t come back, or that you’ll be blacklisted. There are a couple of ground rules that many freelancers follow for when you should never take a job:

  • When the pay rate is not enough. On a free project, you can walk away, or put your own creative spin on the piece. On a paid project you should defer to the client. Working for free as a favour can be OK, for example a family member, local charity or piece for your portfolio, but being paid less than your rate, but more than free puts everyone in a difficult position.

  • When you don’t agree with the client’s ethics or morals. Your personal beliefs should inform who you work for. Some freelancers won’t work with certain press organisations or charities, or will even steer clear of political involvement entirely. Where this line falls is up to you.

  • When the work breaks the law. Working on projects designed to exploit consumers, defraud investors or other criminal activities is never worth the pay cheque.

Life as a freelancer

Most freelancers take less time off than employees, and are rarely eligible for any kind of company benefits or bonus plans. It’s important to familiarise yourself with the government’s financial offering to those between jobs and out of work, as well as tax credits and benefits that you could be eligible for. Start-up loans are currently a great example of a great opportunity for freelancers, but these schemes change frequently.

As work can be slow in all the creative industries, particularly around winter, it’s important to have an emergency fund to cover your living expenses. Three to six months is a safe bet, stored in a liquid fund that you can access at short notice (so an ISA or your pension won’t count). While you’re out of work, personal development, working on your portfolio or diversifying your income are all great ways to spend your down time.

Mortgages will always be complicated for freelancers with no demonstrable long-term work contract. However, there are specialist accountants that can deal with this for you. When you become a freelancer, you’re not signing away your right to home ownership.

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