Freelancing Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, and Ways to Avoid it

I’ve been so busy over the last 2 weeks with work. Now this is a good thing (especially considering my finances at the best of times), but when you are on your laptop to the exclusion of everything else for pretty much all of your waking time – this can soon turn into something not so good.

Fried brains anyone?
Fried brains anyone?

This is what I actually did on my busiest day:

  • Woke up (can’t remember time – too busy to check clock)
  • Turned the laptop on
  • Checked mails
  • Replied to two very important ones
  • Rushed to the bathroom to brush teeth and freshen up
  • Got dressed into clothes I wore the day before (didn’t brush hair, just tied it in a knot and didn’t bother to look in a mirror)
  • Back on laptop
  • Other half brings me a cup of tea – 20 mins later its still there – full. However it is accompanied with two cigarette butts in the ashtray next to cup.
  • In oblivion on laptop until stomach starts to object at around 1pm. Send other half for some sausage buns. Eat one – give the rest to dog.
  • In oblivion on laptop until 5pm (I did have bottle of water next me and the omni-present cigarettes OBVIOUSLY). Go for very short walk. Only make it as far as the wine stores and cigarette shop (kade). Buy 3 small Lion lager cans and cigs
  • Return to laptop – promise to myself that I will at least leave the room and watch the sunset over Bentota River at 6pm.
  • 7pm – broke my promise to watch sunset but having a beer.
  • In oblivion on laptop until 11pm when other half forces me to eat some egg hoppers. Eat them. Look at laptop and go a bit cross-eyed and nauseous. Give up and crash out before my head hits the pillow.

This is scary shit actually – any of you that work for yourselves should read this informative article from .

Note: the following is not written by me but by Catherine Christaki (@LinguaGreca) AND René Seidel


Studies have shown that freelancers are more likely to be affected by burnout than permanent employees. The reasons for this are manifold. What is particularly conducive to the development of this condition is a lack of work-life balance, which is one of the main reasons for the permanent state of exhaustion. Combined with fear (the fear of losing customers or contracts for example), negative emotions and a lack of opportunities to unwind, it means that freelancers are highly exposed to burnout.

While burnout is generally described as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, there are various symptoms to look out for and a comprehensive list of possible symptoms will be presented later on. The causes are usually excessive and prolonged stress, but here again the list of causes is rather extensive. This article will point out possible causes, symptoms and, ultimately, point out how to prevent burnout if you notice any of these signs on you.


As pointed out above, the general cause of burnout is a high-level stress over a long period of time. People start to feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands of their work life. The motivation and interest that lead them to take on a certain role will diminish over time as the stress continues. If the gap in this conflict of roles between their ideal and their actual life becomes too big the emotional disappointment rises considerably.

This exact discrepancy is the basis for burnout. In general, the root of burnout can be found in your personal life, your social life and they can be of organisational-psychological nature, meaning they concern your work life. As this article is intended for freelancers, I am going to focus on the work-related reasons and will only touch briefly on the other causes.

Causes for burnout in personal life:

  • Abnormal ambitions (meaning abnormal addiction to success in particular with people whose self-esteem is mainly based on their professional performances)
  • Perfectionism (setting goals to high and having trouble making compromises)

Causes for burnout in social life:

  • Problems with family or friends
  • Loneliness or a weak social environment
  • Collapse of familial and social bonds, causing growing anonymity and impersonality
  • Unclear life planning (caused by unsecure market situation) making people uncertain about their life
  • The growing complexity of processes in modern life leads to stress and a loss of autonomy, because we are dependent on machines and specialists which may not always be available
  • Being pressed into particular roles causing you to only be able to manage and define certain sections of your life, which is often overstraining

Organisational-psychological causes and causes in work life:

  • High workload / chaotic, high-pressure environment
  • Conflictual role (not being able to pick your clients, dealing with difficult clients)
  • Work seen as a source of satisfaction and therefore ever higher expectations are put on it
  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Lack of recognition or reward for good work
  • Monotonous or unchallenging work
  • No clearly defined goals or success criteria
  • Experiencing indifference when talking to colleagues (or receiving no advice/support)
  • Having to do time-consuming administrative work
  • Being unable to handle clients satisfactorily because of a lack of time or organisational causes


Characteristic features of burnout generally include physical and emotional exhaustion. Also, prolonged physical and mental performance and lack of motivation are among burnout symptoms. Al less known symptom is not being able to relax and missing the ability to recover from work. Symptoms can be divided into different phases and differ between the early stage of this condition and the actual burnout. When burnout is established, the symptoms can be further divided into physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms.

Early stage:

  • increased commitment for certain goals
  • non-stop working towards relaxation or recovery periods
  • work becomes main purpose in life
  • feeling indispensible and perfect, thus reducing the value of colleagues and making yourself unpopular
  • hyperactivity
  • not paying attention to one’s own needs
  • suppressing failures
  • restricting social contacts in certain areas, e.g. clients
  • neglecting partner and friends
  • chronic tiredness and exhaustion
  • sleep disorder
  • states of anxiety
  • lack of concentration
  • seeking distraction and comfort in addictive drugs

Actual burnout:

Physical symptoms:

  • changes in appetite and/or sleeping habits (sleep disorder)
  • frequent headaches
  • back pain and muscle aches
  • loss of appetite
  • weakened immune system
  • feeling sick a lot
  • feeling tired and drained most of the time

Emotional symptoms:

  • lethargy
  • unpunctuality
  • fear of rejection and conflicts
  • (erratic) mood swings
  • decreased sense of satisfaction and accomplishment
  • cynical and negative outlook on life
  • loss of motivation
  • sense of failure and self-doubt
  • feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • loss of motivation
  • detachment – feeling alone in the world

Behavioural symptoms:

  • addiction to the internet, e-mails, or telephone, etc.
  • food, alcohol or drug abuse to cope
  • taking out frustration on others
  • procrastinating, taking more time to get things done
  • isolation from others
  • skipping work, coming in late and leaving early
  • withdrawing from responsibilities

Individual prevention:

There are certain steps you can take when you start notice early signs of burnout in your everyday life. Most importantly you have to give yourself enough time to regenerate and relax. Look for compensation methods that help you relax, such as sport, music, or other hobbies you might have.  If you are religious, prayer or meditation might be suitable to help you relax. The main point is to redirect your attention away from the stress areas through mental or physical activity. Direct your attention instead on your mental, emotional, and physical needs.

It is very important to identify sources of stress at your workplace and defuse them. As the causes for burnout are to be found mostly in your work life, a key point is to maintain or develop the necessary distance between your work and private life. You should try and consider your work life from new perspectives and get rid of unrealistic or inappropriate ideas. You also have to try and correct ill-suited processes to give yourself more room – develop a more realistic time and work management that will lead to a better working experience for you. If none of the aforementioned methods are successful, even changing the workplace can be considered, if necessary.

In the end, the causes for burnout very much depend on the individual and are very diverse. The way out of burnout and prevention methods are equally diverse and differ a lot. The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to prevent or find a way out of burnout is to create some space for your own needs and pay attention to your emotions and body and take them seriously.


As freelancers we are constantly worried about getting enough jobs to earn money and not losing important clients; furthermore, we also have very limited means of sharing experiences with colleagues. This, combined with the constant pressure of time and results, makes us particularly prone to burnout. Moreover, having to perform tasks that are difficult to manage or meaningless and no receiving any appreciation from co-workers may fuel burnout.

While most regular workers can start to relax and leave work behind them as soon as they head home, freelancers mostly already work from home and the end of their work day is often just going into the next room. Irregular breaks, unnecessary long working hours and a lack of separation between your private and work life are further causes for burnout. All this can quickly add up, without the person actually noticing, and lead to burnout.

Try to notice the early signs of burnout in yourself and take measures against them. Look for a healthy balance between your work and private life. Taking regular breaks, sticking to fixed office hours and learning to say no are probably the best pieces of advice to avoid burnout.


I’m taking a couple of days off this weekend. Meet some friends, go down South, write some postcards to family (which have been on my desk for 4+ weeks), get sunburnt (weather permitting), try and finish my book, do very little, have a beer or twenty and chill. I’ve told some of my clients this and they praised me for my commitment and honesty. We’re only human after all.

3 thoughts on “Freelancing Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, and Ways to Avoid it”

  1. Man that IS scary S##t. I hope you have a good break.
    I, being a super busy guy with 1000 things to do on any given day, a pee-H-dee, research, work, multitude of sports, music and most importantly being with parents, my Sis and friends, do keep a pretty strict schedule, and like 90% never giving in for temptations.
    Mostly I give in situations like, I am in the water and bay is having good wind and my surfing gear comes alive with their own plans or I am cycling / climbing a mountain / hill I have failed to do before and get the feeling I can do it today.
    You are certainly a great freelancer but I think many would love to have great Ankie around! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s