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  • Writer's picturekirstiewright

Freelance Mental Heath: Coping with a lack of work.

Updated: Jan 22

In the freelance world there are often periods of lots of work followed by periods of little work. It happens to everyone, there are no enquiries, no bookings and perhaps not that much work available in the industry that you work in. This change between a feast to a famine of work can impact our mental health.

We all suffer from lack of work at times, especially in the freelance world. If this is starting to impact your finances, it’s important to seek financial advice. This is not your fault and it’s not as simple as shifting how you think about work. This article aims to explore why our cognitions change when we have a lack of work and how this impacts our mental health. This will help us understand what is happening when we face the feast to famine change. This article will also explore ways we can manage how our brain works when there is a lack of work. This may well not solve the problem but will hopefully help you understand and cope when faced with a lack of work.

Why does a lack of work impact mental health?

When a resource of any kind becomes rare, we start to value that resource over all others. So, when work starts to dry up it becomes all we think about and all we focus our attention on. Therefore, we have less capacity to make decisions and focus on other aspects of our life that are also important. Short term focusing on a lack of work can be helpful, it might help us follow up new leads and look for work but if we focus on a lack of work for a long period of time this can impact other areas of our life.

This is a normal process we all do and I am sure you have seen how advertising companies use the impact scarcity has on the brain by highlighting when items are low in stock and that that deals won’t be around forever. This is so we will focus on what is scarce and hopefully buy the product!

Its like we have tunnel vision and all we can focus on is what is scarce.

Evolutionary it makes sense that if a resource was scarce e.g., food we would focus all our attention on the lack of food, so we didn’t go hungry! This process happens when any resources is scarce. Have you ever had lots of work and all you could focus on is how little time you had to yourself? When there is little work, our attention is on what is lacking rather than anything else. This short term can help as it helps prioritise getting work. However, it can mean we don’t focus on other areas of our life. For example, if someone is struggling with lack of work they may not focus on their hobbies or make long term plans. This tunnel vision can make it difficult to enjoy what we do have.

It impacts our bandwidth.

We only have so much bandwidth to think about things at any one time. Constantly thinking ahead about how we are going to get more work as a freelancer can be helpful if we are problem solving but if we are constantly going over the same thing it means we have less bandwidth to think about other things. This means our decision making can be impacted.

We can make poorer decisions.

The above process has been found to lead to poorer decisions. If we are only focused on what we don’t have, we may not hold other information in mind when making decisions which can lead to poorer decisions as we are not including the whole picture in the decision making process. As we are already overwhelmed, we also have less bandwidth to process and make the decision.

Can affect productivity.

It can be hard to focus on other actions when our bandwidth is taken up by a lack of work. This can affect productivity. This then impacts our mood as we are not getting a sense of achievement or pleasure from tasks we would usually be doing. This can have a negative impact on our mental health as freelancers.

When we have less bandwidth making decisions becomes overwhelming, so we are less likely to do long term planning.

When work is limited, this can be a great time to make decisions and create long term plans as we often don’t get time to do this. However, our brain is a bit like a computer and if it is undertaking lots of processes linked to a lack of work there is limited resources for long term planning.

We tend to focus on short term relief rather than long term consequences.

When we have lack of work, and this is consuming our thought we tend to utilise coping strategies that short term help e.g., comfort eating rather than strategies that are good for us long term. The use of such coping strategies can longer term worsen our mental health.

If its normal to focus on what we are lacking, what can I do to help when work is limited?


Make a conscious effort at least once a day to focus on what you are grateful for. This will switch your attention to what you do have and what possibilities are open to you. You will have a more accurate overview of what you have which is likely to lead to better decision making. Gratitude has been found to improve mental health.

Be kind to yourself.

A lack of anything we care about is tough, especially as work is usually linked to money which provides our basic needs of food and shelter. Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that what you are going through happens to everyone when things we care about are scarce. Notice any thoughts that are along the themes of beating yourself up for feeling bad or for having no work. Notice these and ask what I would say to a friend? We often don’t judge ourselves as harshly as other people! Being kind to ourselves can greatly improve our mental health as freelancers.

Try to harness your attention.

Take time to focus on the here and now. Focus on what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. The more we focus on the present rather than constantly trying to think about what to do next will increase our bandwidth and helps our brains slow down so we can think more clearly.

Focus on what actions will be best for you long term.

When trying to cope with the situation ask yourself will this action help long term to check if a coping strategy will only give short term relief e.g., comfort eating. This will improve mental health in the long term.

In conclusion when work is scarce our mind starts to focus on the lack of work at the expense of everything else. Short term this can be helpful but longer term this can have negative consequences. You can counter these consequences by practising gratitude, being kind to yourself, harnessing the power of your attention and keeping an eye on whether the coping strategies that you use have negative consequences too them. This will help improve our mental health when work is scarce.

Please remember this article may not solve the problem of a lack of work but may help you understand what happens when work is scarce and how to cope. These techniques aren’t a substitute for good financial advice. Ensure you talk to unions and charities to gain support as well. Unions and charities can vary for each industry.

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