Contractors’ Questions: How to cope with stress, now I’m not much fun to be around?
Contractor’s Question: Being my own boss felt a bit glamorous up until early 2020, but since the pandemic, I feel depressed, stressed and anxious, to the point I’m not much fun to be around at the moment! Has anyone found a way to keep their chin up during a lockdown that just seems to drag on and on?
Experts' Answer: You’d probably not be human if you thought that the last 12 months has been free of challenges!
The coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly stressful, but running a business during a state of national lockdown because of it is a whole new ball game. For my own enterprise, I thank my lucky stars that we’ve built a strategy that’s seen us through and is continuing to see us through.
My own 'go-to' when I need a boost (the theme tune inspires me too!)
But I know some people haven’t been as fortunate. To keep me going, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve drawn inspiration from the strangest of places! For example, from 2006’s Rocky Balboa -- and the scene where The Italian Stalion is talking to Rocky Junior and tells him that:
“Life isn’t about how hard you can hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forwards.”
This gets me every time. But never has a truer word being uttered to get through the last year of crisis which the UK has endured.
Now, aside from movies (which really should not be sniffed at as a resource or tool you can quickly pick up, or switch on, to make yourself feel better), the following are some stress-busting techniques for you to try. My team and I swear by these as adopting them means we hardly have to curse anymore at all! Oh, and it might reassure you to know, my team includes a qualified stress management professional, Karen Dunbar.
So let me now pass the baton over to her, for her five top tips to help you avoid repeatedly getting into a state or, as you say, stressed to the point of not being much fun to be around anymore!
1. Put your finger on the stress trigger or, more likely, stress ‘triggers’
The first thing you need to do when you are experiencing stress is actually identify the root cause. Often, we wrongly assume our stress is purely related to one obvious thing. For example, as a contractor, you might rationalise:
‘I’m stressed of course as I don’t have a contract at present.’
‘I’m ratty because my contract is coming to an end, and who knows what’s next.’
Either of these understandable strains on freelance professionals could indeed be the primary cause of stress.
However, sometimes there are other stressors lingering in the background. Overlooking these means your problem of being ‘worked up’ will just persist and reoccur. So, take a step back (potentially with the help of a clear-headed someone else), and assess what’s irking you, as impartially as possible.
2. Make sure your work environment is productive (and protect your home environment)
As a contractor, one of your biggest stressors right now might be the fact that you have to work from home -- constantly, with no choice to work elsewhere.
Home working is great, for some people. In fact, I have been working from home for eight years now and I love it. At least about 90% of the time anyway.
With the covid pandemic's third national lockdown still ongoing though, it means most of us have to work from home whether we like it or not. The whole concept of working from home can be incredibly stressful in itself, but when you throw into the mix an unsuitable office set-up, everything becomes even more of an ordeal.
If you find yourself in this situation and are struggling with the stress that having your home as a workplace is causing, then I recommend ‘work-proofing’ your house by ensuring you have a suitable workspace, which ideally needs to be partitioned off from your living and family environments.
3. Replace hard work with smart work
The entire career of the typical contractor involves delivering results for clients, and the nature of contracting means that often you will be working long hours including evenings and weekends to get things done.
Now admittedly, most people that get into contracting will be completely aware of this and eventually get used to the stress of long hours, deliverables, deadlines and wearing milestones around their necks!
However, if you are finding that
- the hours are becoming unsustainable
- your home life is becoming affected
- you are feeling greater levels of stress; or
- you’re talking to your four-year-old as if they are your line manager
...then it really is time to make a change!
Most contractors have already heard of the ‘Work Smarter, Not Harder’ strategy. When it comes to managing your stress as a contractor, this is key. Creating smart working plans through careful prioritisation of activities and being realistic in your expectations can help you avoid ‘overwhelm.’
So learning to say NO can avoid overcommitting and spreading yourself too thinly. While learning to say YES to the absolutely vital, mission critical tasks which you can’t leave your chair without completing, is equally beneficial. Plus, say YES to them in your mind early on – and then try visualising you finishing that important task, and imagine just how good you’ll feel with it finished and out of the way. This is especially recommended if you’re facing a big or awkward workload and just can’t summon up the will to get going!
Keep in mind without fretting about it -- you are NOT an employee. Your focus is meeting your deliverables or the brief, but however you do that; however it gets done, should be your business. Structure it soundly, so it works for you.
4. Make yourself number one (and not just in-between contracts)
Now this tip might seem pretty obvious, but things are only obvious if you actually know them and then act on them too! Sometimes people become so stressed and overwhelmed that they forget the basic things. To succeed at anything, including managing your stress levels, you have to firstly make sure you are in your best health, otherwise you are having to deal with so many more issues.
One of the things I have discovered with many of the contractors I help, is that they don’t get as much ‘me-time’ as they would like. Usually their me-time comes when they are in between contracts, which is great, until you then throw into the mix the stress of not being able to find a new contract! Regardless of how busy your contract or working day is, it is crucial to take time for yourself and look after yourself.
5. A problem shared…
If you are really struggling with managing your stress levels, and find that you are experiencing anxiety or depression, then it is important to act, and by act, I mean speaking up and reaching out.
No matter how busy you are or how silly it seems, working with someone to help you manage your stress can be incredibly effective, rewarding and frankly, just plain fulfilling. There are many options out there including working with a qualified professional (like me!). It can really help you put things into perspective. Simply talking through your stresses and creating a plan to eliminate them, one-by-one, can be very empowering.
We’ve got the tips if you’ve got the time
If some of our answer has helped, and the above has resonated with you, then our webinar for all ContractorUK readers on Monday March 22nd at 7.15pm might be of interest. It will be a whole hour dedicated to talking about and advising on stress, with stress management strategies shared and explained, to help you and other contractors take practical steps to identify stress, cope and even keep it at bay. The event will be a live webinar with a Q&A session at the end for you to ask your own question, about your own situation. You can register here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7391500315325750539.
The experts were Matt Craven, founder and chief executive, and Karen Dunbar, branding adviser and stress management coach, of The CV & Interview Advisors.