Sometimes my boss is the worst. And I *am* the boss
- December 16, 2019
- William Lewis
We’re told that it’s a good time to be a girl boss. Every one of my social-media feeds is saturated with news about women who are choosing to work independently and doing brilliantly.
There are many compelling arguments for going freelance, especially if you’re a woman. You can set your own schedule and work from anywhere, which means, at least in theory, that childcare is easier to organise. You can, again in theory, charge fees that are commensurate with your experience levels and close your own pay gap. You can create your own dream job. Yet, if you want to be successful, you can’t get sick and you can’t go on holiday. You can’t kill 10 minutes whisper-bitching with your best work friend in the staff kitchen. You can’t really even go out for the very occasional Sunday lunch that ends in the early hours of Monday morning, spend your morning in bed, eating dry toast and watching Homes Under The Hammer, and be sure that you’ll still have enough money for rent at the start of the next month.
it’s been predicted that half of all workers will be self-employed by 2020. In theory, freelancing is an empowered, informed choice – a way of exercising autonomy and creating a dream job. However, it separates us from the support systems that staff jobs are supposed to provide. Brand-new freelancers aren’t given any kind of orientation class. Some people are in a position to ease themselves in and plan their self-employment strategy. Personally, I felt as though I could only sink or swim, and I didn’t know where or how I would ask for support when I needed it.
It’s almost six years since I started working for myself. I believe this has allowed me to develop my career in ways that would not have been possible in a full-time staff job. However, while I think that I’ve steadily improved when it comes to dealing with most of the practical challenges, such as finding work, juggling deadlines and staying on top of my finances, the mental and emotional ones sometimes seem tougher than ever.
Working from home can be extremely lonely. I suspect that I have one of the stronger support networks, as I’m never more than a 20-minute walk from a friend, a chat and a coffee, yet I still struggle. I was recently emailing a freelance friend about our general ennui. “We both know that we’d be a lot calmer and more cheerful if we shut our laptops and went for a walk and got some fresh air,” she said. “It’s the simplest rule in the world. So, why is so hard to actually get dressed and go?”
We’re not doing enough to support the growing number of women in the workforce who are going it alone
When I’ve worked in offices, I’ve experienced periods of frantic productivity and periods of quietness. There are times where you do nothing but send and read emails, and you still go home feeling tired and satisfied, that you’ve done all that you can do and that, once you’ve walked through your front door, you can draw a line under the day. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the independence and autonomy to work whenever and wherever I like. No one can make me stay at a desk until six or complain if I do some laundry in the middle of the working day. Yet, I have moments where I desperately miss those clearly delineated boundaries.
There is nothing relaxing about a quiet few days when generating work is such an important part of your job. If someone is being especially difficult, you can’t turn to a colleague who will say, “Don’t worry, Dan has been a tool all week. Let’s walk to M&S for a cheer-up sandwich.” When you look to social media, hoping for some comradeship, you see people sharing news of promotions, book deals, panel participation and achievement. No one Instagrams a photo of a boardroom captioned “I was sat in here on an uncomfy chair for nearly three hours, nothing was achieved or decided and I can no longer feel my bum”. When you’re working alone for long periods of time, your sense of normality becomes skewed and you feel as though you’re entirely defined by your achievements. You forget that you’re simply a person in the world, trying to pay your bills, and you’re probably not much better or worse at what you do than anyone else.
I’ve made a choice and I know the loneliness has a rewarding payoff. Yet, I wish I’d known more about how to organise my own headspace before I started freelancing. I received plenty of advice about making sure I managed my money, respected deadlines and embraced every opportunity that came my way, but anyone with any common sense understands why those skills are useful. It would have been more helpful to hear that freelancing poses a serious challenge to mental health, and to know where to go and what to do if I was struggling.
Being your own boss should be exciting and empowering, but it’s much harder to open up about the fact that it can be frustrating and lonely, too. Being self-employed makes us acutely aware of our power and our vulnerability. When we work for ourselves, we’re unshackled and able to achieve well beyond our expectations and those an employer might have for us. However, while it’s good to lose the boundaries and limits that restrict us, we lose the ones that support and protect us, too. There’s an endless pressure to be exceptional and many of us fall into the trap of pegging our work to our self-worth.
We’re not doing enough to support the growing number of women in the workforce who are going it alone. We can’t afford to neglect them. They are vital to the economy. It’s not enough to overwhelm them with “inspiring” slogans and hashtags – for every woman who is proud to be a #girlboss, I’m sure I could show you five who find the concept patronising and alienating. It would be more helpful to make career-building tools available to all of the women who want more control over the structure of their jobs and lives. If I could give any prospective freelancer some career advice, it would be this: being your own boss is an exciting challenge. However, it’s just as important to be your own HR manager, too, and sometimes that feels much harder.