Finding yourself working around the clock? Checking work messages on your phone when you’re supposed to be watching Netflix with your other half? Struggling to sleep because you’re wired from a late-night discovery call?
Let me guess: none of these scenarios are likely the ones you were picturing when you decided to dive into freelancing.
Job burnout is common in many industries, but self-employment presents a unique set of issues that can lead to freelancer burnout. And when you’re entirely in charge of the success of your business, it’s super easy to go all-in on freelancing at the expense of your physical and mental health.
Sound familiar? Our guide will help you avoid, identify and recover from burnout at any stage in your freelance career—before it becomes an even bigger problem.
What is freelancer burnout?
Freelancer burnout is chronic work-related stress caused by running your small business.
The World Health Organization categorizes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Although freelancer burnout is familiar, you can prevent it by setting clear boundaries to support a healthy work-life balance.
What causes freelancer burnout?
Burnout can happen in any work, but freelancers have specific risk factors.
This study found that freelancers and entrepreneurs have an elevated risk of burnout due to “the process of discovery or creation of attractive economic opportunities, the assessment of these opportunities, and the decision on the exploitation of opportunities.”
In other words: it takes time to find work, more time to figure out if it’s the right work for you, and turning down opportunities is emotionally taxing.
On top of that, 67% of workers believe this feeling of burnout has increased since 2020.
We interviewed Annie McDonnell, who has seen cases of burnout in her Joy Alchemy acupuncture clinic: “It can be difficult to avoid burnout when the dominant culture emphasizes the hustle mindset and lacks support networks.
“Freelancers in a gig economy have to deal with feast-or-famine cycles and juggle the demands of multiple employers,” Annie says. “Add in a couple of years of heightened uncertainty and unpredictable pandemic challenges, and it’s a perfect storm for burnout.”
Let’s look at some of these challenges and demands in more detail.
As freelancers, we have the freedom to choose our own schedules. You’d think we’d be more sensible with our time than just following the tried and tested 9 to 5 slog—especially when studies show it’s difficult to complete more than four hours of deep work in a day.
But many freelancers actually end up working longer hours than the typical 9 to 5, with the average freelancer putting in 43 hours per week. And there are some freelancers out there working far more than the average.
B2B tech writer Brittney Thompson reveals her “busiest weeks are 40-50hrs,” while digital marketer freelancer Fred Johns regularly works 65-70 hours per week—65% of which is spent on client work (the other 35% on admin.)
Digital screen time
Most freelancers work remotely, using a combination of synchronous communication (real-time messaging or video calls) and asynchronous communication tools (including out-of-sync email messages or watching Loom videos).
What do these have in common? Screentime. And this can be incredibly draining.
Classic Vision Care explains that overuse of screens can strain our eyes and stop us from blinking as much as we should. The result: Dry eyes, blurry vision, headaches, and neck or shoulder pain.
And if you rely on video conferencing apps to speak to clients, you could end up with Zoom fatigue—exhaustion caused by unnatural socializing in a virtual environment. The hyper gaze is one to watch out for, where you stare for long periods at the grid of faces on your screen, trying to pick up social cues.
Real-time communications with people in different time zones can lead to round-the-clock work, especially when multiple clients are vying for your attention.
In a recent interview, Samantha Anderl, co-founder of Harlow, describes how client communications have worn her down in the past: “We were working with teams in Australia and San Francisco and the UK and the Philippines, teams from all over the place. So, we started to really struggle with boundaries in our work life. We were having meetings from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – it was just wild.”
Not taking vacation
This type of always-on work schedule surely deserves a generous chunk of vacation, right? But with no paid leave, freelancers can find it tough to schedule restorative vacation time.
As much as 10% of freelancers didn’t take any leave last year, and 78% admitted to working while on holiday. Besides not being able to afford time off work, another issue is not having anyone to manage the day-to-day running of the business.
“I have a pretty full plate, and I have for the past two years with no break. So for me, the pandemic was very much, ‘I’m not going anywhere, so I’m going to stay home, heads down in work.’ But I haven’t taken a vacation, so I’m reaching that dangerous point of burnout where I have to schedule some time off in the near future. Because I cannot sustain at this pace and this workload.”Kaleigh Moore, freelance writer (via the Freelance Writing Coach podcast)
Volume of writing
The mental bandwidth required to research, outline, optimize, draft and edit an article is incredible. So, for freelance writers, the act of producing thousands of words of content each week can lead to burnout.
What are the signs of freelancer burnout?
Expect freelancer burnout to be a full-body experience. Acupuncturist and sound healer Annie McDonnell, L.Ac. explains how stress consumes the body: “With stress hormones constantly surging in fight-or-flight mode, it can be difficult to relax the nervous system into rest-and-digest mode.
“As physical exhaustion increases, so do uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, irritability, and resentment, which can make symptoms like neck/shoulder/back pain and PMS feel even worse.”
Here are some typical mental symptoms to look out for:
- Inability to “switch off” from work and actually relax
- Not being mentally present for your friends, family, or other interests
- Experiencing concentration issues such as brain fog, inability to focus, or struggling with a single task
- Having anxiety (feeling tense, nervous, tired, or panicked)
- Feeling depressed (overwhelming sadness or lost interest in usual hobbies)
…and physical symptoms of freelance burnout:
- Insomnia and/or sleep disruptions
- Fatigue leading to chronic exhaustion
- Hormonal changes such as dry skin, different appetite, or irritability
- Digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Tension headaches (often described as feeling like there’s a rubber band around the head)
- Joint pain
- Chronic illnesses like high blood pressure or heart disease
The five stages of burnout in freelancers
The above burnout symptoms can differ from person to person. However, Winona State University divides the progression of burnout into five key stages based on Veninga and Spradley’s job burnout model.
Stage 1: Honeymoon
The honeymoon period doesn’t really feel like burnout at all. It’s when you’re optimistic about your role and have high job satisfaction. You’re fully committed to your work and have excellent levels of energy and creativity.
Even in this stage, it’s important to have an effective coping mechanism to deal any stressors on-the-job. If you’re prepared, you could theoretically stay in the honeymoon stage indefinitely.
Stage 2: Balancing act
In the balancing stage of burnout, you’ll have good and bad days. Job dissatisfaction will start to creep in, which could have a physical impact, including sleep disturbances, and increased fatigue.
Stage 3: Chronic symptoms
If you don’t address the burnout you’re experiencing in the second stage, you can expect your symptoms to become more intense, which leads to this stage.
Fatigue can lead to chronic exhaustion, and stress can cause physical illnesses such as high blood pressure. Anger and depression are common mental health side effects of burnout.
Stage 4: Crisis
At this point, your symptoms have become critical. Physically, your illness may intensify, or you experience new conditions resulting from burnout. But mentally, the stress you’ve been feeling can dominate your thoughts–pessimism, self-doubt, and obsession with work are all in the mix.
Stage 5: Enmeshment
The final stage goes beyond burnout, with symptoms now embedded in your body and mind. Medically, your diagnosis has moved on, and you’re more likely to be labeled as having a physical or mental health condition than anything related to burnout.
How to avoid freelancer burnout
Freelancers can get trapped in feast and famine cycles, flipping from not having enough work to pay the bills to feeling overloaded with projects. Both ends of the spectrum are equally stressful, but these tips will keep things manageable.
1. Decide how many clients to work with
It’s challenging to know how many clients to work with when you’re starting out. But with experience, you’ll get a feel for the number of clients you can handle each month without the risk of burnout.
Consider the mix of clients you take on. Retainer clients can be demanding, but also remove you from the sales and pitching mode you’re constantly in when you’re picking up ad-hoc projects.
Remember: the more clients you have, the more communication hours and admin you’ll need to factor into your working week. You’ll also have multiple style guides to learn and the potential for edit requests coming from all angles.
Freelance writer Nia Gyant shares her experience of being overloaded with clients: “Younger, dumber me once decided it was a great idea to have 11 ACTIVE clients. I handled it, but the stress was insane. Never again. Mine were all writing clients in completely different industries. I was writing literally all day and learning the industries too.”
Copywriter and project manager Marissa Taffer agrees that less is definitely more: “I once hit 12 and kind of wanted to die. I can handle comfortably around 6—with a mix of content and project management clients.”
Unsure on your magic number? Marijana Kay’s project planner gives you an at-a-glance overview of your schedule and availability, making it easy to determine your client capacity each month.
2. Choose your clients carefully
Burnout is preventative. Learn how to avoid working for the type of clients who are wearing you down.
Andrea Wildt, co-founder of Harlow, talks about her experience running a freelance business: “It wasn’t only the volume of clients that caused burnout, but it was sometimes the type of client. Where you have that client that doesn’t respect boundaries, that wants you to jump on a call at 5 pm. And so there was a lot of deep soul searching around what clients are actually good for us. That was part of the process of managing overall burnout in our business.”
Use this quick checklist to identify which clients you should be excited to work with:
✅ Plenty of resources, including style guides and content briefs
✅ Willing to pay within Net 30 (max)
✅ No push-back on pricing
✅ Defined onboarding process to get to know the brand and products/services
✅ Reasonable deadlines
✅ Defers to your expertise
…and these red flags that should have you thinking twice:
❌ Issues with former freelancer writers
❌ Won’t sign your contract
❌ No single point of contact
❌ Insists on regular check-in calls
❌ Tries to negotiate your rate
❌ Expects unlimited revisions
❌ Demands fast turnarounds
3. Set client expectations
The lines between being a freelancer and a salaried employee can blur, especially if you’ve worked with a client for a while.
But without boundaries, it’s easy to feel like an extension of the client’s business. The problem with this is you’re not getting the benefits of being a salaried employee like pension contributions, paid time off, or health insurance.
So, what if you have a demanding client who expects you to join their Slack channel, use a company email address, or attend late-night calls with their marketing team?
Set expectations from the offset using a template like this. 👇
Hi [New Client Name],
I’m really excited to work with you and want to take this opportunity to outline my writing and communication process for a smooth start to the project.
1. I’ll send you a detailed content brief for you to fill in.
2. I’ll return an article outline to check we’re on the same page.
3. I’ll create the first draft in Google Docs within (X) working days and submit it to my point of contact on your team.
4. You’ll liaise with your team and have my appointed point of contact leave notes and revision requests in the document. I include (X) rounds of revisions in my price; I price further edits at X rate.
5. You’ll approve the edited document, and I’ll invoice you. My payment terms are NetX.
Please note: I prefer to work asynchronously to maximize my time on client projects, so feel free to send a Loom video or voice note if you find it easier than typing a message. Be assured I’ll always respond to your messages within X hours/working days, and my office hours are [Monday to Thursday, 9 am to 5 pm] [time zone].
If you need to book a call with me, please use my Calendly link. I also request you send a meeting agenda so I can prepare for the things we’ll be talking about.”
4. Manage your time effectively
Effective time management for freelancers means choosing an appropriate schedule that suits you. Then maximize your available time to reduce unnecessary hours that can cause burnout.
My rules include:
- Strict working hours (9 a.m to 4 p.m.)
- A four-day working week
- No checking emails/Twitter outside of working hours
- Limits on the number of projects I can take on per month
- Upping my rate so my income doesn’t take too much of a hit
B2B SaaS writer Lizzie Davey has a similar approach: “I’m very strict with my writing time. I’m most productive in the morning, so I always set aside 8:30-11:30 a.m. for my most important writing task of the day. I don’t answer emails until after I’ve written, and I put my phone in airplane mode so I don’t get distracted.”
Here are some bonus time management tips to combat freelance burnout:
- Pad your deadlines to give you plenty of time to deal with anything unexpected cropping up in your work or home life.
- Pinpoint your most creative work times, which will be different for every freelancer. Some of us are early birds; others are night owls. Use your creative hours to your advantage.
- Experiment with time management techniques like task batching, where you complete similar jobs (like article outlining) in one hit. Or the Pomodoro technique, where you work in intervals for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break.
- Use time tracking tools like Harlow to help you with project management. You’ll figure out how long it takes you to complete a task so you can price accordingly without the risk of overworking.
5. Prioritize vacations
Not convinced you need to take a vacation? Tempted to power on through the summer with no break until Christmas?
Fun fact: vacations can prolong life. The results of a 40-year study found participants taking less than three weeks of annual vacation had a 37% greater chance of dying.
Ecommerce and marketing writer Ashley Cummings is an excellent example of a freelancer who prioritizes vacations. Describing her freelance working style, she says, “Machine mode is my default, but it comes at a cost: MAJOR BURNOUT.”
As a huge fan of traveling, Ashley follows a three week on, one week off rule. She says, “It re-energizes me in a way that nothing else can. I have been trying to schedule my months with 3 weeks of work and 1 week of travel/play. Disclosure: I often take work with me and work when traveling, but it works for me.”
But how can you take a vacation when it feels like your freelance business depends on you being plugged in 24/7? Some options include:
- Using a virtual assistant to “babysit” your business
- Subcontracting to other freelancers to cover your leave
- Scaling back your client work during the month of your vacation
- Frontloading your client work to complete projects before your vacation, so your income remains unchanged
- Automating tasks, such as scheduling your newsletters, bulk loading your social media posts, and setting up zaps to respond to new client messages.
6. Set the rates you deserve
The more money you’re earning per freelance project, the fewer hours you’ll need to put in to cover your bills and expenses.
When your rates are high, you can also work with fewer clients and afford to take more time off to reduce the risk of burnout. But this can be challenging if you’re new to freelancing and are working with low-paying clients on Upwork or similar.
The Peak Freelance Writing Rates Survey outlines average rates depending on your content format:
- 71% of writers charge $99 to $249 for an email.
- 29% of writers charge $500 to $999 for a whitepaper.
- 40% of writers charge $250 to $599 for a bylined 1,500-word blog post.
Remember: when you choose fixed project rates, factor in:
- Your niche expertise
- Your network of industry contacts
- In-depth research skills
- Expensive SEO tool subscriptions (like Clearscope, Ahrefs, etc.)
- Research publications (like Harvard Business Review)
- The value your content provides (which can stretch into the thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, and beyond—so, claim your share!)
7. Delegate to free up time
As your business grows, it can be hard to turn down exciting opportunities. Instead of taking on a full-time employee or having to say “thanks but no thanks” to high-paying gigs, find a way to delegate areas of your freelance business.
Outsourcing isn’t cheating; it’s a sensible solution for freelancers and can help reduce stress and burnout. Different areas to subcontract include:
- Research and outlining (offered by freelancers like Jess Perreira and Alex Boswell)
- Editing (try using a service like EditorNinja)
- Invoicing, client admin, and social media management (a virtual assistant could help in these areas)
But without proper processes in place, subcontracting can also contribute to burnout, as you’ll still be liaising with clients, briefing writers, polishing their work, and providing detailed feedback.
Afoma Umesi shares the tips she follows to smoothly take on three times more work than she can handle by herself:
- Templates for onboarding, test projects, job descriptions, and more
- Client resources, including client writing templates, sample articles, and Loom videos
- Availability sheets to determine which subcontractors are free
- Automated article assignments using a combination of Zapier, Trello, and Slack
- Contracts including non-disclosure agreements, fee specifications, and termination notice clause
Important note: Some clients don’t allow freelancers to subcontract work. Check your contracts to see whether you’re allowed.
8. Scaling without taking on more clients
If client work is burning you out, but you still want to grow your business, find other ways to scale and earn money without accepting more writing work.
One option is to start an affiliate site based on your expertise or a niche area you’re interested in. I did this myself back in 2019 with a blog that talked about my dog’s breed. With less than 25 articles, the site now generates 6,500 monthly organic visitors and $300+ per month in passive income.
Other ideas include:
- Selling digital products on a platform like Podia or Teachable
- Being a podcast guest or speaking at conferences. If you enjoy public speaking, this can help to elevate your personal brand
- Offering coaching. Passing on your knowledge to beginners in 1:1 or group coaching sessions can be lucrative and rewarding
These projects still require your time and input, but they can be a welcome break from your regular work and spark a little creativity.
How to recover from freelancer burnout
The trick with burnout is to try and catch it before it hits, as the healing process can take a while.
But if burnout is already deeply rooted, Annie McDonnell explains her approach to physical and mental restoration: “Recovery time from burnout varies depending on individual circumstances. It took time to burn out and develop chronic conditions, and it takes time to rebuild your energy, make changes to your lifestyle, and bring better balance to your physical and emotional health.
“When you’re burned out, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so start small and allow yourself to go slow,” Annie says. “Rather than stress out about trying to make all the healthy lifestyle changes immediately, be gentle with yourself and prioritize rest.”
Other practical ways to recover from burnout include:
Join a freelance community
If you’re feeling tired and stressed out as a freelancer, know you’re not alone. Freelance burnout is, unfortunately, incredibly common. But speaking to other freelancers can help you gain some perspective and the support you need.
Peak Freelance offers both a free community and an All Access membership—the latter of which comes with a members-only podcast, monthly town halls, coffee chats, masterclasses, and pro writing courses.
Join our support network to meet some of the best freelancers in the business and get great advice from peers to grow your business without negatively impacting your health.
Just say no
One of the best things you can do during burnout recovery is learn how to say no.
Laura Burton-Bloom is a writer who has recovered from burnout. She says, “Learning how to say no and how to be patient with yourself, your projects, and your timeline have helped me return from burnout as a freelance senior copywriter.”
Instances in which you might need to say no include:
- Scope creep. When clients try to extend your project beyond your original agreement. If you’re happy to do the work, renegotiate the price.
- Calls at antisocial hours. Define clear boundaries about when you are and aren’t available to respond to a message or take a call.
- Tight turnarounds. If a client values you and values your content, they’ll wait for you to produce the work.
- Work you’re not jazzed about. It is ok to turn work down if it doesn’t pay well, isn’t in your niche, doesn’t expand your skill set, or doesn’t offer a byline.
Seek help from a therapist
Speaking to a healthcare professional can help you identify any toxic patterns in your freelance career that could potentially lead to more burnout. They’ll also suggest self-care practices such as breathing exercises to calm and nourish your energy.
Don’t let burnout takeover your freelance life
Avoiding burnout as a freelancer is a work-in-progress and something we need to stay on top of for our physical and mental health.
If work is getting you down, or you’re having trouble focusing on life outside of work, it’s time to hit pause. Take a step back and take a deep and honest look at where you can achieve a better work-life balance.
The past two years have been exceptionally heavy, with crisis after crisis. Don’t forget why you’re doing this in the first place: to live an amazing life.
Freelancer burnout FAQs
How do freelancers deal with burnout?
Burnout is widespread in the freelance world, but the best way to deal with it is to avoid feeling burned out in the first place. Set boundaries with clients, don’t take on more work than you can handle, and remember to prioritize rest and vacations to restore your energy.
How stressful is freelancing?
Freelancing is stressful because you’re in the driving seat, making decisions about your business, often without guidance or input from anyone else. But with the right processes and boundaries in place, you’ll learn how to avoid the stressors you find triggering as a freelancer.
What are some warning signs that a freelancer is burning out?
Physical burnout symptoms include fatigue, sleep disturbances, tension headaches, and digestive disorders. Mental health symptoms include anxiety, depression, brain fog, and the inability to “switch off” from work.
How can freelancers recover from burnout?
Within your business, look at your client management to examine if your clients are a source of stress. Resolve this by setting explicit boundaries, improving client processes, or replacing clients with better ones. Make sure you include time for relaxation, exercise, and mental nourishment in your personal life. And don’t blur the lines between work and home.