Perspectives. Starting a business? Don’t forget to look after your mental health

Many people start a new business or go into freelancing hoping they can ultimately fulfil a dream to achieve a better work life balance. Is it a myth? Can you get it right and make sure you look after your mental health? Asto joins  Lara Baker, founder of The BKRY as she discusses the myths of living a freelancer lifestyle and how she looks after her mental health.

Lara Baker Mental Health freelancer

For the first 13 years of my career in the music business, I woke up at 7.30am, battled the London rush hour, turned up to an office full of colleagues, worked hard, and got paid on the last Friday of the month. Ahh, the sweet sweet routine of life as an employee.

But I think I always saw myself as ultimately having my own company, a product of a mother who’s bookkeeping business and incredible work ethic afforded me all the CDs and books I could possibly hope to lay my hands on as a child. It was impressive in the 90s to see a woman in control of her destiny and doing something she was passionate about, and I have always wanted to follow in her footsteps and go self-employed.

So at the start of this year I took the leap. I started my own consultancy business, The BKRY, offering event management, comms and diversity strategy for a range of music industry clients. So far so good. I’ve had consistent work all year, I’ve picked up some dream clients and I’ve played a significant role in a number of incredibly exciting events and projects. When I run into people I haven’t seen for a while they congratulate me on ‘killing it’ with my new business – the perception is that it’s going really well.

And it is.

Mostly.

The part that’s truly challenging for me is adjusting psychologically to being self-employed, and to the loss of a familiar routine and the sense of security which came with having a job.

For the first few months, each day felt like chaos. Working from home felt lonely and work life balance went out of the window as I worried so much about not having work that I massively over-committed myself. As I struggled to adjust to this new stage of my career, my mental health suffered and anxiety ruled supreme. After one particularly stressful week, I found myself sat on my kitchen floor on a Sunday night, head in my hands, unable to breathe. That, it turned out, was my first panic attack. If it was really all going so well, why did I feel so bad?

I’m not writing this to discourage anyone from going self-employed, quite the opposite.

It’s wonderful to be your own boss and to be able to pick jobs, projects and clients that you’re passionate about. It’s incredibly satisfying to see money coming in as a direct result of following your own vision and of your own hard graft. But those ‘inspiring’ Instagram posts showing idyllic freelancer life – they’re a dangerous myth.

In fact, they’re a myth that I too perpetuate.

I’m guilty of regularly posting on social networks how excited I am to be working on ‘X’ project, or how I’m off to some glamourous part of the world to speak at a conference. I’m not so quick to mention how I’m still working at 1.30am on a Tuesday morning, or how I’ve had panic attacks worrying about whether the next project will come in or not. The reality of taking the leap from a job to being self-employed is that it’s a big psychological adjustment, and you’ve got to look out for your mental health during the process.

I made some obvious mistakes at first. For one, I completely lost sight of work life balance, working from dawn to midnight every day and not making time for friends and family and just, well, relaxing. Achieving any kind of work life balance in the music industry is challenging as it is; there’s no such thing as 9-5, it’s a round-the-clock lifestyle choice where office hours are followed by gigs, weekends are spent at festivals and regular travel is the norm. It’s easy to become defined by what you do if you work in music, because you’re doing it so much of the time. When I started my business I completely buried myself in this always-on lifestyle, and I was wracked with anxiety from being permanently on the hamster wheel. I now understand how important it is to take an evening or weekend off and refresh.

Another mistake I made initially was not having any kind of routine to my day. Some days I worked from my laptop in bed from the second I woke up (no shower, I know… gross), other days I’d be racing around London with back-to-back client meetings. Life felt chaotic and often still does, but through simply enforcing some routine where I can, I’m now hitting my stride.

So, what can you do to look after your mental health when you’re starting a business? Well I’m no doctor, but these are the things that have worked wonders for me

1. Don't let your work define you

Put your all into your new business but remember your work doesn’t define you. I make particular effort to get work in perspective, it’s what I do but it’s not the be all and end all. I can take a night off. I can skip a gig. I can run a bath instead.

2. Structure your day

If you’re working from home a lot as I am, add some structure to your day. I never thought I’d become one of those people who gets up early for a run before work, but what do you know, now I do (and I love it).

3. Look after yourself - get some help when you need it

Don’t be afraid to get some help with dealing with the psychological adjustment and looking after your mental health. I started seeing a therapist via the NHS at a particularly challenging time, and being able to talk to someone about the anxiety and the career changes I was experiencing was truly transformational. Therapy helps me to keep work in perspective and manage the anxieties that come with being a new business owner.

4. Avoid ‘work porn’! 

That Instagram account showing an effortlessly stylish and successful woman (or man) typing away whilst sipping a chai latte in a high-end coffee shop isn’t great inspiration, it’s a myth! So you had to do your make-up on the tube again this morning and you can’t afford the daily chai lattes… you’re doing fine.

5. SLEEP

Lots of it.

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