The loneliness of the long-distance freelancer

The loneliness of the long-distance freelancer

Media guru and host of Being Freelance, Steve Folland, speaks to Tristan Grove about podcasting, clogs, local connections and combating isolation

Freelancing is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the labour force: highly-skilled professionals pioneering their own careers – their own way of working. They are the spearhead of a fundamental shift in the labour market. 

As Hertfordshire-based freelance scriptwriter, podcaster and media guru Steve Folland tells me: “The world of work is changing. We grew up with the 9-5, Monday to Friday, commute-to-an-office culture ingrained in us. 

“That’s changing for everyone, even those with ‘normal’ jobs. But it feels like freelancers are the test bed of that change – we’re the ones figuring out how to adapt to this life.” 

And the biggest adaptation – the biggest challenge they have to overcome? Loneliness. 

For long-term, full-time freelancers, working alone from home can cause serious problems. 

“Something that comes up again and again on my podcast is that phrase ‘alone’,” adds Steve. “For many people there’s an immediate loneliness to being a freelancer. I’ve had guests who work from home and have ended up not leaving the house for weeks, and eventually realise they need a dog so they have a reason to get out.

“So many of my guests struggle with these things, and unfortunately that can feed into mental health issues if you don’t get out there and take care of yourself. I speak to a lot of freelancers who struggle with mental wellbeing because of isolation.”

Fortunately, that isn’t so much of an issue for Steve himself: “I don’t personally feel that way, but I think a lot of that comes down to having kids. If I didn’t have kids, I’m not sure I’d have much reason to leave the house during the week.” 

But Steve tells me he recognises the depth of the problem for freelancers more generally: “I think a lot of freelancers miss the social aspects of going into an office every day and actually meeting people. Even though I like working by myself at home, humans are fundamentally social animals.”

He thinks part of the problem is that most freelancers do not have an immediate community around them, and many don’t have an extended or virtual community either. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons Steve set up his vlog and renowned podcast, Being Freelance. 

“Often you feel like you’re the only one struggling with this. By listening to the podcast or watching the vlog, you realise you’re not and that it’s okay to talk about it,” he says.

Inspiring change: the Being Freelance podcast 

“I always enjoyed listening to podcasts, and when I started freelancing I wanted to hear from other people doing what I was doing. But the only podcasts I could find were very much from ‘entrepreneurs’. And sure, there’s something entrepreneurial about freelancing, but overall, it’s a very different lifestyle so I just didn’t really relate to them. 

“Or when there were podcasts by actual freelancers, they were very profession-specific: talking about being a freelance graphic designer or a web developer. I would listen to them, but I found what I really enjoyed was when they just talked about their lives or more general things to do with freelancing. Really, I was looking for people who would talk about freelancing life, but nobody was – so I did.” 

And so Being Freelance was born. Now it’s four seasons in, with over 100 guests from across countries, continents and freelance professions. 

“Still I come away from every single conversation feeling I really get where my guests are coming from – whether they’ve been doing it for a year or for decades,” Steve explains.

“We all have these shared, common experiences. So I always come away having learned something new, but also with a renewed feeling that I’m not in this alone.”

It’s not just comfort either: the podcast is a source of regular inspiration for freelancers. 

“There have been some really cool, inspirational people on,” he goes on to say. “One of my favourite quotes from guests is ‘nice guys get paid last’. That was someone called Fraser Davidson, and it wasn’t about being unpleasant – just about speaking up for yourself when it comes to getting paid. Being too nice puts you to the back of the queue.”

What he thinks is probably his all-time favourite quote, however, is even simpler: “It was from Louise Heinrich, and she simply said, ‘don’t freak out’. 

“That should be on a poster: it can be too easy as a freelancer to let things get ahead of you – especially when dealing with cash flow or when people ask you to do things you feel are a bit beyond you. When that happens, you just need to think: ‘don’t freak out’.”

The vlogging life

Another way Steve connects with other freelancers is through his vlog. 

“Although one major benefit of the vlog is that it allows me to advertise my video skills without showing the corporately sensitive work I do for clients, that wasn’t the main reason I set it up. 

“The original idea was to accompany the podcast: so, whereas the podcast looks at everyone else’s life, the vlog documents my life. I film it every day, then edit it into weekly ten-minute episodes about what’s going on in my life. 

“I didn’t realise when I first started how it would benefit my life. You often hear of how we should all keep a journal because it means you think through your thoughts, your processes and what you’re grateful for. And if you don’t stop and do that, you’re not really thinking about it. 

“I’d always thought it sounded like airy fairy nonsense, but I actually get it now. By talking to the camera, I have to explain what I’m doing, and if I come up against a problem, it helps me talk it through and solve it. 

“It’s really a video journal where I talk through everything that’s going on: what I’m grateful for, what I’m struggling with – the challenges and the buzzes – and they all come spewing out into the camera in a way I didn’t expect. 

“Then I get feedback from people who loved watching it because they’ve learned something or they’ve been through the same things and they don’t feel alone in that anymore.”

Building the freelance community

Isolation has always been a problem for freelancers, but more and more people like Steve are working to combat this and build a real community for freelancers – both virtually and locally. 

He says: “I’m definitely not the only freelancer doing this – there are a lot of freelancers now making videos or writing blog posts about their experiences, or even just chatting on Twitter. 

“By engaging with these things, people start to realise ‘oh my God, I’m not alone. It’s not just me going through this: people from all around the world are going through the same thing.’ And if they all come together and help each other it’s much better. That might be by sharing experiences online, getting along to meetups or even founding co-working spaces.  

“I’ve personally started trying to meet up with local freelancers for lunch. And it’s even easier finding them if you live in a big city. I really want to start a meetup too, and get my own co-working space going locally. 

“It’s so important for us to face and tackle the challenges of freelancing together. We’re at our best when we’re open-source freelancers, laying out our thoughts and experiences and learning from each other.”

Watch Steve’s vlog and listen his podcasts at stevefolland.com