Self-employment, or running your own small business as a Limited Company, can be incredibly rewarding. You are the primary decision maker within your organisation, so there’s no long bureaucratic chain when you need to complete specific tasks; you can work to your own schedule (hello extra-long lunch break!) and ultimately do the work that you really want to do with the customers you really want to work with… Or that’s the idea anyway! However, whether you’re just starting up or are a veteran of VA life, I’m sure that you know that the reality isn’t consistently wonderful. Long working hours, the pressure of bringing enough money into the business to survive and thrive, the isolation associated with being a remote and lone worker – these are challenges that we have to face every day in order to keep the business profitable.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but you need to look after yourself: Take a break, have a walk, step away from that computer and turn off your email notifications on your phone. Having run my own business for much of the last decade, I can say with confidence that there have been times when every single VA I know has found it all a bit too much. They’ve worked themselves into the ground, many suffering from burnout – a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by extended periods of stress and overwork – and have been forced to temporarily take a step back from work for the sake of their wellbeing. Sometimes this comes as a surprise when the VA in question seems their normal efficient and positive self, but it’s a bit like when you see a swan swimming upstream; they are calm on the surface, but vigorously struggling against the tide beneath the surface.
As self-employed freelancers, we don’t necessarily have the benefit of sick pay and holiday pay to fall back on, unless we’ve been able to build up the funds in the business to create a pot of money as a buffer for such eventualities. Even if we do have a financial buffer, when you are the person who brings money into the business and services your customers, it’s hard to email your customers and tell them you’re going to be away from the office for a few days – I know that, we all just want happy customers! As a result, many of us belong to the ‘I’ll work from my bed’ gang, pushing ourselves to continue working when our bodies (and minds!) need rest above all else.
Let’s think about things pragmatically for a second. Almost everyone suffers from the odd illness at least once per year, whether it’s a common cold, sickness bug, or a longer-term issue. We know that in order to recover from these illnesses, the best thing to do is rest and recuperate, otherwise, they can linger and persist for longer than just a few days. We know that in employed roles, many responsible businesses prefer their employees not to come in when they are ill, as a.) they have other people who can help temporarily shoulder the workload as a contingency plan and b.) they prefer the idea of staff taking a few days off to either bringing a bug in and spreading it around, or having that illness impact the quality of the work completed by that staff member. We’ve all made mistakes at work, but they are often exacerbated when we are suffering from physical or mental illnesses that are causing us distress.
So, if a responsible business owner can give their team members time off, why can’t you? If you don’t have a team around you, it is hard to think about temporarily ‘abandoning’ your customers. But is what you do so integral to the day-to-day running of their business that it would crash and burn without you? And if it is, shouldn’t you already have contingency plans in place to ensure that they are covered in the event of your temporary absence? In this particular case, it’s strongly recommended that you have an associate VA engaged to provide support in your absence so that customers who rely on you completely for daily support (i.e. with inbox or diary management, or call handling, etc.) don’t experience a gap in the service you provide. There are plenty of talented and experienced VAs out there, and paying them to cover you, or to reduce your workload temporarily or long-term, is a small price to pay when it could save you from burnout.
It’s easy for me to say ‘take a break’ – I’m sure you all know the benefit of downtime and exercise to boost your physical and mental wellbeing without me going on about it! So I’ll finish this blog with a couple of pieces of advice based on my experiences working within this industry:
- Be kind to yourself. You wouldn’t expect a staff member to work every hour of the day, every day of the week, and slowly drive themselves into the ground. Treat yourself as you would a valuable team member, because the reality is that without you, your business either ceases to function or loses its key, central component part. Don’t let it get to that stage.
- Talk to someone. Talk to your peers, talk to your family, seek professional medical support when you need it. The ability to carry on stoically (and stubbornly!) is a characteristic that I know many freelancers have, but sometimes admitting that there is a problem is the first step to working out a way to resolve it, helping to reduce overall stress in the long term. The VA Hub community on Facebook is a resource designed to help you reach out to peers – there are thousands of us out there who know and understand what you are going through and can offer helpful words of support and useful tips. For further support, our VA members club offers a smaller community where you can really get to know other members, benefit from their experience and share your ideas and feelings in a safe and positive space – if you’d like more information, please visit: https://www.apva.org.uk/apva-membership/. Your friends and family are also likely to be able to provide valuable help and a listening ear, and in cases where you are experiencing physical or emotional distress, professional medical support needs to be your go-to resource.
Take care of yourselves everyone – you are not alone, please just reach out if you are struggling. We’re here to help.