Freelancing and that important work-play balance


Freelancing is king in my life and I would never-ever want to change that. The best choice I ever made was to close the door on employers and start my own micro business from my dining room table.

I could write reams about the positives of my chosen lifestyle and career. The truth is that there are negatives that can hit you hard when you least expect it – as negatives tend to do.

Last year turned out to be a year I am glad to have seen the last of. Not that everything ended on 31 December – I am still feeling the aftermath and am only really recovering and coming into my own right now, a good three months into 2014.

Towards the end of 2012 I realised I was taking on too much work, but as someone priding herself in her reputation as a hard, competent and tireless worker, I ignored all the signs of disaster to come. I would say things like “2013 will be the Year of Helen”, you know, the Year Helen Would Look after Herself and Her Health and so on. In reality Ms Helen Workaholic prevailed, driving that last nail into the coffin.

Balance between work and your personal life? It was something I used to talk about, but never really understood.

My smartphone ruled my life – I simply could not ignore emails, SMS’s, WhatsApp’s, all to do with work, of course. Not even at night or over a weekend. I would do sneak checks of all the above so my better half would not see; so he would think I was relaxing on the couch watching TV or reading.

Part of it was the freelancer’s fear of clients passing work on to other freelancers should I not be available day and night with the resulting lower income implications. Another part was that it made me feel good, being this efficient and professional, proving my worth in the world. I loved being viewed by others as ambitious and entrepreneurial.

I could not sit around and read fiction without being consumed with guilt – a freelancer should be busy, busy, busy after all, I felt.

I had a chuckle at the following quote by a psychologist I found on, being quite sure this was exclusively about me:

“I always say that the difference between someone who’s a true workaholic and someone who’s just a hard worker is that the workaholic is on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work, and the hard worker is in the office dreaming about being on the ski slope.”

“Workaholism is remarkably similar to alcoholism in some ways. Just as an alcoholic will hide bottles around the house and drink furtively, for example, workaholics may try to sneak in work when they think no one is looking.”

Oops! Too close to home…

By June last year I started losing it, making horrid mistakes, forgetting about assignments, procrastinating on a formerly unimaginable scale. In slid further down the void in July and by August I had to admit defeat. A translation that would usually take an hour and a half to complete had progressed no further than halfway through the third paragraph after being at it an entire morning.

I phoned a friend and asked her to please complete it for me, realising that this was it. No more. I was in big trouble with one of my regular clients for not completing a huge piece of work in time. In fact, by the time the deadline came, I hadn’t even started, I simply couldn’t get myself to do it.

It was time to make a plan. I phoned my clients asking them for an eight week reprieve because I was simply burnt out.

In the eight weeks following, I could hardly look at my laptop without feeling nauseous. I stuck to my weekly radio programme on RSG and one public relations client because I did not want them to replace me and of course I needed at least some income. The work I did take on, was completed at a painfully slow pace.

On the advice of a good friend the rest of the time I lay about, sleeping, watching TV, doing nothing. I learned that doing nothing is in fact called resting and not “doing nothing” at all.

By mid-October I started recovering, but knew I would never be able to work at the same pace as before. Should I get myself an employee? Should I forward work to fellow freelancers?

Someone working for me would mean I could not spend time working in my beloved coffee shops any longer – I would be a boss and manager and give up a lot of personal freedom. Nope, not for me! So I decided to:

  1. Halve my former workload by referring clients to other freelancers.
  2. Make a definite undertaking not to lift a finger on weekends, unless it was an emergency.

I am not making as much money as before, but came to understand that after five years of freelancing and making a good living month after month, I could really start to relax. I wasn’t sinking, poverty wasn’t knocking on the door, my business was flourishing on a smaller scale. I was still OK.

Today I am more relaxed, enjoy the work I do, walk my dogs on weekends without being stressed about that Very Urgent deadline at 18h00 on a Sunday. Bliss!

Are you a workaholic? Here are a few tell-tale signs from

  • Do you get more excited about your work than about family or anything else?
  • Are there times when you can charge through your work and other times when you can’t?
  • Do you take work with you to bed? On weekends? On vacation?
  • Is work the activity you like to do best and talk about most?
  • Do you work more than 40 hours a week?
  • Do you turn your hobbies into money-making ventures?
  • Do you take complete responsibility for the outcome of your work efforts?
  • Have your family or friends given up expecting you on time?
  • Do you take on extra work because you are concerned that it won’t otherwise get done?
  • Do you underestimate how long a project will take and then rush to complete it?
  • Do you believe that it is okay to work long hours if you love what you are doing?
  • Do you get impatient with people who have other priorities besides work?
  • Are you afraid that if you don’t work hard you will lose your job or be a failure?
  • Is the future a constant worry for you even when things are going very well?
  • Do you do things energetically and competitively including play?
  • Do you get irritated when people ask you to stop doing your work in order to do something else?
  • Have your long hours hurt your family or other relationships?
  • Do you think about your work while driving, falling asleep or when others are talking?
  • Do you work or read during meals?
  • Do you believe that more money will solve the other problems in your life?

Helen Ueckermann is a freelance media professional and chairperson of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea).


  • Herman Lategan

    Hmmmm … thanks for this, I can identify. Sounds horribly familiar.

  • Claire Butler

    Great article, Helen. Thanks for sharing your story and experience. I think I’m borderline workaholic but leaning more towards just being an over-achiever (as it sounds you are too!). I used to freelance and absolutely loved it – felt more in control of my workload and time, and found it easier to be more boundaried with my time. I made the return to full-time work about 18 months ago, and while I love my job, I really do miss the flexibility and control I had when I was a freelancer. My full-time job expects much more of me than freelancing ever did, because as a freelancer I could say no when I knew I was taking on too much. It’s so tricky not to become consumed by work in such a fast-paced, high demand work landscape these days! Hopefully I’ll be able to return to freelancing one day.

  • Roxanne

    A very honest and revealing piece, Helen. I still love my work as a freelance writer and editor, but I also try to practise saying no. Working hard for little return (whether monetary or stimulatory) isn’t the way to happiness. Well done for taking control.

  • Marion

    Thanks for your article, Helen, and most especially for sharing your personal story. As a fellow freelancer, I completely relate to what you’re saying, and to your story. And it’s difficult to be honest about our situation. As freelancers, we’re ‘not supposed to have free time’, and ‘should always be looking for new clients or working feverishly on the projects of our current clients’, and we feel guilty if we aren’t. Secretly, some people actually resent us, particularly for those ‘coffee meetings’ and ‘working lunches’, while they’re stuck behind a desk all day – going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark. And Heaven help them if they actually TAKE their lunch hour, or don’t arrive early and leave late. A week ago, I posted a picture on FB of my cats sitting on my desk while I worked, and when someone said, “Oh, what a lovely way to work”, my automatic reaction was to defend myself. “Yes, I’m very blessed. But I work very hard for that privilege,” I said. Makes me laugh, now. The fact is: what we do is tough. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. And as my landlady was very quick to point out, “rent is due on the first of the month and should be cleared and available on the 1st.” It was 13h00 on the 1st when I made and cleared the payment. Wow! Very late indeed! The truth is: we deserve our free time, and should schedule it in our diaries as we do everything else. We work extremely hard and it’s very stressful to wonder all the time if you’re going to make it at the end of the month. So, good for you for making and taking some personal time. After a month-long illness that should have cleared up sooner, but didn’t because I was pushing too hard, I have decided to do the same. I also hired a domestic helper instead of beating myself up for not keeping my home immaculate all the time. I’ve also scheduled gym time and going to the movies at least twice a month. I’m still battling to get my head around the idea of giving myself that time, expecting people to judge me and say, “Shouldn’t you be working?” But I’m doing my best to get used to the idea, and hopefully it will stick. Thanks again for your inspiring story, and I wish you all the best in sticking to your guns.