Career Advice

Inside the Gig Economy: How to Avoid Burnout & Working Yourself to Death

Young man lying on desk

Nearly everyone can burn out at work. We unwittingly overdo it and flame out. We commit to projects that we’ve underestimated in terms of time and effort. We get overwhelmed and resentful. It’s no different for gig workers, but the burn out rate seems to escalate when giggers haven’t planned for or anticipated the pitfalls. For many, gigging is a new experience and newbies aren’t prepared. These old hands have advice for the newcomer. 

Let’s start with your attitude. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute showed that those who became gig workers by choice (free agents and casual earners) report greater satisfaction with their work lives than those who do it out of necessity. Your enemy here is self-pity. I know it’s hard, but try to do the gig as well as you can. It’ll lift your spirits to accomplish a task, even if it’s not what you want to be doing. And then go look for something you want.

If you’ve been lucky enough to choose gig work and have planned for the less than regular paychecks than you have a leg up. But for those who weren’t so lucky, there are ways to prevent burnout, which experts say is more common in the unplanned for gig work.

First: Manage your expectations. Don’t go into this thinking you can sit at the beach and tap out a thought or two between sips of tequila. Get organized. Every day.

Teena Maddox, who’s been both gig worker and employer of giggers, says that, even if you’re in a down cycle, get up and get dressed.  “It was important for me to put on real clothes and get to work at a regular time. It felt like work.”  That’s what it is – work – so get serious. You may think, at first, that ditching the traditional 9-to-5 is going to be fun, and it can be, but that doesn’t mean goofing off. It means doing work you like. 

“If you feel like you’re burning out, it’s even more important to get up and get dressed,” says Maddox. “It will help you find momentum.”

Obviously, you’ll burn out if you don’t get the work you’ve been assigned completed. Employers aren’t going to put up with late and careless. If you often fall into the financial swamp, or into a lot of situations where you’ve frittered away time and are in a deadline crunch, it will absolutely create burn out. 

Accept the fact that you must always be on the lookout for your next gig. Keep looking, even if you have a job. The best at this, are constantly talking to people, networking and reading about the industry they’re interested in. Burn out is guaranteed if you’re always scrambling for work at the last minute. Try to maintain a steady pace in searching for employment.

A financial analyst who’s been gigging for five years, Abby Singleton, says she’s had to be increasingly conscious of her money. Even with all her financial experience, she found she had to make a budget and stick to it. “Otherwise, you’re in trouble,” says Abby. “If you don’t have a stable income that can get challenging. Save everything you can, especially when you first start out and haven’t figured out when money will be coming.” There’s no faster way to lose energy and interest than to be strapped for cash. 

Speaking of money, do not work for too little, or for free. All the experienced gig workers I spoke with said this is absolutely rule number one. “You might feel shy talking about money or the client is pleading poverty,” says long-time freelancer Ted Gilbert, “but you have to get it talked about and on paper. Think of yourself as the product and explain your charges.”  Getting paid is a great cure for burn out.

I have an approach that’s worked with clients who are inexperienced. They have no idea what or how the work is done, so I demonstrate it for them. I accept a small project at their price, but I keep strict track of the hours and materials used. I then show the client what they’re actually paying per hour. It is always shocking and it’s never failed to make the point. “This won’t work with people who are just being cheap. I recommend this only if you are convinced a client has good intentions.”

If you feel yourself sliding into the burnout pit, speak to your client or boss. See if you can negotiate more time or help if you need it. When Maddox was a worker, she did speak up. “I had a good relationship with most of my clients so I could talk with them,” says Maddox. “My advice is to try and cultivate a good working relationship to whomever you’re reporting to, but don’t pester them.” She says that as an employer she is careful to check in with her gig workers, knowing how hard the situation can be. 

Despite all these dire-seeming warnings, remember you’re doing this for all the benefits gigs offer, including work you enjoy, clients instead of bosses and control of your hours and working conditions. It’s worth it. Just work it.


Catch up on the “Inside the Gig Economy” series by checking out:

Part 1, “Inside the Gig Economy: What’s Old Is New Again”

Part 2, “Inside the Gig Economy: ‘Be Tenacious Without Being a Pest'”

Part 3, “Inside the Gig Economy: The Secret Struggle”

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