New Tools To Handle The Stress And Uncertainty Of Pandemic Times

It isn’t hard to recognize the Covid 19 fatigue most freelancers – and just about everyone – feel this year. While everyone reacts differently to stress, there’s important evidence that some people are at greater risk than others. For example, a recent CDC study pointed out that young people, as well as Blacks and Latinos of all ages, are showing signs of deteriorating mental health and some are resorting to substance abuse.

It was already challenging for millenials before Covid 19. A 2019 article in Psychology Today describing American millenials said this:

“They’re stressed out. Up to 17% of them are depressed, and 14% suffer from anxiety. Millennials seek psychotherapy more often than members of Generation X or other, earlier generations. Money is one of the most common focal points for millennials’ worries. Many of them have trouble finding jobs, are still living with their parents, or harbor serious concerns about making enough money to start their own lives in earnest. Today’s young people face greater financial difficulties than Americans from previous generations. Almost 30% of millennials see themselves as less well-off than they had expected to be 10 years ago. They’re having trouble saving money, too, because of the 2008 recession, ballooning student-loan debts, and the rising cost of living.”

In these perilous times, how can we help freelancers help themselves? What can digital talent communities and marketplaces do to aid their talent to manage through a pandemic that will inevitably end. The purpose of this article is to give freelancers some practical tools and ideas to productively manage the stress and uncertainty that defines these times.

When I talk to freelancers, the biggest challenge they often describe is dealing with the uncertainties. It’s the pile-on of unanswerable questions like: how much at risk am I to get sick? What happens if I can’t work? Is the economy repairing? How do I ensure a steady income stream?

Interesting studies by psychologists at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, working with colleagues at the University of Houston in Texas, and researchers at Concordia University in Canada, have led to a brief survey that helps individuals to better understand their tolerance for ambiguity, and how well they deal with uncertainty.

First, an overview of what these researchers learned: four critical factors influenced unhelpful responses to uncertainty:

·     Uncertainty is experienced as stressful and upsetting

·     Uncertainty makes it difficult for individuals to take appropriate action; they feel stuck and unable to act

·     Uncertain events are viewed as negative, and should be avoided whenever and however possible

·     Being uncertain feels fundamentally unfair  

When freelancers have difficulty with uncertainty, they feel anxious, lose ambition, and freeze at a time when initiative is crucial. People who have high difficulty with uncertainty are likely to interpret ambiguous information as threatening, leading to greater stress. And, as we know, stress impairs problem solving.  

So, how well do you deal with uncertainty?  For the 12 statements below, how well does each describe you?  For each, give yourself one of three ratings: (i) I very often feel this way, (ii) I sometimes feel this way, and (iii) I rarely feel this way.

Survey Items

1.   Unforeseen events upset me greatly.

2.   It frustrates me not having all the information I need.

3.   One should always look ahead so as to avoid surprises.

4.   A small, unforeseen event can spoil everything, even with the best of planning.

5.   I always want to know what the future has in store for me.

6.   I can’t stand being taken by surprise.

7.   I should be able to organize everything in advance.

8.   Uncertainty keeps me from living a full life.

9.   When it’s time to act, uncertainty paralyses me.

10.When I am uncertain I can’t function very well.

11.The smallest doubt can stop me from acting.

12.I must get away from all uncertain situations.

What did you learn?

As you look through the results, two suggestions. First, look at the overall results and draw some general conclusions. If you answered (i) more than half the time, and are seriously uncomfortable with uncertainty, you might think twice about a full-time career as a freelancer. A useful article by April Maguire in Business Know How points out that the top problems that freelancers report all have a connection to dealing with uncertainty, for example:

·     Vague client requests

·     Unreliable clients

·     Poor client communication

·     Low balling payment

·     Late payment or trouble securing payment

An autobiographical note by Michael Stahl in Vice put the freelance challenge of uncertainty this way:

“Psychotherapists’ offices are full of freelancers dealing with this stress. One of these therapists, Elizabeth Cobb, agrees the struggle is real: “What I’ve seen is that there [are] such highs and lows,” she says. She’s treated many freelancers, and notes that when jobs are popping up and money is coming in, her clients generally feel great.

“But there’s never that guaranteed security—when the bottom drops out, it’s stressful, and not just monetarily. “What I’ve seen is that the people I work with really base their identity off of the work they’re doing,” she says. The consequences of that, Cobb says, can be that people “let other things in their life slide, and when they’re not working and not creating, they realize there isn’t a whole lot left.”

But, these are unique times and many millenials and Gen Zs are reluctant freelancers by necessity, not by choice. If that’s you, or if you are a full-time freelancer who wants to deal more effectively with uncertainty, here are some things you can do during this period of Covid 19 and beyond:

  1. Find a partner, coach, therapist, or pod that can help you work through periods of uncertainty, and provide you with a mirror of reality. Too often, our tendency is to withdraw from interaction when under stress; that doesn’t help much other than to reinforce the difficulty. There are a variety of online coaching platforms like AceUp, that provide top freelance coaches who have both the skills and credentials to be a top coach, and have themselves the experience of freelancing with its challenges. Alternatively, talk through the situation with those you trust, and who have an appreciation for the reality of your situation.
  2. Review and improve how you present yourself. Fix the easy things that you’ve neglected in fat times. What have you avoided or neglected, or put aside. Get a better, more contemporary headshot. Revise your bio to include what you’ve neglected to add. Have an expert review how you represent yourself, and where you might do so better. 
  3. Rethink your freelance strategy or emphasis. Are you on trend or an expert in yesterday’s in demand skills. My friend Tal Shmueli invented the personal hackathon while at Linkedin as a way to get fast feedback on strengths and weaknesses from people you trust, including how you present your expertise and experience; then build and execute the plan to better “future proof” your skillset. As a sportscaster once described Wayne Gretsky, the great Canadian hockey player (I’m paraphrasing here), “He skates to where the puck is going to be 30 seconds from now. And he does so by taking in the whole game as if from the stands.” A personal hackathon can give you a personal Gretsky moment. Try it.
  4. Rethink how you work. Lazy freelancers take the work that’s offered them; energetic freelancers know the work they are looking for, and where and how they want to work, and go out and get it. In my case, I alleviated my discomfort with uncertainty by working hard to create a portfolio career: each year, I’d work toward a relationship with four or five clients rather than take all comers. For example, in the last year I was an active freelancer, my clients were: Maersk, McKesson, Rolls Royce, and Levi’s. Most years I was able to make that work. But, it’s not easy and takes some planning and a good deal of relationship management.
  5. Focus on interim gigs rather than a mix of part-time freelance projects. As I described in another article, freelance professionals and executives are increasingly sought to have longer term roles. In my case, I was for six years the half-time Chief Learning and Talent Officer of a big US bank. It was the right role for me at the time, and very financially attractive.
  6. Join a pod. An increasing number of digital talent platforms are rethinking how they work, and shifting from a traditional marketplace to a network of pods, a small group or team of freelancers that work together and support one another. Contra, a new and rapidly growing talent platform, is a good example of one that is organized around what might be called micro-networks of colleagues.  Fiverr is inviting top freelancers to join “studios” to a similar end.  The benefit: people who work together effectively by choice inevitably help each other to deal with the challenges of an uncertain time.

There are as many ways to deal with uncertainty as there are uncertain situations. But, if you haven’t found your own best way to handle the stress in a positive, healthful, way, perhaps one of these suggestions will help. And remember what the great Ziggy Marley, rock star, poet and son of Bob Marley reminds us, “Doing something that is productive is a great way to alleviate stress. Get your mind doing something that is productive.”

Viva la revolution!

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