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One, two, freelance!

Last month, I wrote an article in the Dancing Times about freelancing, called “Surviving or Thriving?” In it, I summarised the findings of a large research project about freelancers in dance, while updating the project with some post (or mid?) pandemic statistics: 7000 performing arts workers were made redundant in 2020, and 51% of workers in the arts were furloughed compared with 13% across the country as a whole. Competition for funding has increased dramatically as a result, with the Arts Council reporting three times more applications for its Developing Your Creative Practice fund in 2021 than in the previous rounds.

So, in the midst of all of this job insecurity and competition for funding, why on earth did I leave my comfortable, stable job in Higher Education to try freelancing? In this blog, I try to explain!

It’s a very different prospect to the last time I was a freelancer. Back in 2006, I’d just graduated from my MSc Dance Science, and couldn’t find a permanent job. So I temped in retail and signed on for Job Seeker’s Allowance, and slowly the dance jobs started to build up. But I wasn’t freelancing by choice, it was by necessity. Fast forward 15 years and I am freelancing again, but this time it is by choice, and I’m really excited about it.

What is freelancing?

Freelancing essentially means being self-employed, selling work or services by the hour, day or job, rather than a full-time permanent, salaried position or contract. Many freelancers perform a range of roles (e.g. teaching, performing, choreographing) in a portfolio career. It’s been estimated that the large majority of those working in dance are freelance (around 80%) – but this statistic only includes performers and choreographers, so the actual proportion is likely to be much higher. Freelancers in dance may find themselves working in and beyond the industry, contributing to arts and culture, education, leisure and tourism, and health and social care. Freelancing also involves formal roles (e.g. the teaching, performing and choreographing) as well as informal ones such as administration, budgeting, marketing, accounting, networking and funding applications.

The challenges of freelance working

Research conducted by my colleagues and I detailed the challenges of unstable working patterns: sometimes being extremely busy and in other times having no work at all; poor rates of pay that were not always commensurate with experience; few benefits such as sick pay or parental leave; lack of structure or career progression opportunities; and challenges with work-life balance. The unpredictability of freelance working means that it can be difficult to balance home and work life satisfactorily, and can also result in financial instability. It can also mean that freelancers feel socially isolated at times as they work irregular and often unsocial hours, often without a regular team with which to collaborate. Finally, the freelancers in our research felt that their work was undervalued. For instance, performing and choreographing roles still tend to be valued more highly than others like community dance leaders or healthcare providers. The poor rates of pay also carry connotations of value and worth. In our research, we spoke to freelancers who were highly experienced and well-known, but were still being offered the lowest rates of pay which typically wouldn’t happen in a salaried job that has clear career and pay progression policies. Freelancers make a huge contribution to many sectors but this often isn’t sufficiently recognised.

So in the face of all these challenges, why does anyone do it? OK, some people don’t do it out of choice, like me back in 2006, but plenty of people do, like me in 2021. So why? It can’t all be bad, can it?

The upsides of freelance working

What I find really interesting is that freelance working shares many of the same characteristics that are used to define psychological wellbeing. These include autonomy, flexibility, freedom, a sense of purpose, and the opportunity to make a contribution to society or a community (for more on definitions of wellbeing read this, or for some easy ways to enhance wellbeing, try this blog). Indeed, the freelancers in our research reported high levels of wellbeing, particularly in the areas of personal growth and having a sense of purpose in life. This makes sense as many freelancers described a great sense of satisfaction in pursuing their own artistic vision and taking on the projects that they really wanted to do. Freelancers often have a tangible sense of purpose and meaning, and a desire to contribute to their artistic communities and to society more broadly. Fulfilling multiple roles in a portfolio career can give freelancers variety in their daily lives, introduce them to new areas and experiences, and allow them to learn, grow and develop. They value the autonomy and choice inherent in a freelance career.

Viewing freelance working from this perspective, then, suggests that although there are challenges, there are also many rewards which can have very real impacts on psychological wellbeing. These factors are certainly true for me: I found the workload in my previous job caused huge amounts of stress at times and had a negative impact on my wellbeing. I wanted more autonomy so that I could direct my work, choose which projects to do (and which to decline), work more flexibly around my young family, reach new audiences, and to use my psychological knowledge to have a direct impact on these new audiences. I’m excited about where this work is taking me, and the new skills I'm developing. At the same time, I feel more relaxed on my working days because I am not answering to anybody else. I’m no longer a slave to my emails, no longer feel frustrated by the crushing admin involved in public sector work, and have escaped the undercurrent of presenteeism that is so common in many working environments. I have been able to take on work that I just couldn’t do in my previous role, such as coaching, writing and consultancy, and have had time to volunteer as a mentor for the mental health charity Mind, with the IADMS Mental Health Working Group, and as a career mentor for IADMS. It has been so varied to date and I’m excited about what the future could bring.

Of course it’s not all plain-sailing: some months I make enough money and others I’ve had to dip into my savings; I haven’t yet created a plan for if things get really busy; and I’ve had to take several days off to look after my children when they were ill with Covid-19, chicken pox, ear infections and random temperatures – the impact of the lack of social mixing on their immune systems has been obvious! Working around my children has also meant shorter days (as I pick my son up from school at 3.30pm) and fewer working weeks, as I try to avoid working during school holidays. It's a challenge to both cram all the work I want and need to do in the available hours and weeks that I have, and to switch off from work that I enjoy when I'm not doing it!

Also, it’s not to say I don’t have worries about how well this will all work in the long-term, and it’s not to say that I will be freelance forever – but right now, being able to focus on what I really enjoy and manage my own workload, while having more time with my children, feels like the perfect fit.

Thinking about going freelance? Read on for my top tips!

Whether being freelance is your choice or not, there are lots of things you can do to help you navigate a freelance career successfully:

· Plan as much you can. Think about your short and long-term goals and how you can work towards them. Make a financial plan, and think about how you can stay socially connected with others

· Look into local and national (and international!) networks you can join to help you find work and opportunities, and to connect you with like-minded peers. Consider how you can articulate your unique vision of yourself and your work so that you can make the most of these networks. You have to learn to sell yourself!

· Do you need to upskill in any areas? Many freelancers feel they lack knowledge in administration and business skills for example. Are there any courses or webinars you could attend?

· Work on your self-confidence so that you feel willing to put yourself out there and get out of your comfort zone (have a look at my self-confidence course if this is something you struggle with). Cultivate optimism to help you through tough times. Stay curious and open-minded, reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, and be patient: play the long game and understand that success is rarely instant

· Find a mentor: someone who can offer advice and inspiration, who may be able to introduce you to others who could help in your career. This could be a tutor, a colleague or peer, or someone you find through a formal mentoring scheme such as those offered by One Dance UK or the Graduate Mentor Programme. If you are a research student or early career academic, I offer mentoring for a 6-12 month period.

For more about freelancing in dance, have a read of these research reports, or listen to this podcast.

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