Freelancer Burnout: How Making Money Could Cost You Everything
Updated: Oct 15
I teach out of my house in a Chicago suburb.
I don’t get as many glamour clients as I would downtown, but I love both the commute and the rent. For a long time, though, I taught from a shared studio on Michigan Ave. in Chicago’s Loop. While I did, I was acutely aware of both the commute and the rent, and arranged my schedule to maximize my income. I would routinely schedule 30 students in three days. (I know...right?) Thanks to the 80/20 law I never actually saw that many students in that time, but I did see a lot. Typically, eight or nine a day.
You read the title. You know what I’m going to tell you. And you’re right; I did burn out. Both on a daily basis, and overall.
We use the term “burnout” in a pretty cavalier way these days, but it’s a real thing. It’s ICD-10 description is “vital exhaustion,” which I think is interesting, because it means that even the government (the Center for Disease Control publishes the ICD) recognizes that you’re sick when you run out of juice, or “vitality”.
Some of the symptoms of a private voice teacher or coach experiencing burnout would be:
Dreading your client days
Feeling angry at all your clients when one of them has a payment or scheduling issue
Feeling relieved when clients cancel
Spending too much time chatting with your clients, not much time teaching
Letting your client “lead” the lesson
Having little to no interest in continued professional learning
Allowing boundaries to blur; making friends with your clients
Forgetting, or failing to journal, ongoing clients’ weekly sessions
Those are some long-term symptoms. But burnout can happen in a single day, as well. You may have felt that way. It’s something you just can’t explain to anyone who is not a fellow voice teacher/coach (or a therapist). It’s the reality that every client takes a little piece of you when they walk out your door. Your energy merges with theirs. You give them your knowledge and experience; you’re psychologically and emotionally invested in their success, often wanting more for them than they want for themselves. And then they leave your studio with the chi…the energy…the mojo that you gave them. They didn’t do anything bad. That’s just the deal. But it leaves you feeling depleted.
If you’ve only seen one or two clients, you can take a little break, have a
cup of tea, and get back to normal. But if you’ve seen a number of clients in a day, you’re spent. I remember leaving my Michigan Ave. studio feeling as though my legs were made of lead, and my head filled with jell-o. I could barely construct a sentence, and often couldn’t remember if I’d driven or taken the train to work. Sometimes my boyfriend would pick me up and wonder why I was so tired. All I’d done was sit on my keister playing scales all day…how hard was that?
The truth is that burnout is real, and over time can actually alter neural circuits and lead to neurological dysfunction.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden recruited a group of 40 subjects with formally diagnosed burnout symptoms, and 70 healthy volunteers with no history of chronic stress. The researchers focused on activity in brain areas involved in processing and regulating emotions. They found that the burnout group had enlarged amygdalae – two sets of neurons that are part of the limbic system and that play a key role in processing emotions – and weaker connections between it and brain areas linked both to emotional distress and to executive functioning.
What that means for you is that, in burnout mode, you have a hard time controlling your negative emotions and behaviors. It also means that your ability to reason is impaired. And the longer this neurological situation goes on, the harder it is to reverse.
You’re probably not great about taking care of yourself. Most of us aren’t. But for the sake of your long-term health, as well as your relationships and livelihood, it’s time to start instituting some behaviors that will allow you to replenish your life vitality.
Schedule breaks, both in your day and in your year
You can spend those short breaks in your day doing more, or other, work. That’s fine, but you might also want to consider taking time to read, or listen to music, or enjoy a podcast. All of those things are important to your overall knowledge and well-being.
When you go on vacation, whether for two days or two weeks, unplug. Set up your email with the automatic vacation response. Put your phone on silent and only use the camera function. You’re not a heart surgeon. There’s no problem your students have that they can’t solve themselves if they have to.
Raise your prices, stash some nuts
Could you take two fewer clients each week if you raised your prices? A healthy You is in everyone’s best interest. I promise that you’ll be surprised by how chill everyone is about your fee increase.
You shouldn’t work “whenever you can.” Put away some money every week so that you can take time off without panicking.
Do something else
You probably think that you’re busy enough with just your teaching and performing schedule. And you are. But you can find a couple of hours every month to feed a part of yourself that isn’t the teacher or performer. Volunteer, or turn an interest into a hobby.
Join a group
Join a group you don’t have to audition for. A professional teachers group, a volunteer group, or an arts board would be fun, expansive, and great networking.
Find or create a niche or specialty
Focusing on being a coach or teacher for a particular group of people will, over time, create a stronger client base that is willing to pay more. You will also start to get opportunities to provide services to your niche in new and different ways.
Take voice lessons or get therapy
Seriously. Let someone pay attention to you for a change!
Your clients love you. Your friends and family love you. Everyone will support your decisions to take care of yourself. I know it’s not easy, but give it a try.
Excerpted from the upcoming book The Freelance Voice Teacher: A Handbook for Starting and Prospering as an Independent Voice Professional.