Common Health Problems of Freelance Designers and How to Deal With Them


Being a freelance designer has its own pros and cons. You get to work from the comfort of your own home, but this does not mean that you are safe. The most obvious disadvantage is that you won’t be getting outside enough or enough Vitamin D. Since you work long, irregular hours and spend too much time in front of the computer, you are more prone to certain health problems than the rest of the population. Here are the most common health problems that designers suffer–and what you should do to treat them.

Tension Headache

Tension headaches are a common health problem suffered by many people, not just designers. Tension headaches affect more than 78% of the population. Common causes of this health problem are staying in one position doing the same thing such as using a computer. Other common causes include stress, fatigue, eye strain, anxiety and physical inactivity. Notice that most causes are how you often describe a typical designer’s job: hours of work in front of the computer and non-stop pressure. If the headache bothers you for longer than two weeks, you may have developed a chronic tension headache. If it occurs on an occasional basis, it may be an episodic tension headache.

Tension headaches are often hard to read and thus often neglected and difficult to treat. For starters, an obvious symptom is if there is a tightness on the neck and scalp muscles. You may have pain in the head, scalp and neck area–like a tight band has been placed across your head. Often, the pain starts at the back of the head and spreads forward.

There’s not much to fear, though. Although tension headaches can get painful, these are rarely a symptom of a more serious illness. You only need a few changes in your diet and lifestyle will reduce any more tension headaches in the future. Of course if the headaches become more frequent, it may be an indication of a severe medical problem like a brain tumor or aneurysm. See a doctor for further evaluation.

Dealing with Tension Headache:

Once again, tension headaches don’t normally require a visit to the doctor, as they normally go away after a few hours. Here are a few natural ways to remedy the problem:

  • Sleep it off. Once in the zone, designers will often forget to eat, sleep and relax. They will stare at the computer for several hours, in order to finish their project as soon as they can. This can lead to a severe headache, the best way to remedy this is to just lie down, close your eyes and take a power nap. The sooner you take a rest, the sooner the headache will go away.
  • Avoid staring at the computer screen (or the sun, or other sources of light)– this can lead to a migraine, blurred vision and nausea. To reduce chances of getting a headache, wear tinted glasses. Minimize the brightness of the monitor and avoid using the computer in a darkened room.
  • Give up smoking and avoid drinking. These activities can can make your headaches worse and happen more frequently. Alcoholic drinks with large amounts of tyramine can cause headaches, as well.
  • Have an active lifestyle–exercise regularly and have a healthy diet.
  • Use a cold compress, this is effective and can alleviate the pain in 20 minutes or less for most people.
  • Reduce caffeine intake. While coffee wakes you up in the morning, it can also cause muscle tension, anxiety and insomnia that can trigger a tension headache.

Chronic Fatigue

by Eleanor Hardwick

Fatigue is the state of feeling tired and weary that stretches from a day to a few months. Fatigue can be acute or chronic. Being a graphic or web designer entails long and irregular work hours. High pressure jobs are more prone to fatigue, and this means us designers as well. Work-related factors such as long hours of work, strenuous mental or physical activity are leading causes for fatigue.

Symptoms include sleepiness (accidentally sleeping against your will), tiredness throughout the day, irritability, depression, giddiness, etc. Fatigue generally affects your overall work performance and productivity because your decision making, communication and planning skills are reduced. There is an inability to recall instructions and details. Creativity is killed by fatigue. There is reduced reaction time–similar to what you feel when drunk.

Dealing with Fatigue:

  • The most obvious way to deal with fatigue is to get the proper amount of sleep. Get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a day! This is to ensure that you are well rested at night; and up and about in the morning.
  • Change your work environment. There are several environmental factors that can actually increase fatigue. This includes dim lighting, hot temperatures, noisy settings and tasks that are boring and repetitive. Work in a place where you can be more alert, efficient and productive.

Computer Eye Strain

Photo by James Gordon

Designers are especially prone to computer eye strain; Spending most of their work hours in front of the computer. Prolonged use of the PC can lead to eye strain, migraines, blurred vision and other visual problems. It can even put you at  risk of glaucoma.

Symptoms of computer eye strain include: headache during or after computer use, dry eyes, slow focusing when looking at near and far objects, blurred vision and doubling of vision. This may be coupled with neck and back pain and pain in the wrists and shoulders while working on the PC.

Dealing with Eye Strain

  • Don’t forget to blink every once in a while ;). We designers sometimes tend to forget that our human eyes need to blink, especially when staring into the computer screen. Forgetting to blink can lead to dry eyes.
  • When working, give your eyes time to rest. For every 30 minutes or so, stop staring at the computer screen and close your eyes or look somewhere else. For a focusing exercise, focus on an object at least 10 feet away.
  • Work in a properly lit workspace. Place your lamp behind you, and not with the light facing you. Adjust your monitor screen’s Brightness and Contrast settings to help ease strain on the eyes.

Stress-related Insomnia

Photo by Ilse

Stress is a common enemy for designers. Some react to it in a good way, some in bad, others in worse. Stress comes when there are major life changes in work, home or relationships. Tremendous amounts of stress can keep you awake at night, triggering stress-related insomnia.

Obviously, if you have insomnia, you have difficulty sleeping. Other symptoms of stress-related insomnia include change in your sleeping pattern or body clock; a nagging headache, stiff neck or back ache; rapid breathing, fatigue, irritability and sweaty palms.

Because sleep is so vital for one’s overall health, insomnia can greatly affect your work ethic and productivity. You become more hot-headed, mentally slower, less productive and tired throughout the day.

Dealing with Insomnia:

  • PMR or Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Stress causes our body muscles to tense up, so PMR is a great tool to destress and relax your body.
  • Find a hobby to destress! Go biking, do yoga, paint or try journaling. These activities can improve your overall health and stress management. It clears one’s mind from toxic and negative feelings that may have been causing you to lose your zzzz’s.
  • If your insomnia has been going on for several months you should seek medical help. Insomnia can be healed through proper medication and therapy.
  • Improve ‘sleep hygiene’ to get a better amount of sleep. Sleep and wake up at the same time everyday. Exercise regularly. Do as much as to avoid coffee, smoking or alcohol, most specially before bedtime. The bedroom should only be used for sleeping, and not for a place for office work or for reading.

Neck and Shoulder Pain

Neck and Shoulder pain is a result from sitting in the same position when working, and it’s especially associated with anyone who works with computers. This can lead to bad posture, as well as pain in the back, chest, arms, hips, thighs and legs. Neck and shoulder pain can increase fatigue and tensed muscles, eventually leading to more serious problems like major tissue injury, spinal joint dysfunction, etc.

Dealing with Neck and Shoulder Pain

  • A three minute break every thirty minutes will work wonders. Stand up, stretch your shoulders and neck, and breathe deeply.
  • Get an ergonomic chair.  The chair must be adjusted according to your height so that your back rest supports your torso’s weight, thighs parallel to the ground and feet firmly on the ground.
  • Alternate use of hands. You don’t have to be ambidextrous, but try switching work from one hand to another to balance the load. Most often than not, shoulder and neck pain happens on one side than the other only.
  • Use your forearm rest. This can greatly reduce the load of your shoulders by supporting the weight of your forearms while using the computer.
  • Seek medical attention for recurring or worsening neck and shoulder back pains.


  1. kdawg

    don’t forget:

    loss of bladder control. bathroom is so close and convenient in the house you no longer hold in ur pee. over time ur bladder muscles get used to this and you end up with over-active bladder and will pee yourself in unwanted situations. seriously this happened to me. and the same goes for taking a poop. HOLD IT IN!!!

  2. David Hobs

    Or, or… wait for it… work in a social environment, yay!

    I live at my local coffee shop and love it. I know everyone there, tip well and get free coffee, and just being around people, even if I don’t talk to them, helps. Did I say that I love it? Meet people, take a break and read the paper, try to avoid the scrumptious snacks that are virtually pure fat, and get to celebrate and bemoan my experience about work and development (not just food). Heck, they’re stuck there anyway right? But no, I know them well enough that we can talk about pointless stuff like that.

    There’s lots of thoughts written about working at a coffee shop, but there’s also a new trend growing, with the concept of shared office space. Basically, rent a section in a shared office with a bunch of freelancers. Of course it’s much better than a cubicle, but it’s quieter and more focused than a coffee shop.

    Anyway, I have a lot to say about the topic, but that’s for another time.

  3. Jarrod Medrano

    This reminds me of a quote from the office:
    “This is shenanigans, foolishness. Nerf-ball.”

  4. Brummie

    I think we’ve all been there, working round the clock to finish a deadline and suffered the consequences. If we worked for someone else they would ensure we have regular breaks and worked reasonable hours. Without regular breaks, a good sleep and eating healthy it becomes difficult to be creative so looking after yourself should always be your number one priority.

  5. I want to add this:

    Misplaced Anger – it is when a freelance designer is so stressed out that almost anything suddenly becomes annoying.

    Dealing with Misplaced Anger:

    Step 1: Recall all of the stupid things you’ve done while angry and shrink in embarrassment.
    Step 2: Do not repeat.

    • Thomas

      yeah, I know them all..

      ;-) I solved this by work less, play more golf, and stay outdoors with my son.

  6. My biggest issue is cabin fever (and probably weight gain too). Too much staying in the same place with no social interaction takes a toll on you, mental-health wise. Sometimes I head to coffee shops to get a little dose of reality during the day.

    • Cabin fever – I second that. Though if anything it’s making me more sociable in my time off, saying yes to as many invites out as I can!

      I’ve only been freelance for 2 and half months but overall it’s done wonders for my health – stress has come right down and the lack of a commute means longer lie ins in the morning :)

  7. James

    I have to say that after seeing this article on this website, I removed the site from everything I have linking to it. Including my favorites and bookmarks. This site says it is a “graphic and web design blog” not a “graphic web, and health design blog”

    If I wanted to read about health issues, I would go to a site about that. I come to this site, and have for a long time, because of the other things it offers, not this poor content filler.

    • Sorry to hear that, I don’t know though how this article could have hurt you so badly to react in this way. We are educating our audience each day and now one occasional article made you remove it at all? Strange.

    • Miike

      If you really think that design is strictly about tools and techniques, and not open-minded enough to consider everything that goes into a well-rounded designer’s way of life, then you’re either not a designer or quite immature. (That will be proven by the nasty comment you will undoubtedly leave in reply to mine.)

      • Joey Davis

        Plus you’ll get to see if he was just fibbing, if he reads your comment then he came back to the site.

    • Joey Davis

      Way to overreact. Just because an article is there, doesn’t mean you have to click on it?

      Anyway, Regarding the article. I enjoyed it, but I don’t have the overweight problem people keep talking about. Usually I work before breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and sometimes forget to stop for dinner. So I guess… the absense of eating is also an issue, who would have guessed.

      Although I do admit, starbucks is my computer’s neighbor, if you get my drift.

  8. MKH

    Regarding upper back and neck pain, I have eliminated it entirely after years of chronic pain by putting my computer monitors on pedestals so they are nine inches higher than normal. This may seem strange at first but it forces you to gaze up and straightens out your posture. The difference is profound and preventative … no more emergency deep tissue massages.

  9. I was working with a chiropractor, and he mentioned that most of us have our screens too low (esp those working with laptops), resulting in the need to bend the head forward, causing strain in the neck. They actually have a term for this called “forward head posture”. He suggested that I raise my monitor up to eye level and it worked wonders. For those using laptops, use an external screen.

    Only issue comes for those who cannot type without looking at the keyboard… ;)

  10. Ramesh Vishwakarma

    Really helpful article for those designer who are working till late night.

  11. You have forgot the most serious illness, obesity. Sitting on your butt for 8 or more hours doesn’t benefit your body mass.

  12. scieditor

    I was expecting a joke; like “sick grandmas, computer malfunctions, and awol emails.”

    Yes, the ailments you’ve listed resonate with me. They all seem to have a common cause: overwork. Or, lack of balance in your life. Take a break! These are some of the tricks I honed over 16 years of freelancing. The points are expanded on in my blog.
    Typical ailments of the common freelancer, and how to keep them at bay.

    1. Place a bird feeder outside the office window.
    2. Add a small child or dog to your days.
    3. Find an active passion away from the keyboard.
    4. Meet colleagues IRL.

    And, of course, offer yourself a regular e-sabbatical. Unplug even just for an afternoon.

    Going away to take my own advice now.

  13. aditia

    I think great time management really need when working, so we can release our stress from deadline, we easy to get healthier if we happier, and take a bath every morning :D