It happens to every freelancer at some point.
You get sick.
Maybe it’s a stuffy head and a streaming nose, or a stomach bug or a bout of depression.
Whatever your exact symptoms are, it’s a safe bet that if you were working for an employer, you’d call in sick.
But you work for a demanding (and sometimes unreasonable) boss: yourself.
If you’ve got deadlines to meet, or if you’re simply the sort of person who wants to crush your Most Important Tasks before breakfast…you might be tempted to grab some DayQuil and power through.
That’s rarely a good move.
You’ll probably drag out your recovery much longer than if you just stayed in bed for a day. Plus, you’re never going to be doing your best work when you feel like death.
With a little bit of forward planning, though, you can take sick days — and recover faster.
1. Recognize that you will need sick days
Even if you rarely get ill, a family member might. (My two-year-old came down with chickenpox yesterday, scuppering my hopes of ploughing through a pile of work today!)
If you have an existing health condition (like ME/CFS, or depression) then it’s particularly crucial to plan ahead. Even if you can’t predict ahead of time exactly when you’ll be unwell, you might want to only allow for, say, three weeks worth of work each month so you can take a week off if necessary — without falling behind.
There might be times when you can predict and plan for a fairly significant length of time away from work (or a period of time when you’ll want a seriously reduced workload) — if you’re going to be having a baby and taking maternity leave, for instance.
2. Allow some slack in your schedule
This is good practice whether or not you get sick: if your schedule has little or no wiggle room, even a relatively minor problem can throw you off.
Don’t fill every hour of your day, or every day of the week, with freelancing commitments.
Leave some gaps — even if that means telling a client they’ll have to wait for you to become available.
Personally, I try to keep Fridays clear for “catch up”, and when I put deadlines into my planner, I aim to get my freelance posts done a couple of days ahead of time. This means I’ve got some margin for things going wrong…and I’ve never had an editor object when I’ve sent in posts early!
3. Build up a network of contacts
Again, this is something you’re hopefully doing anyway. As a freelancer, you’re not a lone wolf — you’re part of a pack. Get to know other writers and editors: if you end up sick and need someone else to help you out with your commitments, you’ll have people to turn to.
While it may not be possible or desirable to outsource your freelancing altogether, you might be able to call in help with:
- Guest posts to keep your blog active while you’re out of action.
- Researching, planning or drafting your freelance pieces — you’ll probably need to do final revisions and edits to make sure it’s in line with your usual style.
- Social media shares to help sell any products you have (e.g. ebooks / ecourses), so you can keep bringing in money while you’re unwell.
In some cases, people may be glad to help for free (e.g. with a guest post and social media shares); other times, it would be reasonable and expected to pay them (e.g. for help putting together a piece for one of your clients).
4. Contact clients early if you can’t meet a deadline
Sometimes, however much you’ve tried to plan ahead and allow space in your schedule for emergencies, you simply can’t meet your commitments.
If you aren’t going to be able to meet a deadline, tell your client as soon as that becomes obvious. The more warning you can give, the better. Most clients will be kind and understanding: people get sick, after all!
If you’ve missed a deadline — maybe you were too ill to even glance at your diary and send an email — then contact the client as soon as possible. Apologize for missing the deadline, explain you’ve been unwell and let them know when you’ll have the work to them.
But if you do need to work…
Hopefully, you’re able to take a day off and recover when you’re unwell. If you really can’t afford to miss a deadline, though, or if you’re in the middle of something critical like a product launch, here’s what to do:
- Cancel or postpone anything non-essential. Your blog readers won’t riot if you skip posting this week. Your newsletter readers won’t suddenly unsubscribe if you don’t email for a few days. Clearing your inbox can wait.
- Work in short bursts. It’s hard to focus when you’re ill, so set a timer for 20 – 30 minutes and do as much as you can in that length of time. Then take a break.
- Look after yourself physically. I’m probably going to sound like your mom here — but drink plenty of fluids, take a nap, try to eat something plain, and stay wrapped up warm if needed.
We all get sick…and sometimes, illness seems to strike at the worst possible moment! Plan for it, allow room in your schedule for it, and you’ll be able to take some time off without worrying about everything crashing down around you.