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A Freelancer's Guide to Dealing With Illness


No matter how well you take care of yourself, illness is inevitable. At some stage, you’ll have to take a day or two off to recover from a cold, and if you’re unlucky you might have to deal with a serious, long-term illness. Are you prepared?

For salaried employees, it’s easy. They can just call in sick, and then relax and concentrate on getting well again (or watching daytime TV, whichever they prefer). Their boss will reassign their work to someone else, and their paycheck at the end of the month will be unchanged. There are no real consequences.

As a freelancer, on the other hand, the consequences can be dire. Even a quick cold or flu that knocks you out for a couple of days could have a huge impact on your business. You could easily find yourself missing deadlines, possibly forfeiting your pay for those assignments and losing future business with those clients.

If your illness prevents you from working for a long time, then your income will dry up completely. If freelancers don’t work, we don’t get paid, after all. And even when you’re well again, you may find that your clients have found someone else to do your job in the meantime, and you’re back to square one in terms of finding work.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that many freelancers choose just to work through the illness. A 2013 study in Germany found that self-employed workers took just three sick days per year, compared with nine sick days for paid employees. Whereas 51% of paid employees had been absent at least once in the past year, that number fell to 22% for the self-employed.

But forcing yourself to work when you really need to rest isn’t a great solution. Fortunately, a little preparation goes a long way. You can’t avoid getting sick, of course, but you can put yourself in a good position for dealing with sickness when it arrives.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn a few simple strategies that will help you manage illness, whether it’s a quick bout of flu or something that puts you out of commission for much longer.

1. Have an Emergency Fund

When you wake up one morning and find yourself unable to work, you’ll find a million questions buzzing around in your befuddled brain. How will you meet that urgent deadline? What about the call you’ve arranged for this afternoon? How will you be able to face sending emails out to clients, and replying to all the new emails that you’ve probably received overnight?

One question you really don’t need to be hearing at that point is: “How will I pay my rent this month?”

No matter how well you manage your illness, it’s likely to have some kind of financial impact on your business. So you need to prepare for that. Having an emergency fund that you can draw on to pay the essential bills is an important first step in running a successful freelance business.

If you’re under so much financial pressure that an emergency fund seems like an impossible luxury, check out my recent guide to effective budgeting to see how you can get things straightened out and start building a financial safety net.

When you’ve taken this step, the question about how you’ll pay your rent will be eliminated, giving you more mental space to deal with some other pressing issues.

2. Make an Action Plan

I said in the last section that you don’t want to deal with financial stress when you’re sick. But really you don’t want to deal with anything when you’re sick. That’s the whole point. All you want to do is what your salaried friends do: call in sick, roll over in your bed and go back to sleep, knowing that someone else is dealing with everything.

So in this section we’re going to create a plan that will make things as easy as possible for you when illness strikes. It still won’t be as easy as a thirty-second phone call, but it’ll be a lot easier than it would have been if you had no plan and were floundering around trying to get stuff done while feeling like death warmed over.

The Communication Plan

Did you know that newspapers keep obituaries on file for hundreds of celebrities while they’re still alive? When the person dies, they just whip the article out of the file, update a few details, and they’re ready to go.

It’s a slightly macabre example, I know, but the fact is that illness is as predictable as death. You can plan for it right now, and write the necessary emails while you’re in good health and have a clear mind.

So create some simple email templates that you keep in your drafts folder, ready to be updated and sent when needed. Here are a few different types of email you might need to send:

  • A “heads up” email, to be used when you think you can work through the pain, but want to inform the client as early as possible that you may not be able to make the deadline if things get worse.
  • A “calling in sick” email, to be used when you feel so bad that you know you can’t work today.
  • A “serious illness” email, to be used when you discover you’re going to be out of commission for a long time.

The ideal “sickness” email will be short and polite, simply informing the client that you’re ill, and telling them what the impact will be on your projects and deadlines. You should also give a rough estimate of how long you might be out of action, and promise to keep them updated. And finally, give them the option of waiting for you to deliver or having someone else take over the project. (We’ll look at a good way of doing that next.)

As well as email templates, also draft an auto-reply message that you can quickly activate when you’re unwell. Again, short and simple is best: just a note about your illness, saying you’re not answering email at the moment, giving an estimated timeframe, and giving alternative contact information if appropriate.

The Handover Plan

If you can’t complete an assignment on time, clients will often wait an extra few days for you to get back on your feet. But there will be times when the assignment is so urgent that they simply can’t wait, or when your illness is so serious that it creates an unacceptable delay.

In those cases, the only alternative from the client’s point of view is for someone else to take over. So you have to ask yourself: do you want that person to be a complete stranger, or someone you know and trust?

Handing it over to someone you know has lots of advantages:

  1. It’s seamless for the client. They don’t have to go out looking for a new freelancer; you’re providing a ready-made solution. Assuming your friend does a good job, they’ll hardly notice any difference.
  2. It gives you a better chance of keeping the business. If a stranger takes over the project and does it well, then the client may decide to stick with that person for future work. If your friend takes over, then from the client’s point of view you’ve still delivered for them, and they’ll probably stick with you.
  3. You build a relationship. Freelancers often work alone. Getting to know a colleague and forming an agreement to help each other out in case of illness is a great way of building trust. Who knows, you may end up sending other assignments each other’s way too.

Once you’ve chosen a candidate, think through everything that person would need to complete an assignment for you. How will they access your files? Are there any particular systems or apps they'll need? How will you get in touch with them? An email template may work well here too—or you may prefer to call and get an instant response.

But before you rush ahead and start handing over assignments, here are a couple of important things to note about handing over work:

First, make sure it’s someone you really trust to be available at short notice and to do a professional job. It shouldn’t just be someone you know, but someone whose work you know. I hate to say it, but a lot of freelancers produce shoddy work. You need to see the person’s work first hand, so that you can be sure that the end result will be something you’re proud of.

And second, make sure you ask the client’s permission before handing over the work, especially if the project involves sensitive or confidential data. They made an agreement with you, not your friend. Be up front with them about what you’re proposing, and make sure they agree before you send any files to your designated backup.

The Life Plan

When your illness is over, you’ll need to get back on your feet quickly and start working as soon as you can. That means that you may need to ask for help with other commitments you have in life.

Think about all the things you do on a regular basis, and see if you can find people to help you out with those. Whether it’s picking the kids up from school, your volunteering slot at the local soup kitchen, walking the dog, or important bills you need to pay, make a list of important tasks and make sure your partner, friend or other trusted backup has all the information needed to complete them, so that you can concentrate on getting well and getting working again.

3. Don’t Be a Hero

We always want to do a good job for our clients, don’t we? When a client asks when they can have the completed assignment, we tend to over-promise. If a quick mental calculation tells us that the job will take a week to complete, we promise to deliver it by the end of this week, shaving a couple of days off the time we're allowing ourselves.

When you’re in good health, that strategy works well. It makes your clients happy, gets you repeat business, and makes you look like a hero. If you have to work a few late nights to make those crazy deadlines you’ve set yourself, it’s a small price to pay.

But the thing is, you’re not a hero. None of us are heroes. We’re just ordinary people, and if we push ourselves too hard, at some point we’ll break down.

Being too aggressive about setting deadlines (or being too passive in agreeing to clients’ unrealistic demands) has two dangerous side effects:

  1. It leaves you no margin for error. If you get sick even for a day, you’ll miss your deadline, losing all that goodwill that you worked so hard to build up.
  2. Pushing yourself so hard makes you more likely to get sick in the first place. Late nights, hard work and drinking gallons of caffeine is not a lifestyle you’ll find any doctor recommending.

So don’t be a hero. By all means work hard, and make your clients happy. But when you’re negotiating the deadline, build in a little extra time, so that if you get sick or suffer any other unexpected emergency, you still have a chance of being able to deliver on time.

And here’s the secret bonus: Even if your client is a little disappointed when you set that deadline a couple of days later than they wanted, they’ll be ecstatic if you don’t get sick, don’t need the buffer you’ve built in, and manage to deliver a couple of days ahead of schedule. They may even call you a hero. 

Just make sure you don’t believe them.

4. Look Into Insurance

The steps we’ve put in place so far will help you manage your workload in case of either a short-term or a long-term illness. But managing the work is only one consideration; managing your finances is another.

If you’re ill and unable to work for weeks or months, you’ll have a serious financial problem. Even if your friend keeps on doing your assignments, you can’t expect that person to keep working for free while you pocket the fees. So you’ll soon be left with no income. An emergency fund will help you for a while, but it will run out at some point. What do you do then?

The good news is that you do have options. The details depend on where you live, but you may either qualify for state support or be able to buy income protection insurance.

In the UK, for example, you may qualify for Employment and Support Allowance, which will be a maximum of £108.15 a week, according to The Guardian. And the same article says that you can find income insurance protection plans for a premium of around £20 or £25 a month. Those plans will give you an income of around £1,500 a month for six months if you’re unable to work (but you have to wait 30 days to get it). 

So check the situation in your country. If you can’t find adequate state benefits or private insurance options, make sure you put aside extra money to cover any long periods of time when you’re unable to work. See my recent tutorial on saving and investing for freelancers for help on that.

Next Steps

Nobody wants to think about being ill even for a day, let alone for weeks or months. The natural human response to articles like this is to shy away from taking action. I understand. To be completely honest, even though I know what I should do, I’m not as well prepared as I could be in my own life.

So let’s all make a commitment together, shall we? As unpleasant as it is to think about getting sick, and as tedious as it is to make plans for such an event, let’s take action and work through the steps. 

Let’s build an emergency fund so that the financial stress is taken care of. Let’s make a plan to communicate with clients and hand over work and other commitments to designated backups. Let’s build extra leeway into our deadlines, and let’s look into all our options for income protection in case of long-term illness.

It may be unpleasant to do all that, but it would be a lot more unpleasant to wake up one morning with the cold from hell, or with a diagnosis of something much more serious, and have to do everything from scratch because we weren't prepared.


Graphic Credit: Syringe icon designed by Luis Prado from the Noun Project.

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