When Being a Freelancer Sucks: Being Unwell

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I spend an awful lot of time talking about how great it is being a freelancer – that’s pretty much the point of this site! But today I’m going to talk about one of the times being a freelancer sucks – and that’s when you’re ill.

Last week I took the week off. It was half term, and I took some time away with my wife and sons, one of whom is three and the other just two months. It was our first break as a family of four, and we had a great time.

One the best things about being a freelancer is that “going back to work” after time away doesn’t feel nearly as rubbish as it can when you have a traditional job. Time away from work tends to reinspire me and downtime tends to result in a flow of ideas that I’m itching to get started on when I return. Those first two or three weeks after a holiday are often super-productive and enjoyable.

This time around was no exception. As well as having a couple of new projects to get started on, I felt suitably motivated and energised to let a couple of clients know that they could truly “open the floodgates” and send me tons of work to do as soon as I was back. The clients obliged, and my work schedule was packed when I opened my laptop early on Monday morning.

What I wasn’t counting on was the return of a winter flu-bug that had hit all of the family to varying extents (as well as practically everyone we know) over this winter. Having warded it off for weeks over Christmas (due to the small matter of our new baby being born!) it didn’t seem likely I would get it again, and I therefore had no real concerns about the fact my toddler had been coughing in my face throughout much of our holiday!

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Very, very wrong! Within 24 hours of starting to zoom through the huge stack of work I’d lined up for my energised return, the dreaded “man flu” reared its head and, for want of a better expression, put me on my arse.

No Special Favours

It’s very rare that I feel that being a self employed freelancer sucks, but when you’re ill it really does. There’s no question of sick leave, let alone sick pay, and while clients often exhibit a certain level of sympathy, it doesn’t tend to extend to offering to let you go to bed and swerve your deadlines.

Being ill

Readers often ask me about managing deadlines, especially when they juggle work and family responsibilities. What I always say is that it’s important to build some error margin into deadlines so that you can still cope if something unexpected happens.

I practice what I preach in this regard, and largely try to agree deadlines that are, for example, at the end of a week rather than on a specific day. As well as building in a margin for error, this gives the flexibility to shuffle tasks around as needed.

However, on this particular occasion, I’d packed my week to the brim because I expected to return from my holiday full of life and enthusiasm. I wasn’t prepared for the savage return of a flu bug that left me gagging and struggling for breath after walking across a room!

For only the second or third time in nearly 15 years of freelancing, this week I had one full day when I threw the towel in and hid under the duvet after just a couple of hours of work. The trouble with doing this, of course, is that the work doesn’t go away. You then find yourself up in the middle of the night wondering how on earth you’re going to get everything done the next day, having shuffled everything in the calendar forward.

This is the point at which you start to remember that being a freelancer sucks sometimes.

Of course, having been doing this for over a decade, I know very well that whining isn’t going to help me. The reality is that I don’t miss deadlines or let my clients down, and all the work will get done – in this particular case in the early hours of the morning and over the weekend!

Healthy freelancer

How to Manage Being Ill as a Freelancer

So as to create some good from a bad situation, I thought it worth publishing some tips on how to manage those days when illness strikes when you’re self-employed. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Never assume nothing will go wrong – over-stuffing a week with too much work doesn’t leave you with any error margin if the unexpected happens. It’s therefore best not to ever over-commit, or you’ll risk being left with the choice of letting clients down or having to work into the night.

2. Try not to miss a beat with your clients – even the loveliest clients will care far more about their projects getting done than the fact you’ve got “the snuffles.” If you’re building enough error margin into your deadlines, you should be able to weather some downtime and still deliver for them.

3. If you ARE going to be late with something, mention it sooner rather than later – obviously it’s best to avoid letting anyone down at all, but if you’re not going to make a deadline, it’s better to tell the client of that possibility a couple of days before than on the day the work is due.

4. Have some provision for serious illness – Insurance companies offer illness cover to replace your earnings if you are diagnosed with something serious. If you have people who depend on you, a policy like this is well worth considering. However, these policies are for critical illness – not for colds and bugs!

5. Take care of yourself – For some employed people, a head cold or a dose of the flu means the rest of the week off (paid) and lots of daytime TV or PlayStation time. For a freelancer, it’s not just the “ill days,” it’s also the hectic and stressful catch-up days afterwards. If you don’t do all you can to speed up your recovery – which means lots of rest – the aftermath of being ill can drag on and on.

I have to confess that I’ve long been one of those awfully annoying people who prides himself on not taking time “off sick.” Aside from anything else I get bored extremely quickly. However, it’s no joke when an illness does knock you for six unexpectedly, and the physical symptoms are compounded by the mental stress of watching deadlines zoom towards you. Being a freelancer sucks when this happens, but all you can do is learn from it, and put yourself in a position to deal with it better next time around.

Further Related Reading:

How to stay healthy as a freelancer

Realities of Being a Freelancer

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