We all get sick from time to time. But being a one-person business can make illness inconvenient, stressful, and challenging.
Unlike full-time folks, freelance writers can’t phone in sick and pass on their responsibilities to a colleague. They don’t have employer or statutory sick pay as a financial safety net, nor access to other well-being benefits like counseling or physiotherapy sessions.
And being self-employed, each day you don’t work is a day you don’t get paid.
Dealing with sickness as a freelance writer—without it impacting your health and business—is hard work.
This guide shares how to handle sick leave as a freelancer, so you can feel confident when the expected or unexpected happens. You’ll have a plan in place to manage your sickness well and get back to your best self when the time is right.
Why is it important to manage periods of illness well?
Switching off when running a business is a strain. After all, you’re a team of one, so making the right decisions—like taking time off for sickness—can feel overwhelming.
Considering there are around 1.2 billion freelancers worldwide, you’d expect managing sickness to be a standard part of running a freelance business. But it isn’t.
The better you manage sickness as a freelancer, the more stable you can keep the business.
- Feel reassured. Some 83% of freelancers don’t have access to health insurance. When you’re ill and out of work, finding better ways of managing sickness makes sense financially and practically gives you peace of mind. Manage workloads, clients, and loss of income can reduce worry.
- Reduce the potential for longer sickness. Forcing yourself to work when you need to rest can extend the length of sickness. When you manage stress effectively, you can get back to full health faster.
- Improved communication. Transparent processes—like keeping clients informed, timescales for edits, and prioritizing tasks on your return to work—will reduce misunderstanding and added stress.
- Mitigate the impact of lost earnings. Good planning and organizational skills can help identify how to keep extra money aside for illness.
How to manage sickness as a freelancer
- Normalize the situation
- Choose the right clients
- Use automation tools
- Have an emergency fund
- Give your client notice
- Set expectations
- Set your out-of-office
- Deal with any guilt
- Prioritize self-care
- Ask for help
- Plan your return to work
- Make time to reflect
- Consider your pricing structure
1. Normalize the situation
Accepting that sickness is a normal part of life can help you frame what needs to be done–while prioritizing your health and business. Normalizing your situation can help reduce feelings of anxiety.
“Prioritize your health at all times – nothing is worth harming yourself.”Brad Lee Bartlett, freelance copywriter and content writer
Take the time you need to get well. Feel reassured that work can be put on hold until you recover. Resist the urge to push through and continue working–it can prolong your illness, making this counterproductive.
Normalize the thought that you can’t do everything when you are sick by focusing on what’s important. Prioritize essential tasks such as contacting clients and setting yourself realistic goals. Make a list of urgent and non-urgent tasks, for example, promoting your freelance business on social media.
“I had fatigue for several months last year. I did hit all my deadlines, but it was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t market myself and had to keep my workload light.”Jen Phillips April, freelance content marketer and copywriter
2. Choose the right clients
Let’s imagine you have two deadlines this week and are struck down with the flu. You’ve contacted both clients with an explanation and given clear timescales on when you hope to return to work.
One responds, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope you start feeling better soon. Please don’t worry about the work. I’m happy to move things around so you don’t feel pressured to return too soon. Let me know if I can help in any other way.”
The other, however, replies with, “OK. Thanks for letting me know. When will you get the work to me?”
You can see the variations in response.
How clients react to periods of sickness can either make you feel thankful you have the best clients or fearful that you’ve made the wrong decision to freelance.
“9/10 clients are compassionate and WANT you to be healthy and at your best!”Brad Lee Bartlett
Qualifying clients can make or break your freelance business. And when sickness strikes, it becomes even more important because you need to feel confident that they will have your best interests at heart.
Take it from Kayla Hollatz, freelance copywriter, who says, “It was a lot more important for me to be able to choose the people I’m working with and feel really good about the projects that I have. I have been sick in the last month.
“For me to be able to have clients that understand when stuff like that comes up—that’s a little bit more of what has been my priority.”
3. Use automation tools
Systems make your freelance writing business easier to manage.
Make use of this technology and develop clear processes for sickness. If you’re unwell longer than expected, for example, prepare a plan for dealing with illnesses with built-in flexibility.
Spend some time now developing standard templates to rely on when you’re sick. That might include:
- Short-term sickness
- Long-term sickness
- Mental heath breaks
- Planned sickness (i.e. an upcoming surgery)
Need help creating these templates? This bundle contains 20+ templates designed for the trickiest freelancing situation—including an out of office template to communicate with clients effectively.
4. Have an emergency fund
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail,” is a quote by Benjamin Franklin, a famous writer and scientist.
When it comes to making ends meet, it couldn’t be further away from the truth. After all, you chose a freelance career because it offers financial choice and freedom.
But did you know experts suggest single-earner households need a minimum of six months’ worth of expenses saved for emergencies?
Saving cash for the inevitable and managing finances well can provide a profitable career as a freelancer.
Reduce the pressure of wondering when the next payment will land in your bank account. Put money aside each month—or set up a separate bank account—for unexpected situations, like sickness, can help in the short term and offer peace of mind.
That’s precisely what Prakhar Khanna, a freelance tech journalist suggests, “I keep reserve days for time off quarterly, and the average income works out at the end.”
5. Give your client as much notice as possible
Why? Because poor communication can cost you money.
That’s why freelance writer Brad Bartlett recommends, “Communicate often and early with your clients as soon as you begin to notice you might be going downhill.”
Let’s say you’re feeling unwell and unable to meet a client deadline. As soon as illness strikes, give your client the heads up—rather than thinking you’ll be OK and rushing to get things done. (Or worse: tell a long-term client you can’t deliver the project 24 hours before the deadline. That’s the last thing you want to do.)
“Always give a head’s up. Editors are people, too. Most are very understanding.”Kaeli Conforti, travel writer and editor
To build better client relationships, explain when you expect to return to work and send deliverables. This allows clients to manage their marketing priorities—and also give you a better understanding of your income protection throughout the period of sickness.
6. Set expectations
Giving clients the initial heads up about taking time off for illness is one thing, but it shouldn’t stop there. Clients need information about your expected return date and the steps they need to take to cover content reduction.
Be upfront, honest, and genuine with your expectations about recovery time. If you think next week’s deadline is still unrealistic, tell the client.
There’s no point in saying you’ll meet a deadline… only to miss it again.
“Be honest and candid if necessary,” recommends freelance writing coach Caitlin Kelly. “After 20 day’s radiation for BC, I was just too exhausted to do an assignment. I explained, backed out, and apologized. We are only human and sometimes get overwhelmed.”
Throughout this process, make sure you give details about when you’ll be back and what happens. Confirm how and when you will respond to emails during and after sickness. You may be able to subcontract work to another freelancer, for example—but check this is OK with the client beforehand.
“I send a voice note and follow-up emails if I can because they feel real. I communicate new dates and check if they’d let me outsource time-sensitive work. And I focus on getting better.”Chidinma Egwuogu, freelance SEO content writer
7. Set your out of office
If you’ve ever sent an urgent email and waited for a week for a response, you’ll understand the frustration.
Plans are on hold, and it’s difficult to progress with prioritizing your workload.
Managing sickness with existing freelance clients is one thing, but what about other emails landing in your inbox—like clients reaching out to ask for additional information about your services?
Create a great first impression for potential new clients with an automated out-of-office email response for sickness and taking holidays. Explain when you are returning to work and the date you aim to reply to their message.
8. Deal with any guilt
Taking time off when unwell and moving client deadlines can lead to guilt and wondering:
- What will my clients think of me?
- Will they think I’m unprofessional?
- Will they send me further work?
- How will I cope with the increase in workload when I return to work?
- Is pushing through my sickness easier than taking time off?
Shift your mindset and don’t expect perfection. There will be tasks that will slide. Focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t and prioritize getting better.
Take it from freelance writer Lacey Muinos who says, “Not having paid sick days is one of the few disadvantages of freelancing.
“I used to think asking for an extension was the end of the world. But what’s the worst that could happen? Clients have always been understanding if I need to take some sick days, so I just ask. I’m a wellness writer, so I would be a hypocrite to not put my own well-being first.”
We’re not saying that you can’t set goals for yourself, but if you set those goals too high, it’ll lead to more stress at a time you need to reduce it.
If you relax your expectations just a bit, reaching your goals will be more accessible, and you won’t suffer burnout from not reaching targets that are impossible to achieve.
9. Prioritize self-care
Self-care is about caring for yourself to stay healthy. You want to be well to flourish as a freelance writer, help and care for others, and do all the tasks you need.
Self care helps you recover from illness faster. It’s why three-quarters of people living in the US believe self-care activities can help reduce stress.
That said, self-care activities—such as getting out in the fresh air—are more challenging when feeling unwell. Still, small self-care tips can make a big difference. Practicing gratitude, for example, can improve your physical and emotional well-being.
“I give myself long deadlines, so I have extra time built in. I worked myself into pneumonia and 3 days in the hospital trying to please a disorganized client once; I will never do it again. Health comes first.”Caitlin Kelly, freelance writing coach
And that’s what Zanny Merullo Steffgen, founder of Feel-Good Freelance Writing, suggests: “Assume you’ll be out longer than you think you will be. Always pad your schedule so sickness doesn’t catch you off guard. Focus on open communication with clients. Let yourself be sick and rest!”
10. Ask for help
Get help from others when you need it. Make this a normal process, not an exception.
Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re intelligent or inadequate. It simply means you need help with something specific while you’re sick.
Ask family and friends to help while you rest and recover. Maybe they can prepare meals or offer to do some light housework.
The freelance community can lighten the load. Reach out to a trusted freelance writer to ask if they can have the capacity for paid help. Perhaps they can carry out research or create a content outline ready for your return.
11. Plan for your return to work
Start looking forward to a return to freelancing. Good planning makes sure you don’t feel anxious and overwhelmed about getting back to running your business.
Plan your return by:
- Adjusting your work schedules to work when you feel most well. If you have more energy in the morning, make the best of early mornings by prioritizing tasks like research and outlining. Leave easier tasks, such as extending your network, for later in the day.
- Temporarily reducing your working hours. Start by working a couple of hours each day and build up as your energy levels return to normal.
- Being realistic about what you can achieve. Don’t overload yourself by making a to-do list as long as your arm.
12. Make time to reflect and review your sickness period
It’s easy to get bogged down with the usual tasks like writing or bookkeeping after a period of sickness.
But allowing dedicated time to think about your sickness can increase your confidence next time illness strikes. Develop your reflection skills by thinking about what went well and what didn’t. Feel confident that when you need to take time off again, you’ll have better control.
- Was there anything I could have done to help prevent illness? You may identify poor sleep or wrist pain from typing as contributory factors.
- Is there anything that would’ve made my sickness easier to manage?
- What steps can I put in place now that will help future sickness episodes?
Take a proactive approach to managing illness–have better processes and feel assured that further illnesses are taken care of.
13. Consider your pricing structure
How you set your rates can account for time off sick. That said, how you set your pricing structure isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.
Why? Because hourly rates don’t take into consideration non-billable tasks like accounting, professional development, and marketing.
Charging per project rather than per hour allows for periods of sickness. Put simply, you don’t lose out if you don’t work.
A value-based pricing structure can help sustain your freelance work and manage both expected and unexpected events, such as illness and taking a vacation.
And remember: your freelance business is still a success even if you don’t exceed last month’s revenue.
Manage sickness as a freelance writer confidently
Feeling unwell when running a freelance business is inevitable. However, with the right approach, there are ways to mitigate some of the effects–allowing you to relax and take the time you need to recover fully.
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Managing sickness as a freelancer: FAQs
Can I take a sick day as a freelancer?
Absolutely! Everyone gets sick, even freelancers. The odd sick day usually won’t impact your business. You may not need to inform your freelance client unless the sickness lasts a long period of time.
Can freelancers take sick days?
With some forward planning, you can take sick days and recover faster. Allow some slack in your schedule to mitigate the times you’re unwell. Templatize some of your processes to avoid adding unnecessary stress when you need time off.
What to do when sick as a freelancer?
- Work in short bursts and take a break.
- Take some rest
- Prioritize urgent client work
- Cancel or postpone non-urgent tasks
- Look after yourself with good self-care
- Make a realistic to-do list
- Reflect on your time off