Freelancing During an Illness

Freelancing Through IllnessThe problem with freelancing is that we don’t have paid sick days! When we get sick, we risk missing deadlines, having unhappy clients or even losing income altogether.

As a number of us joked on Twitter, we freelance writers have to keep writing, even from our graves.

We’re only human… which means illness and death are inevitable.

What’s a freelancer to do?

How to Cope with an Illness

When we get sick, it’s a big inconvenience. We resent it and wish the illness would just go away.

However, when you’re sick, you have to realize that getting well is your number one priority. This means you need to take time off to:

  • Rest–An illness is your body’s way of saying it needs to slow down. Listen to your body.
  • Get medical attention–You’ll get well much more quickly if you know what’s causing your symptoms and what treatments are right for it.
  • Recover and regain your strength–Even if you’re getting the right treatments, you’ll need time to recover from your illness and get your strength and energy back.

That said, you still have deadlines to meet and clients to take care of. Get these deadlines out of your way first, or you won’t be able to rest effectively.

Some Options When You Become Sick

If you become sick, try following these steps:

  1. Review your deadlines and make a worst-case scenario. If you absolutely cannot do any work for three to five days, which deadlines will you miss?
  2. Identify which of your deadlines can be moved without detrimental effects to your clients’ businesses. Call or email your clients to explain your situation and request a deadline extension. Give a specific and realistic date for when you think you will be able to complete the project. Make this a conservative estimate. It’s better to pleasantly surprise your client by finishing the project earlier than you promised, than to request another extension.
  3. Identify which of your deadlines are non-negotiable, and make arrangements to get the job done. Contact your client, explain the situation, and tell him or her how the deadline will be met in spite of your illness.

In you’re faced with a non-negotiable deadline, you have two options. You can either get the project completed under your supervision, or you can hand it off completely to somebody else.

Your first option is to sub-contract with another freelancer to complete the project for you. You need to find somebody you can trust to get the job done within the deadline and with the quality that’s comparable to your work. Remember, though, that you will still need to supervise the work.

Therefore, this option is for you if you’re not too sick to give instructions, and go over your sub-contractor’s work.

If you’re very ill, the second option is probably better for you. In this option, you refund your client’s deposit and point him in the direction of another freelancer who can complete the project within the deadline. You can even give your client a number of service providers to choose from.

This is the least desirable option for both you and your client. It means your client will have to go through the recruitment process all over again, and select a new person to work with.

However, under some circumstances, this may be the only possible solution.

Guiding Principles

However you choose to cope with your illness, keep these guiding principles in mind. These principles will keep the work and income disruption to a minimum, while giving you time to take care of your physical needs.

  • Client communication is key. Your clients don’t like surprises. Keep your clients informed of your condition and the status of their projects–especially if your illness will mean delays. Most of the time, they won’t mind extending your deadlines, as long as you give them ample warning so they can adjust their own expectations and time tables.
  • Put yourself in your client’s shoes. Look at the situation from your client’s perspective. While they don’t want to be slave drivers and force you to work while you’re ill, they have their own deadlines as well. Don’t expect them to move deadlines for you. Find ways to protect their investment of time and money in the project when they chose to work with you, and minimize their own losses because of your illness.
  • Shift your priorities. Getting sick means you have to shift your priorities. Previously, you probably always put your clients first–which could be why you got ill in the first place. Now, you have to put the focus on yourself, but without dropping the ball on your obligations.
  • When you are feeling under the weather, don’t ignore your symptoms. Sometimes an illness gets worse if it isn’t treated properly and promptly. Take the time to get a proper diagnosis, so you can get the correct treatment and get back on track as quickly as possible.

    Take care of your clients’ needs and then focus on getting well.

    Be Prepared

    You no longer have paid sick days or co-workers who can cover for you at a moment’s notice when you’re sick. However, you can be prepared for emergencies. Here’s how:

  • When estimating project deadlines, give yourself plenty of breathing space that will cushion the impact of delays, whether they’re caused by illness, family emergencies, natural disasters or other unexpected disruptions.
  • Have an emergency fund for times when you won’t be able to work. Set aside even as little as 10% of your monthly income, and you’ll soon have a good buffer when your income dips for whatever reason. This way, you can pay yourself during your sick days.
  • Network and keep a list of back-up service providers who can take on overflow work, or emergency work when you’re incapacitated. You never know when you’ll be unable to meet deadlines, so make sure you know enough freelancers whom you trust to take over temporarily during emergencies.
  • Take care of yourself! The best thing is to avoid getting sick altogether. Get enough rest, eat healthy, and exercise regularly.

How About You?

Have you ever gotten too ill to work before? How did you cope?

Image by rocknroll_guitar


  1. says

    Having been a freelance copy editor for 13+ years, this has come up for me frequently! I find a few things work for me. If I have a cold, I dope myself up (mostly just with painkillers to keep my mind sharp) and work through as best I can, taking regular naps. Usually I’m pretty efficient, so if I have to take a day off (or two, sometimes) to just rest and get better, I can do so without jeopardizing the deadline. If I’m seriously ill (kidney stones or the flu), I will let the client know immediately if the deadline is in danger. Frequently, my loyal clients accept an extended deadline suggestion, and I often send back batches of work as I complete them so that they can get started as the rest trickle in.

    I had foot surgery some years ago, and cleared my calendar so I could rest up and heal for a few weeks. However, I got bored silly and found that with my lap board, I could proofread easily. It helped pass the time, so I actually ended up taking work during that time. I’m not always this lucky!

  2. says

    I had a bad cold and a death in the family. One client found someone else, and the other didn’t want to let go and decided to wait. They kept pestering me until I got to the point where I had to “fire” them, because everytime would work with them, I would be reminded of what a difficult time they gave me druing my time of sickness and grief.

  3. says

    I’ve only ever had to take an afternoon or morning off when I haven’t been feeling well- I’ve found that I don’t get sick much when I love my job!

  4. says

    When I arrive in NYC, the first week was sinister. i think it’s a different climate, don’t know. But I caught a cold so serious, I was in bed for 3 days. And I am not usually this “weak”. I was lucky my clients knew about my journey and I still had some days I could try recover, but it wasn’t pretty. This article does help us prepare for this case too, since illness can cause losing business and no one wants this. Setting some more relaxed deadlines I think it’s the best option for me and also trying to tackle the main aspects of the project as soon as possible. This way I ca always “buy” some time for such a bad day.

  5. says

    I believe this is where your networking with other professional freelancers in your niche can pay off for you. You can pass some work their way if you are too sick to complete it and hopefully, they will repay that favor in the future.

  6. says

    Colds, flu…. ha try keeping your freelance business open after being diagnosed with not one bout of Cancer, but three… in a row. You go through all of your savings, you learn who your friends and loyal customers are and you pick up the pieces and start over.

    It isn’t easy, but I’m not one to throw in the towel when faced with disaster.

  7. says

    I have had issues not for myself, but when I have sick kids. Most of my clients are very understanding when I cannot work because I have to stay home with the kids. And I make every effort to get a little bit of work done when they are napping. I do have to shift priorities around a lot for projects, and it’s also made me make more realistic timelines for clients when I quote new projects (I add a few weeks of padding to account for time lost).

  8. says

    Thanks, everyone, for your awesome comments!

    @Nina Messina – You’re an inspiration! We can overcome everything. You’re one brave woman and freelancer. Thank you very much for sharing.

    @Minna – So true, illness in the family is also a big challenge. You have to provide care around the clock, go to doctor’s appointments, and get tests done. Thanks for pointing it out.

  9. says

    My father recently had an angina and I had to fly to him taking the earliest flight. I informed my clients and all of them were very cooperative. I couldn’t concentrate on work though kept my clients updated. A client of mine even paid me in advance for the project.

    I cant thank them enough for being so supportive towards me.

  10. says

    I think many freelancers are so busy they forget to take care of themselves. I agree with you that client communication is key. They’re humans too and they will understand your condition. One time, I got a bad case of vertigo ( to be exact, BPPV or Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo ) that it’s difficult for me to even sit upright and type. When the world spins around you and there are deadlines to beat, it can be like being trapped in your own panic room. I simply asked to be excused for a few days and have the submission date extended. Luckily, it worked. My client and I are now working for almost two years. I think lying about something is not good, or making strange alibis. Just be honest.

  11. says

    This afternoon I met up with an ex-colleague I hadn’t seen for years. He told me that three years ago he had to take six months off work following a bad cycling accident. He wasn’t self employed, so his employer continued to pay his salary while he was recovering. We freelancers don’t have this luxury. That’s why it’s important to build up a a buffer of money which we can tap into when cashflow is tight. But if we’re only earning enough to get by, putting money aside can be tricky.

  12. says

    Oh this is SO on time! I was JUST awarded a contract with a new client after a (paid-at-my-regular-rates) trial. The trial deliverables were due by end of business last Friday. I just wasn’t feeling well at all–things were getting worse daily; more yucky than I usually feel at the end of a busy week. I just wanted to stay in bed all day. But I pushed forward and got the documents to the client @4:15 p.m.

    Last January, right at the beginning of the year/month, I contracted some infection that gave me a fever of 102 degrees for three weeks. I thought I would have to close my business! But I dragged myself to my computer every once in a while to keep my clients updated and to complete a few projects that had non-negotiable deadlines. It was hard and took 3X as long to type with shaking hands and while I was literally dripping on my keyboard with sweat. (Sorry.) Got better with rest and antibiotics.

    The next month (February), one of the clients whose deadlines I met upped my work with the company more than six-fold with a new open contract!

    And my illness from last week: went to the doctor and found out that I have a slight case of arthritis. Why? Haven’t been doing my yoga and weights because I was “working so much”. Not anymore. I now do my workout and then start work. Must counteract sitting for hours at end at a keyboard.

    Push forward when possible in the short-term AND take care of yourself for the long haul. And stay in touch with your clients.

  13. says

    What an interesting post!

    I think a few important lessons can be learned for the excellent comments and observations:

    1. It’s important to take care of yourself (although I am guilty at being able to dish out the common sense, but not act on my own advice!) — we freelancers need to take time off, too!

    2. Having an established, reliable, trusted network to fall back on is essential.

    3. Client communication and follow-through are non-negotiable.

    Most clients will be surprisingly understanding and supportive if you have to cancel/delay their project, although it’s better if you can arrange for a peer to take it on (with the client’s permission).

    A few years ago I broke my back. My partner let everyone know (my clients, newsletter subscribers and people who had recently asked for quotes, etc) about the situation the very next day. I asked him to extend to them the option of me passing the work on to another freelancer friend, or to wait to hear back from me. All of them waited. As it happened, I was back at my desk the next week (“glutton” and “punishment” come to mind!!!), so no one really ‘lost out’.

  14. says

    As Lexi said, Nina Messina, you’re a pure inspiration. I don’t know how you did it! Well done!

    I ride a motorbike, and so I generally like to have things ready for the worst situation.

    Have any of you had to deal with suddenly not being able to work or contact clients?


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