A guide to dealing with sickness as a freelancer – before, during and after

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The advantages of living the freelance life are well known and explored by so many of us. Without a boss to approve your holiday pay or schedule your meetings or decide when your next pay review is going to be, the freedom that comes with a self-employed lifestyle is one that a lot of workers have gravitated towards in recent years.

As of October 2021, 4.3 million people in the UK workforce were found to be self-employed. 

But one thing you don’t get from a freelance lifestyle, which can make things difficult, is sick pay. Particularly while living through a pandemic, living without guaranteed income when you take time off sick is a very stressful part of being a freelancer. 

Research has also found that women feel this burden more than men. A study by Anorak found that women are at more financial risk than men when they take sick leave, due to the fact that they generally have less savings put aside to live on. It was found that a third of women would last two weeks or less without income from taking time off sick. 

In November 2021, I contracted a nasty bout of bronchitis. My nasty symptoms affected my ability to work for three weeks. But what was just as debilitating was the anxiety I felt about missing work, due to the financial impact it would have. On top of that, I worried about the effect that my absence would have on my relationships with the editors I’d let down by taking time to lie in bed coughing, spluttering and sleeping in equal measure.

Once I’d fully recovered, I reflected on how I could’ve best prepared myself for my time on leave. While I have savings, I had never thought or (bothered) to specifically allot any of this money to my own physical wellbeing when I’m unwell. So what can we do to best prepare for sickness as freelancers?

 Helen Jane Campbell, business coach and author of Founders, Freelancers & Rebels: How to Thrive as an Independent Creative, stresses the importance of preparing for the worst case scenario (in this case, illness) ahead of time. “When you’re feeling like you’ve got a lot of energy, it’s a great time to begin preparation for when things get difficult,” she says.

Don’t wait until sickness hits for you to start dealing with how it will affect your business. Whatever preparations you put in place, make sure you start making them during a time of good health, so it feels less overwhelming.

A lot of freelancers save towards a lump sum that can help cover them when they need to take time off – so that you are effectively paying yourself sick pay – but sometimes this can feel overwhelming or a bit of a stretch, financially. Another option is to sign up to an income protection programme, which is a type of insurance policy that you pay into, and in turn it provides you with regular income while you’re unwell.

These schemes have been around for years, and yet it’s been found by Anorak that 66% of working adults in the UK do not have income protection and a quarter have never heard of it. That said, the pandemic has caused younger generations in particular to take note – 15% of workers aged 18-24 are buying income protection as a result of the instability that the Covid-19 crisis has caused. 

But that’s not the only thing you can do to prepare yourself for sickness as a freelancer. Helen also recommends building as much flexibility into your deadlines as possible, making space for a day where you might be feeling as physically or mentally well as you’d like. “Not every hour in the day can be billable,” she says, attributing this tendency of creative freelancers to pack in all the work to a habit of people pleasing. “Don’t hook up every hour that you have in the day, even though it’s tempting.” 

This way, you’ll be much less likely to push yourself towards burnout – with no downtime in your daily, weekly or monthly schedule to recuperate – and you’ll also have more space to move commitments around, in the event that you get ill.

Whatever plans and preparation you may put in place, getting sick isn’t unavoidable. But there are plenty of things you can do to protect your business, your body and your mental health.

Sonya Barlow, entrepreneur and author of Unprepared to Entrepreneur: A Method to the Madness of Starting Your Own Business, stresses the importance of setting a clear out of office email – explaining that you’re ill and setting clear boundaries on when replies can be expected. After doing this, she also advises staying away from your phone and focusing on resting.

As a chronic migraine sufferer, Barlow has learned the hard way that prioritising your own health is crucial to both yourself and your business. “I suffered from a two-week migraine in the summer because I didn’t listen to my own rules,” she told me. “Nothing was that urgent, in the grander scheme of things.”

When I returned to work about being sick, I found it difficult to readjust mentally and physically to the routine I had led beforehand. It’s important to take things slowly to avoid any form of relapse, and to ensure that any clients or other stakeholders are aware of this.

Tapping into your own humanity, as well as others around you, is a top tip Barlow offers for your return to work post-sickness. “Know that people are human, as are you,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to share and provide empathy”.

As well as taking the time to check back in with clients to see what you’ve missed, be discerning about what work and meetings are most pressing as you readjust to your schedule. If it’s not super pressing, don’t put pressure on yourself to deal with it while you finish healing.

Barlow stresses the importance of not getting too invested in other people’s reactions to your sickness. Even during a pandemic, to some extent we live in a world where working while ill is normalised – particularly for those who aren’t receiving sick pay. She advises to “not get annoyed if others don’t understand or get your decisions”. She adds: “you can only educate others so much, it’s not on you”. 

What’s on you, above all, is to take care of yourself, your health and your business.

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