How to Handle Sick Days as a Freelance Writer

freelance sick time

Unfortunately freelancers don't have some special immunity to becoming ill. We can become sick without a moment's notice, and it can wreak major havoc on our work schedules. I was recently put in that position. Worse, I got sick over vacation. That meant I was already off and away from clients for a while, and I had to extend that time when they were expecting me back. I took two sick days and two limited work days (drafting previously-scheduled articles and copy but not taking any new projects and rarely checking email) while I recovered.

I talked about that and how sometimes life manages to screw with even the best laid business plans on my more personal site yesterday. Today I want to take that discussion to another level -- how freelancers can handle sick days when we do need to take sudden time off.

5 Steps to Taking Sick Days Off as a Freelancer

Taking sick time is a bit different for freelancers than it is for traditional employees. Our sick time isn't directly paid for example. We don't have a single boss or supervisor we need to notify. We have a stable of clients who need to know that we won't be available, how the sick time will affect their projects, and when we'll be back to work.

Here are five steps I suggest to freelance writers (or any freelance professionals) who need to take some time off to recover from illness.

1. Figure out what you can and can't do around your sick days.

If you have an urgent deadline approaching, are you able to squeeze some writing or editing in with your rest? If you can clear up existing projects in a few hours, you might want to do that to keep clients happy. In that case, you simply wouldn't schedule any new work until you're well. On the other hand, if you decide not to do any work, that's fine too. Sometimes you just need to rest.

2. Notify existing clients.

Pick up the phone or send out emails to let existing clients know that you're ill and taking some time off.

In my experience clients tend to be very understanding. Remember, you're a business owner. You don't need anyone's permission to take time off. If it's going to be an inconvenience, apologize for it and remind the client that until you're well you can't give them your best work, and that's what you want to do.

If they must have something completed when you're out sick, either subcontract the work if you're comfortable with that or give up the gig and refer it to someone else. Don't make yourself sicker because you're unwilling to walk away from a project if needs be. I've never had that situation happen personally, but I'm sure there are clients more demanding and less understanding than mine. But hey, if you're working with someone like that, who respects you so little that they'd rather you work and stay ill than get the rest you need, the gig really isn't that much of a loss anyway.

3. Set up email autoresponders.

Occasionally clients will forget that you're out sick, especially if they work with a lot of contractors. You'll also potentially have new prospects emailing you while you're out. Set up email autoresponders so anyone emailing you receives an automatic message letting them know that you're out and when you'll return. This way new prospects won't assume that you're ignoring them. If you aren't completely sure when you'll return, put an estimate but make it clear that it's when you expect to be back -- not when you definitely will resume work.

4. Don't feel guilty about taking sick days.

Sometimes freelancers feel guilty about taking time off from work. Frankly, that's silly. You control your work schedule, and you're responsible for your work-life balance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with swinging that balance to the "life" side once in a while. Goodness knows you've probably done the opposite at some point, working late to meet a client deadline or something along those lines. So give yourself a break. Use the time to rest, visit a doctor, and do whatever you need to do to get well as quickly as possible. Stressing over whether or not you're inconveniencing clients won't help. You need to relax. Don't be afraid to let yourself do that.

5. Prepare for your next sick day.

I often see colleagues say that freelancers don't get paid sick time.

That's a load of crap.

You do. Or if you don't, it's entirely your own fault because you didn't think things through when you set your freelance writing rates in the first place.

Your rates are supposed to cover everything you need or want to earn. That includes vacation time, sick time, personal days, covering your working hours that aren't directly billable, insurance costs, retirement savings, and any other benefits you want.

If you assume freelancing means no benefits, you're devaluing your services. It's ignorant to assume that charging enough to cover those things will cause clients not to hire you. You would still be significantly cheaper than hiring a regular employee to do the same work, where the client is responsible for those benefits in full (not to mention taxes, worker's comp insurance, and overhead costs).

This mistake usually results from people trying to compare hourly freelance rates to hourly rates for salaried workers. If you think they're directly comparable, you're wrong. You need to think in terms of the cost of the employee to the employer; not just the salary (which is one small part).

If you made this mistake and you can't afford sick time, it's time to make a change.

You need to get serious about setting livable rates and targeting markets that can afford to pay them. No one should be forced to work while ill because they can't afford a day or two off. And that's entirely in your hands and entirely your responsibility if you want to manage a serious freelance career. Don't make the mistake again. Rethink your pricing and other business policies now before you find yourself needing to take even more time off for an illness or other unexpected reason.

Are you able to take sick time when you need to, or did you mistakenly neglect that when you set your freelance writing rates? How are you going to rectify that mistake if you made it? Have you ever had to suffer through work while you were ill because you couldn't afford to take any time off? Do you have other tips for freelancers about dealing with clients when they need to take some sick time? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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11 thoughts on “How to Handle Sick Days as a Freelance Writer”

  1. Busted! Jenn – you’re absolutely right… I tell people they don’t get paid for sick days… totally forgetting that I also, in other places, tell them to charge enough to cover benefits! Thanks for the heads up as it were.

    • I think most of us have probably thought about things that way at one time or another — that to freelance means to give up insurance, paid vacation, paid sick time, etc. And on the surface it almost makes sense. But it’s still wrong. It’s just an excuse people use to justify not charging what they should be charging. If you want to run a serious freelance career, you have to be responsible enough to think about all of these things your rates should be covering. Those rates in part determine your market, and that market determines just about everything else you do when running a freelance writing business. I just wish more freelancers understood this before jumping in. But sadly, thorough planning still seems to be an afterthought for many. And once stuck in a market that doesn’t cover all of the things your income should cover, it’s far too easy to stay stuck in that rut telling yourself freelancing just doesn’t offer those things. It’s really a shame.

  2. What you’ve said here underscores the critical importance of developing good client relationships, because the dividends come when you encounter unexpected challenges (sickness or otherwise) in your life.

    My experience is like yours — I’ve never had a client be anything but understanding and supportive when I’ve been sick or had to deal with one of my kids being home from school ill. A client relationship that’s built on trust, respect and communication will navigate sick days and vacations without a hitch; and as you point out, a gig that doesn’t fit those criteria wouldn’t be worth retaining.

  3. I’ve never had problems with sick days. Clients have always been understanding and no one’s cancelled a project because I was sick. I just send an email saying I can’t deliver the work by the date promised and give them a revised deadline.

    • There are only two situations where I can imagine serious problems:

      1. You’re working with clients who abuse the relationship and think they’re your employer rather than a customer of your business, but without any of the responsibilities of course. These are the types who tend to be over-demanding while also representing the very low end of the pay spectrum.

      2. You procrastinated on a project, now there’s a strict deadline approaching, and you’re screwed.

      With the former, I’d say drop the client and never look back. With the latter, it’s your own damn fault and you do indeed owe it to the client to get the work done even if it means subcontracting part of the job out. Most would probably still be understanding in that case, but if they’re not I wouldn’t say they’re really to blame.

      Jake has it right. When you act like a professional and you treat your freelance career as the business it is, you learn to manage client relationships and build trust. You don’t call out sick just because you sneezed. When you say you’re ill, the clients can trust that’s the case and that you’re not just BSing them to get an extension. When that respect goes both ways, I find it hard to believe many clients would really give you crap for getting sick once in a while.

  4. When I started working for myself, I started trying much harder to look after myself, for just that reason. Guess it kind of helped that I couldn’t afford alcohol any more 😉 But I cranked up the exercise and learned to notice the very early signs and symptoms of colds etc. so I could knock them on the head before they got a hold. Still haven’t figured out migraines though…

    What I have noticed is that, unless I’m really sick like you were Jenn, I can usually knock out even just an hour of work on a sick day, especially on those days where you wake up feeling like death warmed up but are okay by lunchtime. That works out better than calling in sick, being fine by midday, but having to hang around at home anyway lest you run into your boss or a workmate if you go out anywhere!

    • I think most clients on a professional level are remarkably understanding. They’re smart enough to know that if you’re ill you can’t give them your best effort, so they’d rather wait a bit to get what they really want. The problems seem to arise more on the very low end — the webmaster crowd with an emphasis on quantity and little regard for quality. They don’t care about getting your best work so much as simply getting more, more, more. While I hope most readers here are far beyond that at this point, I do know we have plenty of new writers reading the blog who are still trying to transition from that kind of work into a more professional arena. And I hope that understanding concepts like paying for your own sick time and clients who respect you and the value you provide will help them with that transition in some way.

  5. I recently was down with flu and it was quite terrible. I kept worrying about all the writing I can’t do because of my fever and how behind I will be once I’m okay again… I’m pretty sure all that worrying made me even more sick. So thank you for this post, I think I’m going to adjust the way I do my freelancing to make sure I can afford sick leave.

    • I’m sorry to hear you were sick Jane. I hope it didn’t keep you out of the game for too long at least. Unfortunately sick time is something we don’t really think about until it’s too late and we need the time off. I’m glad to hear that you plan to adjust things so these sick days don’t catch you off guard in the future. Best of luck with that, and of course with staying healthy! 🙂


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