Working Through Illness

When you work as a freelance writer, you probably don't have someone who can fill in for you when you become ill. You might have deadlines set well in advance that can't be re-worked. And when it comes to chronic problems, you probably just have to find a way to work through things. Even the best laid plans could take a serious hit from an extended break.

I've been going through an issue along those lines for a while now. What I thought was just stress taking its toll on me (move, wedding plans, and some serious neighborhood issues), has escalated. It affects my ability to not only focus, but even stay awake. Client work takes much longer than usual. And my own sites, books, etc. have mostly taken a hit for months (although I've been forcing myself to make a little more progress lately).

I called my doctor to try to set up an appointment, only to find that they couldn't get me in for a month at best. And for a basic physical, which I'm also due for, they want me to wait three months. I find that insane. So I found another doctor. And I go for an appointment about my current issues tomorrow. I have a pretty good idea of what's wrong, and chances are good it's a simple case of needing medication. But trying to work through it for another month just to get looked at was out of the question.

So today let's talk about what your options are if illness strikes. While we don't directly get paid time off, sick time should always be factored into our rates. So you should be okay there if you only need a few days to recover (or it's time to charge more). I'm lucky in that I have insurance through my husband's job. But what about freelancer's who aren't in that position? Some basic preparation can make illness much more bearable. For example:

  • Seek insurance options for the self-employed. You might be able to do this through your local chamber of commerce, school alumni associations, or unions targeting freelancers or writers.
  • Set aside at least enough money to get yourself checked out if necessary. A few hundred dollars can go a long way towards having tests run and paying for prescriptions, assuming it's nothing too serious.
  • Get vaccines if you're high risk or in an area strongly affected by routine viruses, like the flu.
  • Don't work yourself to the point of exhaustion. You're just going to invite illness that way.

Doing these kinds of things proactively is your best bet. But that isn't always possible. What happens if your illness comes on suddenly, and you're already overloaded with work? What can you do then? Here are a few ideas:

  • Continue working, but cut back on your hours. For example, you might work four or five hours a day instead of eight. That gives you a chance to sleep in, take a break in the middle of your day, or take on any kind of rest you need to get better.
  • Eliminate some administrative tasks. If you have deadlines, focus on that client work, but allow yourself to let other things slide. Don't update your blog as much. Don't check email five times per day. Stay away from your social media accounts for a few days. Prioritize your tasks, and leave the least important ones alone until you're feeling well again.
  • Don't be afraid to take time off. You'd be surprised how understanding many clients will be. After all, they want your best work -- not something sub-par just because you were sick.
  • Know when to ask for help or outsource. For example, you might hire someone to take on some of your administrative tasks. I'm hiring a cousin to work as my assistant for a few hours per week, and she starts next week. She'll be handling admin and content creation for some of my smaller sites so I don't have to worry about them as much. I'll have more time to focus on client work and my publishing plan.  If you can't hire someone right now, consider partnering with another freelancer you trust. When you're sick, refer work to that freelancer so they can fill in and meet deadlines when you can't. Then they can do the same, referring projects to you when they need the break.

How else do you prepare for illness so it won't severely impact your freelance writing work? When something comes on suddenly, how do you deal with it? Do you take time off? Cut back a bit? Or keep plowing through? If you could do things differently, what would you do in the future?

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

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.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

Get More Content Like This in Your Inbox

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter where you'll be notified of new blog articles and receive subscribers-only content.

Subscribe now.

13 thoughts on “Working Through Illness”

  1. I feel fortunate that I live in a country with universal healthcare, but that said, you do still have to pay for visits to the GP (prescription medication is usually subsidised though). I don’t get sick very often, mainly because I’m very aware that I no longer get paid sick leave (which, in my old job, was unlimited within reason) and make a concerted effort not to get sick. Definitely I’ve got better at listening to my body – if I feel a little more tired than usual, it’s a sign I should probably go to bed earlier for a while, and if my throat feels a bit scratchy I need to keep warm and drink a lot of fluid. And make sure I eat properly.

    But on the plus side, I get to keep my office as warm as it needs to be, I don’t have to deal with germy air conditioning or workmates who come in when they’re sick as a dog. If I’m a bit rundown, I can just do the bare minimum and do the rest later, and if I do need to take a morning off I can. I used to hate calling in sick to work, feeling fine by lunchtime, but having to stay at home anyway lest I go out and run into any workmates (or worse, the boss!). You just have to look after yourself and learn to respond to the signals your body gives you.

  2. Jenn, I am only a part-time freelance writer in addition to my other work. I was unwell in the first part of the year, and had to cut my hours because I got so tired. I had a pressure in March in that I was asked to write an article for a prestigious technical newsletter. Fortunately the editor did not set me a deadline. I kept quiet on the basis that I would do it when I could.

    It turned out that it was the side-effects of a medication that were actually making me ill. I stopped taking it and my brain switched on so that I wrote the technical piece and submitted it within four days of stopping the pills. It was published with only very minor changes by the editor so she must have thought it was fine.

    I do get my flu jabs even though I am not in an “at-risk” group. My businesses are too important for me to have unplanned time off. I do sub-contract non-writing work because I like to concentrate on what I am best at doing.

    Yes, we do have universal healthcare, but it has to be managed and I have private insurance as well which has proved invaluable. I agree that it is useful to take time off whether or not we are ill. Taking a break is important and helps us work better when we get back to it.

    Thank you for a good post. I hope you feel better soon.

  3. Knock on wood, I’m healthy!

    I usually talk myself out of being sick because I believe in the power of energy, positive thinking and words. I eat a clean diet, work out and don’t eat meat. Yes, I’m a vegetarian.

    If I feel like my energy is decreasing, I’ll finish up my writing and take the day off. I’ll ‘veg’ out for a while and drink herbal teas. I’m not a big fan of taking pills so going to the doctor isn’t one of my favorite things to do. Plus, I’m too freaked out by all of the side effects that are attached to pills. I’d rather try it the ‘natural’ way and then find a holistic doctor, if I have to do so.

  4. Jenn, I hope you’re feeling better soon. Working in a fog just sucks.

    I do a lot of what you suggest – I cut back on blogging, drop down to a few hours of work a day, put up the “sick day” email notice, and head to bed. When I had my bout of thyroid issues, I ramped up on caffeine and peppermint gum (peppermint lifts the fog a bit) and plowed through when I could. I took more time off, but I didn’t miss any projects.

    One thing I will do is turn down work. Sometimes you just have to. If you explain why, chances are their “need it now” deadline will evaporate and they’ll wait for you. Not always, but sometimes it does happen.

    Also, if I’m up to it, I do little things, like prioritize work or rethink marketing connections, that don’t require me to be 100-percent focused. Maybe clean the desk or throw out some files — that sort of thing.

  5. Jenn, I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. I certainly hope that they get to the bottom of this.

    You’re right on target as far strategy for keeping your business going while you’re sick. I’ve been there too and working while sick is no fun.

    I hope that you can take some days off and get some rest.

    Feel better soon.

  6. Jenn: Hope you are back to feeling like your old self real soon.

    I, too, knock on wood, am pretty healthy. Even when I worked in corporate, it was the rare occasion when I was sick. I love that you recommended getting the preventive care. If we could turn the mindset of a health insurance system focused on disease – you get sick-your insurance kicks in- and focus more on health, we might put a dent into our healthcare costs.

    Okay, off my soapbox.

    You listed many of the same things I would do when not feeling 100 percent. Here’s another idea for what I guess you could call preventive freelancing 🙂 – when developing your timeline for projects, make sure to build in more time than you need for the unexpected. That extra time might be just what you need for unexpected illness.

    Feel better, Jenn!

  7. Thanks for the well-wishes everyone. Unfortunately not much news yet. They ran a couple of tests, but I’m still waiting on results. I go back in for more tests in about a week and a half. And in the meantime they’ve put me on pills that make me feel like the walls are moving around me. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. I’m sure we’ll figure it out though. Just takes time. 🙂

    I noticed a couple of folks saying that they just focus on staying healthy now. I completely understand that. But please understand that it isn’t always in your control. I’ve been healthy most of my life, rarely getting ill. And when I did get sick, I knew how to keep it mild. So I didn’t worry much about health insurance and treatments either. But you never know when something is going to hit. All the positive thinking in the world can’t keep someone 100% healthy. And even if you don’t become ill, you always run the risk of injuring yourself — from a simple case of stumbling and spraining an ankle to more serious injuries from a car accident or something of the like. Make sure you have some kind of plan in case you need treatment or time off, whether it’s getting insurance or setting up savings to cover at least the basics.

  8. Hey Jennifer,
    So sorry to hear about your health issues. I’m new to the freelance writing world, but not to long term illness. There are some things I’ve learned about chronic pain, etc. that I think might really help until you can figure out what’s happening. This is going to sound really stupid, but I recently discovered that a low vitamin “D” level can seriously increase muscle & joint pain, & fatigue. I was shocked by how much. Even if it doesn’t relate to your overall condition, making sure that your general vitamin levels are up to par can really help to keep you working as much as possible.
    As you’re sadly discovering, it can take a really long time for doctors to get a good handle on what you need, so don’t be discouraged if you hear a lot of “no’s” before you have the right diagnosis…as a writer, I’m sure you know that you just have to keep plugging away until you find the right doctor.
    I’ve very much appreciated your wonderful insight, & helpful articles. I wish you the best :-).
    Becky Paulsen

    • Thanks Becky.

      I’m a big supporter of vitamins and other supplements, and they’re a big part of why I’ve rarely gotten sick over the last decade or so. But unfortunately that’s not my problem this time around. My blood work came back fine, and I already supplement with D and other vitamins. Still waiting on one more test result and then the next set of tests. Fortunately, the meds are helping. When I started, they made me feel awful, but now they’re addressing one of the biggest problem. I have physical energy again even if not much extra mental energy. I’m hoping that’ll come back shortly too. I’ll be on them for a month before we decide on a longer-term strategy, pending the other tests in a couple of weeks of course. I’m sure it’ll be fine in the end. It’s just a huge hit when things are out of your control. And when it comes to my business and my body, I like a good amount of control. 😉

      • I’m so glad to hear you’re figuring it out, Jennifer! It took twelve years, umpteen zillion specialists, & three neuropsychological exams, which, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I likely needed them, LOL. Finally, they settled on the diagnosis that long term stress had burnt out my adrenaline system {injured husband, long story}. You’re absolutely right, the lack of control is maddening. I wish you all the best. I’m sure that if your doctor is diligent, caring, & willing to explore options they’ll have you fixed up in no time :).

        • Oh wow. I’m so sorry it took so long for you to get whatever help you needed. I sure hope I’m not in for a long ride like that! Fortunately my doctor is definitely caring. She’s called multiple times just to make sure I’m feeling okay on the medication to keep in touch between appointments. I go back on the 13th, so hopefully we’ll find out more then.

          • Hi Jennifer,
            I just ran across this comment while doing a search to see if my professional info shows up…just checking in to see how you’re feeling. Hope all is well with you, and you were able to find an effective treatment plan. 🙂

          • Hi Becky. I’m feeling much better these days. Thanks for asking. 🙂 Still medicated to help manage things, and problems flared up a lot last year. But for the past six months or so, things have been so much better, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. 🙂

Leave a Comment