A Freelancer Guide to “Calling in Sick”

sick-days-freelancer-guideAs freelancers, we have a lot of responsibilities. I’d even venture to say we wear more “hats” than most high-level executives in the “corporate” world.

Most days I enjoy the variety — when I’m bored with one task, I can change to something completely different. Focusing on just one thing at a time while not getting burnt out or bored.

However, the stress of filling so many diverse roles – from accounting to marketing our services to actually performing our job – can take its toll.

When the stress becomes too much – or our immune system drops – we are open to illnesses like the common cold or even the flu.

If you worked a “regular” J.O.B., you’d likely call in sick …

They would understand – especially considering that “sick days” are expected. Your boss might even beg you to stay away from work to keep anyone else from getting what you have …

Then, you’d be free to spend the day crashed in your lazy-boy, watching re-runs of “The Price Is Right,” with a bottle of Nyquil, a box of Kleenex, and a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

At least for the day, you’d be able to relax and forget about work … guilt-free. The other employees would pick up the slack and keep the business running in your absence.

Everyone understands that relaxation time is essential for your recovery …

But, it’s different for freelancers …

When you’re personally responsible for a full plate of clients, pending deadlines, and a (seemingly) never-ending list of administrative tasks, how can you manage time off?

Well, first you need the right mindset …

Release the Guilt

When you need a sick day, guilt often pops up – making it impossible to relax and recover. As a freelancer you might be familiar with this scenario …

Let’s say you’ve scheduled an afternoon off. You try to relax, but guilt keeps making you think:

  • “I should really get back to that client”
  • “Maybe I should just work on that project for 30 minutes”
  • “I should be more professional … stop procrastinating … work more …”

That’s guilt. And, it will get worse when you have a full schedule and client deadlines looming … it can feel like you should always be working. Relaxing – while torturing yourself over what you should be doing – isn’t really relaxing at all.

The Freelancer Guide to Taking a Sick Day

If you’re sick, burnt-out, exhausted, or drained, you really need to take time off – guilt-free.

To do this myself, I follow these steps:

1. Divide your to-do list into 3 parts.

1. Tasks that have to be done – no matter what.

This list includes deadlines that can’t be moved, emails you can’t put off replying to, and going to the doctor. (No matter what your schedule looks like, the sooner you get an illness doctored, the better!)

Be honest with yourself here – if that email reply can realistically wait a few days, put it on the next list …

2. Tasks to delay.

This list is everything that can wait until you’ve recovered. This might include any personal projects (like a new post on your blog) and any deadlines that are flexible.

freelancer-guide-to-do-listKeep in mind many clients need you to meet your deadlines because they have deadlines of their own. I recommend getting to know your clients and their strategy so you know if a delay will negatively affect them – and possibly your relationship.

If there are projects you can delay, send a short email to tell your client. Briefly explain your situation (without whining or complaining) and assure them you’ll return to work ASAP, recovered and fully dedicated to their project.

If possible, give them the date you expect to return. (Just make sure it’s realistic. If you have the flu today, you probably won’t be working on their project tomorrow.)

Your client will likely appreciate the update and can relax knowing that you’ve haven’t disappeared on them. Plus, you’ll be able to recover without worry (or guilt).

3. Tasks to delegate.

Next we have the “things you can delegate.”

If you’ve come down with an illness quickly and you’re too ill to make this 3-part list, consider delegating that as well. (Keeping a calendar of deadlines and a client contact list will make this process easier for a friend or family member to assist you.)

Also, as freelancers we tend to “bite off more than we can chew” and – if you’re like me – you want to do everything yourself …

Yes, wearing all those hats feels empowering, but it’s a recipe for overwhelm, burnout, and eventually illness.

If you think you may be in this situation, reach out to a fellow freelancer who can help you. Often they will pay you a referral fee so you’ll make money while you take time off! (Or you could manage the project, hire them directly, and keep a percentage of the project fee for your effort. Just be sure you don’t mislead your client about who did the work.)

(Keep in mind; you will likely need a sick day at some point. Now is a good time to establish relationships with fellow freelancers for the purpose of delegating … just in case you need to.)

With your 3-part list done, you can now relax. Guilt free! This is important because it determines how quickly you recover and can get back to work.

If you’re still having trouble releasing your guilt over taking a sick day, you might want to read this article about overcoming unhealthy guilt.

Prepare Now for Unexpected Time Off

If your freelance business is moving along without a hitch, now is the perfect time to prepare.

Let’s say you wake up sick … do you think you’ll feel up to sending emails, touching base with clients, or interviewing other freelancers for the purpose of outsourcing?

Probably not. That’s why it’s wise to plan now …

Here’s a checklist to help you prepare for your next “sick day”:

1. Connect with other freelancers who could help out in a pinch.

Explain that you’re preparing for a sick day and may want to call on them in the future. Find out their skills, availability, rates, and anything else you need to know to outsource to them.

Also, now is also a good time to work out any agreements – like referral fees or whether or not you’re okay with them accepting additional projects for your client.

2. Designate a “back up.”

Find someone who can back you up should you need a sick day. This is a little different than a freelancer to outsource to … this is more like a secretary or assistant … someone who can take your list, divide it into the three parts (do, delay, and delegate), and even send update emails to your clients.

I recommend a friend or family member who lives nearby. Ideally you can prepare this person now by explaining what you do, how your client relationships work, and what’s expected of you.

Depending on your relationship they may be willing to do this because they love you. Others might expect to be paid for their time. If that’s the case, set aside a budget for “sick days.” Another option is hiring a virtual assistant.

Either way, you’ll need to prepare some things for them …

3. Create “sick day” documents.

At a minimum you’ll need a task list, calendar with deadlines, client contact list, and templates of the emails you want to send. You might also include the contact details of your outsource options.

With all of this, your friend, family member, or virtual assistant should be able to copy and paste, add in any specifics, and hit, “Send.”

4. Backup your backups.

  • What if the freelancer you were counting on is up against a deadline and just can’t fit your project in?
  • What if the virtual assistant you picked is also sick or on vacation?
  • What if your mom just can’t find the time to bring you chicken noddle soup – not to mention, send half a dozen emails to your clients?

Set up multiple options now to cover you in those situations.

4. Double your project time estimates.

This technique takes a lot of pressure off. If something comes up, you’ll have the time built into your schedule to accommodate it. If you need help scheduling your projects, be sure to check out this article.

If you’re worried about your income dipping by doubling your project time, check out this article about raising your freelance rates.

Bonus: If you finish a project early, you can move to the next project or reward yourself with some time off!

5. Don’t assume you’ll never need a sick day.

As a freelancer you can’t be afraid to take a sick day. Most employers plan sick days for his or her employees. The same should hold true for you. If you’re not accommodating for your own sick days – including time to rest and recover – you’ll likely need even more time off down the road.

Your turn!

What can I add to this freelancer guide for taking sick days? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

About Christina Gillick


Christina Gillick is a Content Marketing Strategist and an award-winning direct-response copywriter. She helps her clients create loyal customers through relationship building copy and content. (She is also the founder of ComfyEarrings.com where she regularly tests her ideas and advice.)

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Igi Manaloto

A great guide! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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