What to do when you fall sick as a freelancer

One of the advantages of being freelance is the flexibility to work whenever you like, from wherever you’d like. But what happens if you become ill unexpectedly? Do you know what to do when you fall sick as a freelancer?

Whilst you might be able to power through wrapped up in a duvet when tackling a simple cold, many freelancers find themselves facing a real dilemma when falling unwell.

You don’t automatically get freelance sick pay to provide a financial buffer similar to an employee, and arranging insurance or injury cover will be your responsibility. And as a freelancer, you’re also technically the boss. So it’s on you to arrange cover or meet deadlines regardless of any illness.

So to help you avoid problems in the future, let’s look at some of the ways you can plan ahead for sick days. As well as managing them better when they inevitably arise.

How to prepare your freelance business for sick days

Putting systems in place can help you better prepare for sick days before they happen.

Start with your onboarding process with clients. When sending over your T&Cs do you have any clauses that mentions what happens should illness or emergencies arise? It could be worth having a clause in place that allows you to temporarily extend deadlines or outsource work for this reason; particularly with a client you plan on having a long-lasting relationship with.

As well as preparing your client, you also need to prepare yourself and your income. Many freelancers neglect to seek proper guidance when starting out freelance and insurance often slips their mind.

Yet it’s vital to ensure you’re prepared for all eventualities. Freelance Corner’s Ultimate membership can help with this; it comes with legal helpline access and up to £2000 of sickness if you’re unwell for 3 or more weeks. Knowing you have this coverage lined up can provide peace of mind and ease some of the worries around falling sick as a freelancer.

Prepare your freelance business for if you fall ill

However, don’t just factor sickness into your contracts, factor it into your pricing too! An employer factors things like sick days and holidays for their employees into their business model. Since this isn’t the case for freelancers, factoring in sick pay when quoting the daily or hourly rate that you give to clients is really important.

This will depend on the type of work you do but calculate how much of a financial buffer you would need to take 7 sick days (the average taken by employees in the UK each year) and 28 holiday days. Once you have your figure, you can then calculate what % of your earnings you’ll need to put aside for this buffer and add the incremental charge to your rates.

Finally, it could be worth building up a network of freelancers in a similar field to you (Facebook groups such as ‘Creative Freelancers UK’ and ‘IPSE Community’ are great for this) who you can pass work on to in an emergency. Building reciprocal relationships means you can quickly outsource work in an emergency – without it impacting your client.

How to communicate sickness with clients.

It’s all very well being financially prepared, but communicating sudden sick days to a client can be a little more tricky.

Firstly, act promptly: the quicker you deliver the news, the quicker you can start putting together a solution. Be honest and explain the situation, the time you think you’ll need to get better and the steps you can put in place to deal with it so the work gets completed and the impact to their business is minimal.

The most obvious first step could be to simply negotiate an extension. Ask the client to identify an order of priority for tasks (the urgent ones which you can tackle first when feeling better or outsource if needed) and which ones can be left until later. You might find there is more flexibility than you realise which means you don’t need to do anything but rest and pick things up when feeling better.

If an extension isn’t going to cut it, communicate to your client that you are temporarily going to outsource the work. This could involve connecting them directly with another freelancer or simply managing the outsourcing yourself and forwarding it on when they’re done.

Of course, this runs the risk of the quality of work done by another freelancer not being up to standard but, if you’re already built a network of freelancers, then that should hopefully give you the confidence in outsourcing.

What about if a day of sickness turns into a week or month? Well, you’re certainly not alone. Around 15 million people in England live with a long-term health condition and many turn to freelancing to allow themselves to build a flexible career around it.

Yet even those who don’t have chronic conditions can find themselves dealing with long-term poor health. Jessica Andrews, a brand stylist and creative coach, has battled both Pneumonia, Covid and DVT since September and says being honest with clients is key. “I’ve been really honest with clients and they’ve been really understanding and accommodating when working around my energy levels and hospital appointments. Communication is key: I’ve tried to give realistic time frames and have been savvy about boundaries. I’m keeping conversations focused on the project outcome and deadline whilst being upfront about my situation. Most have understood that I just need a little leeway and grace,”  she adds.

A product-based business can be a little more tricky (since outsourcing may be harder) but it’s still possible. Ruth Mary Chipperfield, a jewellery designer who runs Ruth Mary Jewellery has narcolepsy and explains: “A lot of my work is bespoke so I get to know clients quite well. Because clients know I really care they tend to be understanding when bespoke pieces take longer than expected. I have good days and bad days, which I tend to factor into my lead times. I’m quite open and my clients are happy to wait a bit longer” she adds.

How to get your freelance career back on track after being ill.

When we’re unwell, the last thing we want to do is be on our laptop or phone. Which means the return to work can feel overwhelming.

The freelancing world moves fast, so it can feel as if your inbox will quickly mount up. Or days of no social media posts will stop you finding new clients.

Firstly, be kind to yourself. Many people take breaks when freelancing (whether it’s due to sickness or maternity leave) , and the beauty of it is that you can often jump right back into things at your own pace.

How to get your freelance career back on track after being ill

Using an ‘out of office’ on your inbox means no one will be expecting immediate replies but be ruthless and focus on tackling urgent emails that can’t wait when you return. Colour code or create folders in your inbox so you can batch replies depending on their priority.

Returning to social media can feel overwhelming but honesty is key: firstly, post an announcement that you’ve taken time away from the business due to illness but now have capacity to take on more clients. Often the most honest and open posts create the most engagement and connections so if you feel comfortable talking about your health, then do!

However, in reality, life moves so fast that many won’t realise you’ve taken a break at all.

Whilst suddenly falling sick as a freelancer can feel a massive inconvenience, it’s really important to give your body the chance to recover and recuperate. By preparing for sick days and communicating issues with your clients, you can ensure that as well as your health recovering, your business will do.