Freelancers look after your mental health! 5 rules for returning to work after being ill

We get sick days when we’re employed, right? We call in sick when we’ve got the flu, crippling period pains, or a mega hangover (no judgement here). But when we’re self employed, we don’t give ourselves sick days. As freelancers, our physical and mental health just feels harder to look after.

If we can haul a laptop onto our laps in bed, we’ll work.

If you, like me, have done this recently thanks to a pesky virus starting with C, I’ve got something to tell you: 

You are being your own tyrannical boss. 

And is that what you went self employed for? I reckon not.

It’s time to stop that and stick to these five rules for returning to work as a freelancer.

Let’s take something from the employed world (just this one thing - promise)

You won’t often hear me suggesting we self-employed pals take our lead from employers, but there actually is something to be learned here.

I’ve been laid up with a virus for the last three weeks, 

The first week I couldn’t get out of bed. You know when you’re so ill you can’t even face watching crap TV or the Harry Potter films, so you’re just slumped there with your eyes closed feeling sorry for yourself? Yep. That was week one.

Week two at 9.30am on Monday I was still in bed, but thinking ‘god I really should be doing some work now.’ 

Like because it was a Monday and because I’d been ill and unable to work for a week, I’d used up my illness allowance. 

But although I could get out of bed now, I wasn’t well enough to get straight back to work. I couldn’t talk for a start, and definitely couldn’t be out of bed and upright all day.

And I realised that I needed to take something from my employed days – I needed a phased return. 

This is just one of the good practices a decent employer should offer when someone is coming back to work after being really unwell. 

As well as a phased return, an employer will have a ‘back to work’ interview with you so they can help you get back to work healthily.

You’ll also be offered (or should be!) reduced duties, extra support and extra breaks if you need them.

So let’s adapt these for us freelancers’ mental and physical health.

Five rules for looking after your mental health as a freelancer returning to work

So here are my five rules for looking after freelancers mental health – and physical health! – when returning to work:

Number One: Don’t come back before you’re ready.

Your brain will tell you that you need to. Don’t listen. If you’re thinking ‘I should be back at work. I need to be working’ then you’re not ready.

Number Two: Give yourself what’s called in the trade ‘a phased return.’

Think about going back to work in stages. In phase one, maybe you’ll be catching up on admin behind the scenes, but you won’t be client facing. Maybe in phase two you’ll start to bring client work back in slowly. Perhaps in phase three you’ll bring back all client facing work and in phase four you’ll start marketing and taking on new work again. You can’t do it all at once basically.

Number Three: Allow yourself to focus on reduced duties.

Like a phased return, focusing on fewer things to begin with will help you slowly build up your physical strength and mental energy while you’re probably still not 100%. This is not being lazy. This is being pragmatic.

Number Four: Give yourself extra support & breaks.

After being so ill you’ll be knackered and trying to run full pelt back into work will knock you over again. Look after yourself.

Number Five: Don’t be the world’s most tyrannical boss to yourself.

We’ve all had shit bosses in our careers. The ones who call you out of hours cos they can’t find that file. The ones who email you something to print, even though it would have been quicker for them to just print the damn thing themselves. Don’t be that dick.  Treat yourself like a good employer would. Us freelancers get to look after our mental and physical health. 

How to help yourself do this next time you’re ill

I know it’s tough when you’re in the moment – covered in snot and stuck in bed – to make a plan, so make one in advance.

Keep a few notes in your journal, or your Todist or Trello board to remind yourself:

  • Who you need to tell when you’re ill 
  • A template email or message to send them
  • What things you could start doing in phase one of a slow return to work
  • What would come next in phase two, three, four
  • What support you might need and where you can find it

Want more help?

You can get templates for all this sort of stuff in my Boundaries Bundle, and if you want this sort of slightly cross big-sisterly advice in your inbox on a semi-regular basis, join my email list – The Finger Wag.

Oh – and don’t be a dickish boss to yourself. Please.