How to be ill as a freelancer

‘It’s just impossible to be ill when you work for yourself.’ Hands up if that thought’s ever gone through your head? 

You’re laying in bed feeling full of cold/really low/floored by chronic pain – if you were employed, you’d call in sick. No question. 

But you don’t feel like you can. Because being ill can cause us massive anxiety in business.

Well, here’s a guide on how to be ill as a freelancer – from little sickly old me.

Why does being ill cause us so much anxiety in business?

Being ill can often cause us massive anxiety in business, in a totally different way than it did when we were employed. 

Because when we’re self-employed, we feel like it’s all on us. If we don’t work, we don’t earn (although it doesn’t have to be that way – more on that later). And to earn, we need to be doing. We can’t possibly earn money while we’re ill in bed (again – more later on why we CAN!).

Being ill and needing to take time off makes us feel:

  • Fearful – that our business is going to keel over 
  • Guilty – that we’re letting people down
  • Overwhelmed – at the thought of how much longer the to-do list will be after we’ve recovered

But friend, pushing through is not going to make you better. It’s not going to relieve any of these feelings. You’ll still be scared about business falling apart, because you will be working, but you’ll be really limping through. You’ll still feel guilty about letting people down because you won’t be at your best. You’ll DEFINITELY still feel overwhelmed because the brain fog will be real and the to-dos will keep on piling up.

It is a fundamental NEED to take time off to rest and recover when we’re ill. 

Now, not to get too political here, but I can’t let this point just slide by. 

The notion that we should ‘always be on,’ ‘just push on through,’ is SO FUCKING ABLEIST it’s untrue.

People like me – who have ongoing mental health issues (actually classified as a disability #DisabledMassive ), or who have physical disabilities, chronic illnesses, who’s brains are wired in beautiful neurodiverse ways, we don’t have a choice about taking time off when we’re ill.

We CANNOT push through. ‘Pushing through’ when I was seriously depressed and wildly anxious is what led to me having a breakdown and being signed off work for three months. 

Pushing through makes us iller. Pushing through is so damaging. It’s also not necessary.

Being ill is something we will ALL experience. As freelancers, business owners, self employed people, we HAVE to take time off to rest and recover. 

Let’s talk about how we do that.

How to be ill: the before

OK. So there are a few fundamental things I want you to consider that will help reduce the anxiety we feel in business when we get ill.

Your earning potential doesn’t have to be dependent on the hours you work

That feeling that if you don’t work, you don’t earn? That’s probably so acute because you’re charging by the hour or the day.

And I get it. We’re taught that our time is the most valuable thing about us (37.5 hour a week contract anyone??). But that’s just not true. It’s what’s in our brains and our hearts that’s the most valuable. Sometimes that takes some time to get out, sometimes it pours out quickly – that doesn’t affect the value of the thing.

So pal, as a starter – move away from pricing by the hour. Start thinking about how you can package your work. Where you charge for the output and outcome, rather than the time put into it.

If you keep charging by the hour, you’ll always feel guilty and a bit icky about taking time off.

Here’s a deep dive on how to start pricing based on value, rather than time.

Build contingency into your capacity planning

OK this is important. You gots to have an idea of what your healthy capacity is. Cos if you don’t, you’re just gonna over-commit and over-work, which will make it even harder to take time off when you need it.

The keyword here is: healthy. Healthy capacity friends. Not full capacity.

So, think about how many clients you can comfortably work with at one time. If you have a few different ways to work with you, there will be a few different combinations. 

Maybe you could have 3 people 121, and 5 one off sessions per month. Or 2 people 121 and 7 one off sessions. This doesn’t need to be exact, but err on the conservative side when calculating this.

That’s because you need to build in CONTINGENCY into your capacity. Contingency for over-running projects, for people getting back to you later than expected, for clients being ill, for YOU being ill.

Consider what contingency time you want in the month – maybe it’s a few days that could be your ‘catch up’ days if you need them, or fun days if you don’t!

Allow yourself to be ill

Finally, give yourself some ruddy compassion. One of the ways to reduce the anxiety we feel in business when we’re ill is to ALLOW OURSELVES TO BE ILL.

Sometimes we need to surrender to it so our bodies and brains can rest, recuperate and recover.

So please, give yourself permission to be human. We all get ill. We all need to recover.

This is the foundation of the way I teach people to do business – I call it The Heartwood Way, where your needs are at the heart, at the root of your business. If you want a starter pack on how to do business with your needs first, check out my Heartwood Way workshop.

How to be ill: the during

So you feel like shit, what next?

I gots ya chum. Here’s a wee checklist of what to do when you’re ill:

  1. Listen to your body and brain and ALLOW yourself to be ill (see above).
  2. Cancel stuff. Don’t pretend that you can limp through – you’ll just make yourself iller and probably do a worse job than you’d want to. Cancel stuff. All the stuff. 
  3. Don’t worry about rearranging stuff right now. When you can barely see through conjunctivitis (nice image?!), are hyperventilating from anxiety, doubled over in endo pain is NOT a good time to be doing diary admin. Come back to the rearranging later.
  4. DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR EMAILS. I’ll be watching you! Don’t do it! You need to rest and you can’t do that if your little overwhelmed brain is stuck in your emails. Oh and put an auto response on so people know you’re off ill (you can get templates for these in my Boundary Bundle)
  5. Review & check in. If your illness goes on for upwards of a week, check back in with clients and let them know you’re still ill and will come back to them to rearrange the work when you’re better. DO NOT say that you’ll start ‘doing a bit of work from bed.’ This is a slippery slope, friend.
  6. Make it easy. Always make the hard things easy. Write a template email NOW so you’ve got it when you need it next time you’re ill.

In my (un)official capacity as The Boundaries Queen, I’ve put together done-for-you, copy-paste, all-singing-all-dancing boundaries templates that will make it easy peasy to tell people you’re off work ill.

In The Boundaries Bundle, you’ll get instant access to templates for:

  • Your email signature
  • Your auto-responder
  • Your out-of-office
  • Your sales or service page
  • Your client welcome pack
  • Your client agreement or contract
  • Your Instagram Highlights


How to be ill: the checklist

Right then loves, here’s your checklist to help you be ill and take some of the anxiety away when you’re ill and trying to run your own business.

  1. Build some contingency into your capacity – this will make it easier to take the time you need and to fit in any work you need to reschedule
  2. Move away from pricing by the hour/day – consider package pricing, which is based on outcomes or outputs, rather than input. It doesn’t matter how long something takes you, your time is not where your value is found
  3. Allow yourself to be ill (this will be easier with the previous two steps ticked off)
  4. Cancel stuff – don’t rearrange it straight away, give yourself time to recover and have an idea of when you’ll be well enough to fit things in
  5. Don’t look at your emails – delete the app, turn off any notifications, block the webmail address (I see you sneaky ones!)
  6. Phase yourself back into work slowly – start with what you’re drawn to, not the first email in your inbox
  7. Support yourself – give yourself extra breaks, shorter hours, support from friends, family, business pals, whoever you need
  8. Give yourself a big ole dollop of compassion – we all get ill, some of us are always ill to some extent (hi chronic illness pals), it’s OK, your business will be OK

All my sickly pals out there – I see you, I loves ya, I’m here for ya ❤️