A big part of the appeal of freelancing is that it is flexible. However, this tends to work better when applied to known variables: you know you have an appointment Tuesday, you know that next Monday is the class party for your son. When it comes to unknown variables, such as getting sick, things are not so easy.
Why Sick Days for Freelancers Are Problematic
Simply put, when you are a freelancer, you either work or you do not get paid. This is also true of many other jobs. However, those jobs also often come with unpaid sick days and in many cases legal protections that prevent you from being fired for being sick. For freelancers, not finishing a project on the scheduled date can result in the permanent loss of a client, meaning that it won't just be that day's income gone, but the termination of at least part of their income stream.
However, sick days are inevitable, which means you as a freelancer need to be prepared to handle them. Here are some strategies you can use.
Give Yourself a Buffer in Your Schedule
Ideally, this buffer should be about one week. So if your project is due on March 16th, schedule it to be completed March 9th. If you are worried that you clients will start expecting all work early, in effect destroying this sick-day strategy, just do not send in the work until the due date. You can use email scheduling apps to take care of this so you can send the work the day you complete it, but the recipient won't get it until the scheduled date.
Personally, I would love to use this strategy. However, my clients often only send me work the day before it is due, sometimes even the day of. So for me, this one doesn't really work.
Work Extra Hours When You Feel the Illness Starting
Now here is a strategy I do use. In general, when I get sick I am not hit hard right from the start; I usually have about 12-24 hours before I am knocked off my feet. When I first get the inkling that things are not going to be going my way soon enough, I put in extra hours, trying to clear my schedule for the next day or two so I can take those days off without consequence.
Talk to Your Clients
If a client is new to you, this may not work out well. However, if you have established clients, just be honest: you are sick and you cannot complete the work today. You will keep them updated and complete the work as soon as possible. Chances are they will work with you. If they cannot miss the deadline, then you may need to look into another solution.
Get Help from Other Freelancers
This is my alternative solution. I always get the okay of the client first, but if they agree, I outsource the work to a freelancer I trust. Thanks to Facebook groups, I know freelancers who are more than happy to take an assignment on short notice. I do handle everything through me rather than sending them to the client directly in order to prevent client poaching.
Getting sick is inevitable, so be prepared for when it happens.
Freelance writer and editor with an education background, working from home and living abroad.