Freelance tech writer Karen Haywood Queen has had not just one but two detached retinas—one in 2006 and another in 2018. Both required a least one serious surgery.
The second time, Haywood Queen was finishing a major, twice-a-year project for an agency when she realized something was wrong. The vision in her eye had started going black.
“I emailed my awesome agency contact and let her know the situation,” Haywood Queen said. “I asked her to handle the back-and-forth edits and final proofreading.” In this case, her agency partners were “very understanding”—but she admitted she would have been in a bigger bind had the project not been so close to completion.
As freelancers, we work on our own. As humans, we get sick.
Haywood Queen’s situation highlights a common dilemma. As freelancers, we generally work on our own. As humans, we get sick. But sometimes, it feels like we’re not allowed to.
After freelancing for more than two decades, I’ve realized we are allowed sick days—and clients will understand as long as you handle the situation professionally. And if they don’t, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the relationship.
Build in a buffer
Kelly K. James is a ghostwriter, content creator, and author of Six-Figure Freelancing, The Writers Guide to Making More Money. She was freelance for 22 years and still freelances part-time, although she now works full-time as a copywriter.
“I rarely tell a client I’m sick,” she said. “I feel that as a freelancer, my time is my own to manage.” The flexibility, she noted, is the whole point of the lifestyle. When she was full-time freelance, she could attend her kids’ school functions without needing to justify the time off.
“I feel that as a freelancer, my time is my own to manage.”
But unexpected issues arise. When James has no choice but to ask for a deadline extension, she said she “proactively lets the editor know.” She suggested that as soon as freelancers realize they need to push a project due to illness, they should give their clients a realistic timeframe of when to expect deliverables—and build in a buffer of a couple extra days.
James believes that unless it’s an emergency, there’s no need to share health information with clients. “I don’t think your editor or client [needs] to know unless it’s going to impede your ability to turn your work in on time or do specific tasks you’ve been assigned,” she said.
Generally speaking, if it does seem you’ll need to drop out of a project entirely, consider providing your clients with alternative solutions—perhaps introducing them to another freelancer in your network who could use the work. It’s also a good idea to create an emergency folder with all your clients’ contact info and critical log-in information, just in case you need to pass off an assignment.
Be proactive if you know you’ll be OOO
Jack El-Hai—an author, freelance writer, and writing coach for physicians—recalled a time he needed surgery for a hip joint replacement. Since he knew about the procedure four months in advance, he had time to plan his schedule accordingly. At the time, he was working on two commissioned books. Both were for first-time clients.
“I was able to go to the organizations that commissioned the books and explain about my surgery, and we reworked the production schedule,” he said. “They were more than understanding—they were solicitous. They got in touch with me when I was recovering and asked how I was doing.”
While he had to turn down short-term work on several articles, El-Hai said the hardest thing to decline was an invitation to appear at a large book festival. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk from the parking lot to the upper stage. “It’s better to be overcautious,” he said. “I felt a lot better turning it down right away and not worrying about it.”
Choose clients who respect your time and health
Of course, not all illnesses are predictable. Conditions like COVID-19, the flu, and mental health crises can come on suddenly, and in severe cases, freelancers may have little choice but to put up a last-minute OOO message. In these instances, remember that no assignment is more urgent than your health.
“Some clients were very understanding and asked/cared about my well-being; others didn’t. This hurt at the time, but also spurred me to find better clients.”
In Haywood Queen’s case, telling her client about the eye surgery was nerve-wracking at first—the project accounted for a large percentage of her annual income. But rather than panicking, she looked at things from a business perspective and immediately started prioritizing.
“My goal was to do as many of [my] tasks as possible and not worry about the rest,” she said. “For example, [I knew that] others could source photos for my pieces. But only I could add the last few paragraphs to a story where I did the interviews.”
To help other freelancers who find themselves in similar situations, Haywood Queen created a list of key action steps:
- If at all possible, finish the parts of the project that only you can do before handing it off to the client.
- Communicate quickly with key parties, and let them know the specific tasks you won’t be able to accomplish.
- Keep clients updated about your recovery.
- Consider hiring a third party—for example, a copyeditor/proofreader—for support until you’re back to 100 percent. Be transparent with clients about this extra help.
- Express gratitude to clients who are understanding about the situation.
- Don’t return to work before you’re ready.
Haywood Queen noted that while these situations are challenging, they often show a client’s true colors—and can ultimately help you decide which ones are keepers.
“[When I went through my second eye surgery], some clients were very understanding and asked/cared about my well-being; others didn’t,” she said. “This hurt at the time, but also spurred me to find better clients.”