I have terrible judgment when I am sick.
Aside from the inescapable urge to lie down on the couch with blankets and pillows and binge-watch Cheer—surrounded by tissues and bowls of cold, half-eaten soup—I still say yes to everything. Going out with friends? Sure, why not? Staggering into an office? No problem. Writing a chapter of my book, or writing for a client? I totally got this.
Except that I don’t “got this.”
Not taking sick days can be more disastrous to your career and income than you can imagine … but it means admitting your limitations. It’s taken years of rewrites, revisions, and emails from frustrated editors before I realized the terrible truth: I can’t write for beans when I am sick. And the worst part? I spent years thinking no one noticed. Instead, I plowed merrily along, patting myself on the back for being so experienced that I could write perfectly well, even when my fever was spiking and I was coughing up most of a lung. It’s cost me precious time, a mess of money, and in one exceptionally memorable case, a full-time contract job where my assignment editor decided to ghost my pleas for an extension when I was too sick to write anything close to passable copy.
Full-time jobs offer numerous benefits, not the least of which is paid sick days. Can’t work? No problem. Take a few days off; they’ll figure something out. Really sick and need a week or more off? Your job is still safe.
There are no paid sick days for writers. No one else is there to cover you and do your work, and if you’re a freelancer, not working means not getting paid. So long, rent or mortgage, bills, food, and everything else you need. So what do you do if you make your living as a writer and you worry about being sick?
Plan for a Rainy (Sick) Day
If you’ve taken the plunge into writing full-time—especially if you freelance—you are probably already aware that most business experts recommend you save enough to see you through three to six months. This isn’t always feasible for everyone, especially those who don’t have a family or spouse (or trust fund) to cover them. So if you can, follow the basics for saving: start early and save often. It doesn’t need to be an enormous amount, just enough to start that little security blanket.
“Of course, no one knows when and or how long they will be sick,” points out David Howell in “No Time or Money for a Sickie When You’re Self-Employed.” “Micro business owners should have a contingency fund that they add to regularly to cover their monthly expenses. This is the fund you draw upon when you are sick and can’t work. You may already have a fund that pays for your holidays, which of course are also unpaid when you take time away from your business; but consider expanding this fund to cover potential sick days, or longer periods when you can’t work at your normal efficiency.”
Another reason to save for your sick days is that if, at the end of the year, you haven’t needed to dip into your backup fund, you can take a bit of it and pay yourself a bonus. Or give yourself a vacation.
Give Yourself Permission to Be Sick
When you work for yourself and work from home, it’s really easy to be a workhorse. You are your own boss, which means you are in charge of your work hours, workload, and deadlines. It also means that you are going to drive yourself harder than most—which rarely makes recovery easier. In fact, it’s likely to make you even sicker.
So repeat after me: “When I’m sick, that’s OK. By putting my health first, I am ensuring I recover as quickly as possible, allowing me to get back to work sooner. I give myself permission to take time off and look after myself.”
Accept That Your Writing Will Most Likely Be Terrible
For many viruses, you usually have a day or two of warning—a scratchy throat, headache, or heavy feeling in your joints—that something nasty is growing inside you. This is the time to assess what is a priority and what isn’t. If you’re torn between writing a poem or doing work for a client, put your own projects aside and concentrate on anything that others are depending on (and allow you to pay your bills).
Reach out to any editors, agents, or other publishing professionals you work with and let them know you’re going to be out of commission for the foreseeable future. If an extension is not an option, let them know regardless. Letting them know you’re sick and not on your game will adjust their expectations. The last thing a writer wants to do is submit cruddy writing and have their editor think you didn’t make an effort or (much worse) that your writing is no longer as good as it used to be.
Extensions are less work for everyone than revisions and rewrites, and forcing yourself to work through illness isn’t going to improve your reputation. There are no rewards for pushing through—unless you happen to be one of those rare unicorns who can write beautifully even when you’re under the weather. But judge your “sick writing” when you are feeling better. Chances are good that when you’re sick, your judgment is going to be just as terrible as mine. Unless, of course, it involves adding a splash of bourbon in your hot lemon drink. (After which you really shouldn’t try to write.)
Ask for Help
The first place to ask for help is within your family. If money is tight, and you are too ill to work, your loved ones may be able to help out—bringing medicine or soup, or driving you to the doctor if your condition worsens.
If you’re under the gun with work due, consider reaching out to professionals in your own personal network whom you know and trust. You can subcontract work out, or get assistance with editing or writing.
“This is hard,” writes Mridu Khullar Relph for the International Freelancer. “I know, because as self-employed professionals, as writers, we’re perfectionists. We don’t like handing over control, especially when our names and our reputations are on the line. We’d rather do everything ourselves perfectly than relinquish control and risk someone else doing a just ‘okay’ job.
“But at some point—perhaps when you’re lying in bed unable to move—you’re going to realize that you can’t do everything yourself, especially when you have responsibilities outside of work. That’s when you need to be able to ask an editor friend to proofread something or a journalist you’ve helped out in the past to help you now.”
Take It Slow
When it comes to the flu—especially some of the more vicious strains that have been circulating around—recovery isn’t an instantaneous process. Once you start feeling better, ease back into your normal routine slowly. Start with the most important work, and then over the next week, start easing back into your normal workload.
A little patience goes a long way … and it helps to know that your couch is only a short commute away when you need to rest.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.