The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
How do you know when you’re too sick to work? Seems easy enough to figure out, right? We’re all adults. We know when we’re sick. But for freelancers, that’s a tougher question than it seems.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I suffer from a chronic illness. It reared its ugly head over the weekend. No one had sent me a question for this week, so I figured I’d use my own life experience to write this week’s post.
We all get sick. The serious things—pneumonia, bronchitis, certain types of flu—leave us too ill to get out of bed. They’re not the problem to the freelancer. The milder illnesses are.
When you work for someone else, it’s easy to know when to go into work. If you had one of those cushy jobs with paid sick leave and paid vacation, chances are you took more sick days than you needed. If you were feeling a little off, and you had the paid time coming to you, you took the day and stayed home. Even seasonal allergies might have warranted a little paid “me” time.
If you had a by-the-hour job without those benefits, you took as little time off as possible. At my last waitressing job, the boss actually had rules about when not to come to work. (If you’re contagious, she’d say, you must stay home.) People who work by the hour usually need the money. They come to work when they can barely walk because they don’t dare lose the hours.
Freelancing is closer to the by-the-hour job, but it’s not quite the same. When you freelance, you get paid for piece work. In other words, the more things you finish, the more you get paid.
You finish more things if you put in more hours.
Seems obvious, right? But most people aren’t used to being their own boss. Most people are too lenient with themselves. They lose entire days to headaches or the sniffles because they’re not feeling “up to par.” Days, even weeks, go by while the freelancer waits to feel better.
Here’s an ugly truth: When you work at home, you have no colleagues to distract you. You’re constantly assessing how you feel, and always coming up short.
That’s right. You’ll probably feel worse day to day when you work at home. Some of it is the solitude. Some of it is the lack of exercise. Some of it is the lack of fresh air.
When you go to a job away from home, you have to walk outside and drive somewhere. When I started freelancing, I’d stay in the house for days on end. It took me a while to realize that a walk around the block was often enough to make me feel energetic and healthy.
So…how do you know if you’re too sick to work?
It’s simple. Imagine the toughest boss you ever worked for. Then imagine telling him (and my toughest boss was a man) that you can’t come into work today because…and fill in the reason here.
If you can’t imagine yourself telling Tough Boss that reason, then you go to work.
It goes like this: Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I have a temperature of 102 and I’m heading to the doctor this afternoon.
Fine, good. My old Tough Boss would have let me out for that.
But imagine this one: Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I’m feeling sluggish.
Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night.
Hi, Tough Boss. I can’t come to work today because I’m not thinking as clearly as I usually do.
One or two of those with the Tough Boss I’d had (back in 1980—this dude really lives in my memory) and I would’ve been fired. Fast.
A friend once told me that people who work at corporate jobs aren’t productive every moment of every day. They talk to their colleagues on company time. They daydream. They do make-work to look busy. This friend was a corporate manager who estimated that a good 40% of the time, his employees weren’t working at their peak.
On the days they came in feeling “sluggish” or “tired,” they probably got less done.
When you work for someone else, you get used to days like that. You know you won’t get fired (unless you have other problems with job performance). Your employer knew that was part of the deal when he decided to hire employees in his business. Every self employed person knows that the hardest worker in the company is always the boss.
On those days when you would go into work with a mild cold or allergies, you get what you could done. Sometimes, you got brownie points just for showing up and keeping your desk warm.
I was so used to working for myself that when I got my single full-time job back in 1984, I caused a huge stir in the office. I worked as an editorial assistant in a textbook publishing house. I got my day’s assignments and usually finished them within the first hour of my eight-hour shift.
The other editorial assistants pulled me aside after a week of that and told me to slow down because I was making them look bad. I didn’t get it. I figured I was there to work, so I worked. I could have done the work of all the editorial assistants and filled up my day. But that wasn’t the corporate structure. So I did my hour’s worth of work, and spent the remaining seven hours reading the books the company published. My boss promised to promote me if someone in editorial quit. Which no one had for nearly two years. After four months of that, I left the job because I was horribly, unbelievably bored.
(Years later, I got a great part-time job as a secretary for a forensic psychologist. He looked at my resume and said, “My biggest concern about you is that you’re used to working for yourself. I’m hiring you to sit and answer phones. I’m afraid you might get bored.” I told him about my experience at the textbook publisher and we both laughed about it. Then he agreed that I could write or read at my desk when he had nothing for me to do. Needless to say, that was the best day job I ever had.)
If you had one of those jobs that let you slack off with regularity, then freelancing is going to be a big shock for you. I’ll deal with this phenomenon more in a later essay. But unless you modify your behavior right now, you’ll be one of those freelancers who gets nothing done for days on end, especially in spring allergy season or when the baby keeps you up all night.
No matter how dedicated you are, the reality is that there will be days when you feel sick, but not sick enough to stay home (from that imaginary Tough Boss). How do you do your best work when that happens?
Well, you don’t. You figure out what tasks you can do. I’m writing this piece two days earlier than I planned because today, I’m surviving on Advil and caffeine.
I’m not thinking clearly enough to write fiction. So I’m doing tasks that I find easier than fiction writing. And yes, writing non-fiction is easier than fiction, at least for me. (Besides, I can always clean this essay up later if I don’t like what I’ve done.)
I’ve been feeling punk for three days now. I’ve photocopied contracts, put together files for a project that I’m working on with a publisher in Virginia, did research on the next story I’m writing, and cleaned up my office.
I know the pattern of my chronic condition, so I know that in a day or two, I’ll be back up to my normal level of energy. Why waste my good days on tasks I can do when I’m not feeling up to par? I’m planning ahead by doing some of this work before it’s due.
This is exactly what you would have done at your day job if you were feeling a little under the weather, but you still managed to show up. You’d have done the things you’d been putting off, things that required less effort than your daily tasks.
Just think of Tough Boss. Make your excuses out loud, and see if they’ll fly with him. If they won’t, then go to your office. Do what you can.
You’ll be happy that you did.
“Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Illness” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch