Let’s talk about a subject most people avoid- freelance health. Freelancers shudder at the idea of having a cold or a flu, let alone a loss of freelance health or disability that marks a change in how we do things. Never under estimate the impact of losing your health when freelancing. Disability, chronic illness, life limiting diagnosis, accident or some kind of diagnosis brings a new normal. Yet there are a lot of people out there who freelance to manage disability and illness. Our society is built from a position of health. From architecture through to processes in traditional workplaces, you start to see just how little space there is for illness in our society.
In fact, many people with disabilities or chronic conditions choose freelancing because it affords them greater protection and flexibility than other forms of employment. I’ve met freelancers with mental health conditions, cancer, injury from accidents (temporary or otherwise), disability, kids with disabilities and the whole shebang across a mix of it all.
What do you do when you are freelance and all of a sudden, your body becomes your biggest client management issue? Here’s some of the things you need to know
Welcome to a new landscape
Working with a disability, illness, mental health condition, life limiting diagnosis- or with a child that has any or all of these situations- is not like traditional business.
Traditional freelance rules do not apply.
It’s a totally different world to people who are worried about where clients are coming from, what to charge or the next big phase. Here, you’ve got an inconsistent timetable dictated to you through the lens of treatment plans, doctor’s schedules and impacts from those treatments. You also have to balance an inconsistent relationship with your body, mind – or even both.
People who have never faced your situation will invariably pipe up with their new planning technique, how Pomdoro makes it possible for you to work in 25 minutes at a time, they will tell you how and why you can work around it.
They don’t freaking know. Most people giving this advice think a hangover hurts. Try working with no iron in your bloodstream and you spend life in constant anxious, tired hell. Or with cancer treatment so tough, you don’t even notice you’ve fractured your femur until you see the X-ray. Or with a mental health condition so severe it takes you 3 hours to work out if you should roll over to drink the water beside your bed or not.
Perspective matters, people. If you haven’t been here, use your face for cake harvesting. Not advice dispensing.
However, having your own business, you can tap into that fabled flexibility we tend to through right out the window when we’re healthy.
You have to learn a few freelance lessons that will help you survive such as:
Working when the mood takes you is fine
Unlike those freaks sacrificing their mental health to try and be Gary Vee and Tony Robbins (and looking rather suspect when it comes to stress levels), you have a major client in your illness. They will call the shots. You can get the rest done when they’ve been placated. Enjoy!
Be OK with adopting the pajama lifestyle
It might be a joke in freelancing to work in your PJs but when you are feeling not so great, it’s a real-life changer. Working in your bed is great when you aren’t feeling well because you don’t have to talk yourself into getting to the desk and then stay their too long once you do.
There’s also another comfort factor involved. You feel less “we’re working now” so you can trick brain and body into being more able to cope emotionally. This is especially true if your ill-health or disability have been particularly taxing recently. Or if the issue is mental health related.
When you switch your freelance business into the bedroom, recognise it is a time and energy saver. You are being smart about your capacity.
Be honest about your situation (if you can)
There’s a lot of stigma and shame attached to health issues, disability, mental health and all the rest when there really shouldn’t be. You have a new thing to juggle. Be upfront about it if you can.
Clients, contractors and other freelancers- they can all surprise you with how supportive they can be.
However, trust your gut instincts as well. Some people may be less receptive. If for example they show a history of stigma towards difference, they may not be sympathetic of mental health issues. If they lean into gender normative situations a lot on their language, perhaps women’s health impacts aren’t going to be their bag.
It’s a case by case basis.
Recognise your limitations
You will get frustrated, especially if you cannot do as much as you used to. It’s part of the process. But what you do with that frustration matters.
Do what you can to write, record or draw it out.
If you can exercise with doctor’s approval, do so as it helps lower stress and release endorphins.
Do what you can to avoid lashing out or letting it consume you.
Recognise there will be melancholy attached to your life choices that are no longer yours or limitations physically and emotionally that might not have been there before.
Be as patient and kind with you as you can. That self-compassion makes all the difference.
Recognise your strengths too
When you become unwell, injured or your have a situation where disability or illness impacts more than usual, we can lose sight of our strengths. People can also add to this with their discomfort and concerns about your capabilities.
Despite changes and impacts, we still have some semblance of control in our own lives. Remind yourself of this.
Classic examples for me came from my Dad and his cancer. He was diagnosed in 2011 and has undergone treatments of all kinds ever since. He realised he had to give up a lot to a new normal and a medicalised timetable. But he also realised while his medical team had his best treatment outcomes in mind, that his holistic view of life was his to define.
He drew on his big picture and negotiation skills to change his treatment narrative.
That change in mindset meant he started negotiating to have treatment fit into his life as opposed to call all the shots. That included negotiating times for treatment around domestic and overseas travel.
Your strengths don’t have to involve asking for plane furlongs.
My strength is a love of research and learning. I use times when managing surgery, massive pain days and/or overwhelming anxiety to study. I read, listen to podcasts and take notes. These simple acts help me stay still in recovery and upskill for my freelance business at the same time.
It’s about looking at applying these strengths any way you please- and cutting yourself some slack in the process.
Play the long game
Pushing the envelope costs more time in the long run. If you feel great one day, that’s not a licence to work a massive day. It’s a moment to be grateful, to do some great work, and not to push yourself. Your new landscape often means recovery is longer and harder. Having a great day doesn’t mean you push it way too far.
It takes a while, but you will learn what your new normal is. Even if that new normal is desperately unpredictable, somehow in the chaos, there will be some random handles to grab onto. Even if they are down the mountain, few and far between, or sometimes jagged. It helps to let go of the certainty a little and to lean into that shambolic ride. At least, that is what worked for me.
It helps to embrace the new and mourn the old. It’s OK to feel melancholy over change. It’s when we berate or beat ourselves or fixate on trying to claw back to territory of the distant past we invite trouble.
A new normal means new friendship
I’m going to put this bluntly- do not carry the emotional labour of other friends, business acquaintances and self-appointed peers or competitors. They are not worth carrying. Especially if they don’t understand your situation.
They are competing over who has clients, who gets to raise their prices and whether their latest Instagram makes them look business savvy enough. You might be competing to get out of bed, raising a pen and whether or not you can make it to the shower.
Most people sadly cannot fathom these situations as they are not aware the impact of disability or illness may have. They don’t understand the physical or mental sensations. They are unlikely to understand the impact it has on your timetable, your choices, the things you can attend and more.
Stay away from people who are ashamed of your situation on your behalf or who feel it their destiny to fix you, treat you or otherwise remedy your situation. These people are not well intended. They are uncomfortable with disability. That discomfort is often born of prejudice and fear.
You don’t need to be around that kind of limiting, negative energy.
A couple of things may happen when you have to change your freelance business due to illness or disability:
Your world will shift on its axis
Your big picture and your micro-world changes to a significant level where your worldview and focus changes. You get much better able to look at your goal and think “does this fit?” and throw it away if it doesn’t.
Don’t be apologetic about the need to draw your own energy closer.
Freelance industry gossip is much less appealing
When something like a diagnosis, disability or illness alters your life, your tolerance for drama drastically diminishes. Drama in freelance circles is attractive but it’s pretty pointless. Once you have to strip back layers, it’s often the first to go.
It’s a tough thing for a lot of people to understand, often because they enjoy drama. You start realising the content of a conversation more. You hunger for joy, not someone else’s alleged failure. You want to discuss things that make life worthwhile.
Drama is no longer a luxury you can afford. It will change who is important just as much as what.
That’s liberating, by the way.
Your responses to feelings will change
Illness, injury, disability, mental health issues and all the rest are still loaded topics. Other people get uncomfortable, over-compensate and poorly navigate the situation. You have to filter out what is said and look for intent.
You also have to know who is going to allow you to change and those that will continue to drag you back to where you can no longer be. Nothing makes you grow quite like a health adversity and with that growth, meaning and goals in life will change.
Perspective kicks in. You become less tolerant of clients, fellow freelancers and the general vibe of negativity coming from certain pockets within. You have time for people’s pain, but you don’t have time for self-indulgence when it comes to pain. And that’s OK because it can lead you to start training other people to exercise less reliance on you and more autonomy.
Time shifts too
Your time matters more. You’ll aim to streamline life to ensure rest, play and other things more.
Your existential work crisis will be more profound. When you find out you are sick, you start to question even the most comfortable and fulfilling working life. If you’ve had some hurdles, it will be ten-fold. What this happens to be is you questioning the meaning of life, whether it has been worthwhile to this point, have you got a legacy, all that heavy stuff.
This is a good time to get a counsellor or a psychologist and investigate support groups. They can help you work through the transitions and changes. They can also be a great support when it feels as though no one understands your situation well enough.
You can also find support by reaching out to crisis and mental health lines. These places are not only there for you to talk to, they also have resources you may be able to use.
You have to be kind to yourself during this time. It can make you buy silly stuff you don’t need, burn down your existing business, despair and feel a deep sense of loss. You’ve done what you could to get here. No amount of beating yourself up with where here is happens to be healthy.
If you want to change, find a way. But do so without adding to your stress in the process.
Money matters more
You’ll need to charge more for your freelance work- but you’ll feel worse about doing it.
You feel something about your body and your work that your client doesn’t. The gap is sensational. But you will also likely be working less. Your rates need to reflect that. And this is such a big conversation, I will leave it for another time.
You come out of these situations realising more about yourself than you might otherwise have ever known. It’s up to you what you do with it. It can be a focal point for making your way more of your own. It can be the kick up the bum you need to shut down unhelpful people, clients or notions. You can learn to charge more for less because you have to make ends meet.
Part of this process is making a new friendship with yourself, too. Your identity as a freelancer, a working person, will be significantly altered as the prevailing conditions come down the pike. With that change in relationship, so too will others shift and alter.
The important thing to remember is that people may resist this change because they are not experiencing what you are. You can educate them to a point, but you are not in charge of making your situation easier on them. Be prepared to grow in ways and grow away from places, people and practices that no longer serve you.
Oh, and if you believe you may be in a situation where welfare will be required, apply sooner rather than later. It’s better to have the wheels in motion early.
Enrichment is your pal
Being the good crazy dog lady that I am, I knew the key to immobility was through mental enrichment. It’s this that helps you keep your dog still after they’ve had major surgery. Amping up the puzzles and brain tests helps your dog take their mine off wanting to run and jump and burst their stitches. I recognised that physical work or being at the desk wasn’t going to work. So, I looked for my version of enrichment. That came in the form of books, podcasts and journaling.
I think too, you get far more adept at working out the ebb and flow of your body when it’s been sick for a while. There’s something to be said for realising that there are down swings a lot when you have a disability or are sick for a prolonged period. You think you’re OK one day. That doesn’t mean tomorrow will be better or more of the same.
You have to cope with-
- Not knowing what you can do tomorrow until you get there
- The disappointment associated with being excited about working and finding you can’t
- People not getting it. That’s perfectly summed up with this delightful video
Keeping your brain activated and using your time like a learning moment (a freelance sabbatical if you will) can take a lot of the pressure off.
Physical supports matter
Depending on your circumstances, you may want to design a way to keep your enthusiasm and your learning up as you heal, navigate your new normal or manage symptoms.
I found a lot of comfort in changing my physical environment before I went to hospital. I have kept that configuration as it works for me the best. It included:
- Buying a TV tray. This became my friend that supplied meals in bed as well as gave me crafting time, journaling, freelance work and all the rest. It also doubled as an art table. If you are going to spend a lot of time in bed, you may as well enjoy whatever the hell it is you want to do there
- Day and night pyjamas. I found that if I had one set of PJs for day and one for night, I felt less drawn, sick and unhappy. I also made sure I bought new PJs that made me feel better about things that were separate from my usual fare
- Adding a bookshelf to the bedroom with a mix of fiction and non-fiction books. That way, it was an easy reach to pick up whatever was going to suit my mood best while staying in learning mode. I treated like the change to upskill my freelance business
- Bringing art supplies and pens into the mix. There’s something quite wonderful about mind mapping, drawing out and creating in bed. Especially if you don’t feel well enough for work related stuff but you want to take the edge of being still
- Keep a journal of helpful sick notes. This sounds a little weird, but I wrote myself a TO DO list for each day. I had to do some things like take medication at regular intervals, have a shower, eat even when I didn’t feel like it, go for a daily walk, etc. It helped me keep track. I also listed out my side effects, pain and any issues I knew I would forget next time I was face-to-face with my specialist with the dates. This helped my doctors map progress, spot problems and pivot accordingly
- Include things to do in that sick note journal. Look at Stan, Netflix, podcasts, books, articles and all the rest. Write down all those things people say, “have you seen, heard, read this?” about. Save them in your paper journal. Add others on top that come through as recommendations or strike your eye. That list will save you when you don’t feel well enough to make a decision OR if you’ve been making medical decisions all week and you cannot think to make anymore
- Podcasts are your friend. Ask people for recommendations and what to listen to. They replace books when you are too sick to concentrate on the act of reading. This too can help you upskill your freelance business as there are loads of freelance orientated podcasts out there now (including our own Sounds of the Freelance Jungle)
- Make the bedroom pleasant. Our bedroom went from being fairly boring to being welcoming with small editions like a cheap bookcase, some friendly soft toys and inspirational messages, a lovely scent, books and photography. Plants were added and the TV was moved into the cupboard so it could be there for watching but not take over the room
- Get some sunshine. I know, I know- it can be bloody hard to go outside. But even five minutes a day in the sun with fresh air in the garden, on the balcony or under a light-streaming window can and does make a difference to mood
Whatever helps you stay sharp, connected and happy is important.
Freelancing while sick is a journey
You will take two steps forward before tripping over to break something else entirely. You’ll also have moments where routine settles and then kills you with its low ebb. Undoubtedly, your biggest foe will be your own head. This will be followed closely by other people’s good intentions. It’s a custom journey that no one person can ever anticipate or school you on completely. You will uncover that things that work for others are awful for you. You will also uncover people can be awful when they attempt to help.