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Double-edged sword

I recently retweeted a fabulous in-house job offer for a translator in a large international scientific organisation in Geneva, saying that I’d have jumped at the chance once upon a time. A colleague went on to ask me whether I’d consider such a major upheaval at this stage in my career and my answer was an unequivocal no. I’m far too wedded to the freelance lifestyle these days. I love the freedom to accept the work I want to do (and decline the not-so-nice jobs I don’t), to work where I like (in Boston at the end of January, for example) and when I like (as a notorious night owl, who still struggles to get up in the mornings). Add a dog, an allotment and family commitments (elderly parents, one son in America and a 10-month-old granddaughter closer to home) to the mix, and there’s no way I’d want to go back to working in-house for someone else in another country. I started off my career as an in-house translator and I’d recommend it to anyone, not least for the invaluable experience and training in a specialist environment, but not for me at this time of life.

And yet, one of the problems with freelancing is when you’re ill. I’m actually very rarely ill, thanks (I believe) to my two daily dog walks in all weathers and a pretty healthy, mainly homegrown plant-based diet, but I’m just surfacing from a horrible cold that has laid me low for over two weeks. I’m feeling so much better than I did last week, but was still up coughing half the night and am definitely not 100% yet. Of course, as freelancers, we don’t need to get up early and brave the cold and the commute to get to the office. But then again, nor can we get a sick note from the doctor and just sign off from work for a fortnight, spending the day in our pyjamas watching daytime TV (if that’s what floats your boat). We usually still have deadlines to meet, client calls or e-mails to respond to, invoices to write if we want to be paid – there’s invariably some essential work to be done when you run your own business. Hence the double-edged sword. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. We might let people down, something we really don’t want to do. But then working while you’re feeling low can prolong your recovery process. And there’s the possibility that, if you’re feeling below par, mistakes might creep into your work. A dilemma.

Blackcurrant cordial and choc chip cookies

I was lucky on this occasion: I had very generous deadlines, so could afford to take my foot off the gas and do very little at the height of my cold, but even long deadlines have a habit of creeping up on you when your brain is on a go-slow. I couldn’t even use Dragon to dictate my translations as I had no voice. As it was, I ended up working last weekend to finish two jobs with now imminent return dates. I generally don’t work at weekends, but needs must – and the weather forecast was so awful, it actually wasn’t a problem. I was probably better off inside, translating in the warm, while Storm Dennis did its worst outside.

There’s no doubt that returning from nearly two weeks’ holiday to a cold that lays you low for another two weeks isn’t ideal for an established freelancer, but it could be disastrous for a fledgling business. So what can freelancers do to protect themselves in similar situations, especially if they live on their own?

  1. Try to have 3-6 months’ income set aside in an easy-access account. I know it’s easier said than done when you’re just starting out, but a rainy day fund is invaluable. It means you don’t need to worry if you are under the weather for a few weeks and can just concentrate on getting better. I mentioned income protection insurance in another post a few years ago, but this often doesn’t kick in for a few months, so wouldn’t cover flu-like illnesses – and is often prohibitively expensive for the self-employed, especially as you get older and are presumably more of a risk.
  2. Have a good work network in place. This is where those networking sessions really start to pay off! If you have a good network of trusted colleagues, you can pass work on to them if need be, outsource, ask for help with revision, or refer clients directly to specialist colleagues who can help, rather than just turning work down.
  3. Be kind to yourself and use the No word. If, like me, you have certain (usually direct) clients you usually squeeze in even if you’re busy, you have to learn to be kind to yourself and say no when you’re feeling below par. Biting off more than you can chew is definitely not a good idea when you have a thick head, a bunged-up nose, and can barely focus on the TV, your knitting or a book, let alone a computer screen. Either suggest a longer deadline (you’d be surprised how often they’re prepared to wait!), or, as above, recommend a trusted colleague. This way, instead of presenting them with a problem, you’re offering them a solution – with minimal effort for them.
  4. Talk to clients – and keep them in the loop. You might be surprised just how understanding they can be. Pre-empt any emergency requests by letting them know that you’re not well, but should be back in circulation the following week. If you’re not normally ill, they’ll appreciate the heads-up and won’t need to bother you again, saving them time and you stress. And if you know you’re not going to be able to meet a deadline, let them know as soon as possible so they can take alternative action. As an occasional outsourcer myself, I know only too well that finding out at the last minute that someone has let you down is not what you want to hear…
  5. If you do have to do some work, take your time. This is a counsel of perfection at the best of times, of course, but if you do find yourself having to do some work to meet a deadline despite all the above, make sure you give yourself as much time as possible to do a good job. Don’t work late at night, pace yourself and allow time to read through your work another day with a clearer head (always best practice in any event). Tell your reviser or your client that you’ve been under the weather – not to make excuses, but so that they’re aware. Everyone needs a bit of slack now and again.
  6. Keep a well-stocked freezer. If you’re feeling unwell and can’t taste anything, cooking is the last thing you’ll want to do. If you keep your freezer well stocked with nourishing homemade soups and casseroles, you can help fight the cold without having to go to any effort. Online grocery shopping is a boon in these situations too – I went through every box of tissues and lemsips in the house twice over, and was very relieved that I could restock from the comfort of my laptop without venturing out into the elements and spreading my germs in the process.

    Parsnip soup

  7. Get your friends on board. Again, I’m lucky in having lovely friends to walk my dog and bring me wonderful herbal remedies when I’m under the weather. I’m sure you’d do the same for them, so don’t be afraid to ask. And a dog to snuggle up to is the best sick-bed companion there can be – just saying!

Leo sickbed companion

Above all, get well soon – this long, damp winter seems to have been a fertile breeding ground for some pretty virulent bugs. The last time I felt so under the weather with a virus was back in 2009, when I went down with swine flu – admittedly much worse and it left me out of the loop for a good three weeks, and as weak as a kitten for a few more weeks after that. Not an experience I’m in any hurry to repeat! The problem is, we can’t predict when these things are going to strike. Once a decade isn’t too bad, but you still need to make sure you’re prepared. Wishing you all a very healthy end to the winter – and Gute Besserung if you’ve gone down with something too. Now I just need another holiday to recover – roll on Spring!

Beverly beach Jan 2020