In my first post about emergency business planning, I asked the question, “What can go wrong?” That was a little terrifying, but now for the good news: Once we know what can go wrong, we’re ready to start strategizing!
You will probably have noticed that some disasters I listed on the “What could go wrong?” list were qualitatively different than others. #4 in particular is in a category of its own: “I could become sick or injured.”
Hopefully none of us will spend too much of our time so ill that we can’t work, but both short- and long-term illness/injury can happen to anyone, of any age. So we need to prepare for this. We don’t want short-term health problems to impact our client relationships, and we don’t want long-term ones to tank our businesses!
In preparing for this piece, I put together my own knowledge, my research, and notes from an interview with a friend who has unfortunately encountered this particular emergency. Here’s what I came up with:
Plan for short-term unavailability.
- (Freelancer) Plan now what you’ll tell your customers if you’re unavailable for a period of time. You don’t want to just go AWOL and stop responding to customer queries because you don’t know what to say. My personal suggestion: follow smart going-on-vacation advice from Corinne McKay and Marion Rhodes, and ask one or more trusted colleagues if you can refer your clients to them when you’re unavailable. Then if a client offers you work while you’re unwell, you can say that although you have to take a week off to recover, you recommend contacting trusted colleague Jane Doe for urgent projects. (More thoughts on leaves of absence here.) If you don’t currently have trusted colleagues–and you do need to trust their quality of work, or it’s better to never mention them–plan another type of response. Bottom line, have a rough draft on hand of what you’ll say, so that you don’t freeze–or worse, end up accepting work you can’t do. I’ve seen freelancers lose clients because they agreed to a job whose deadline they couldn’t realistically make due to illness, and then were too afraid to answer when the client emailed asking where that overdue project was.
- If you’re hospitalized while you’re in the middle of a project, you need a quick way to let the project manager know this project is jeopardized. Keep your clients’ numbers in your phone’s contacts list, and have those numbers backed up somewhere in case you lose your phone.
- (Small Business) Ask your employees how to cover their jobs. Make a plan for how to keep your business running if any critical employee is unavailable for a month. This can help keep your services at least partially available for the duration, or get your business back up to full capacity faster. But be conscious of your approach! Often when you ask employees at a business to write down their job responsibilities, they become justifiably afraid you’re about to downsize. They worry that you want them to do this so that you’ll know how to take over for them when they’re laid off or fired. This could lower morale, or even make some employees uncooperative. Avoid this by clearly stating upfront that you’re coming up with disaster plans in case anyone gets sick and others need to help out until they get well. Tell your employees that if they ever need to be gone for a week or a month, you want to make sure they won’t come back to a huge mess. Note that this will also help in the event of vacations or bereavement leave. Ask them to document their most critical responsibilities/processes and what the company should do to cover those in their absence. Is there a report they need to make once a month? Is there a vendor only they have a relationship with? Is there a critical process only they know how to do? Get it all documented. And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to document what your employees would need to do if YOU were gone as well.
Work on your emergency savings if you don’t have any.
This will apply to all emergencies! Any Certified Financial Planner (CPA) or other finance professional will tell you to have at least three times your monthly income in savings, just in case of an emergency. Some will recommend six times your monthly income, especially for freelancers. Having that cushion to fall back on could mean the difference between “This is awful” and “I am bankrupt.” (I’ve currently passed three, and I’m going for six.)
Review the services you offer.
Let’s say you have a long-term health issue that is partially but not completely incapacitating. It could be six months of chemotherapy. It could be a permanent/semi-permanent disability. There may be some services you offer which you can continue offering in that scenario to keep some money coming in, even though you’d probably have to cut down on their volume. And on the other hand, there may be services which you can’t perform. For example, a portion of the work I do is simulcasts. I’m thinking now, before I get sick, about whether I could realistically continue doing simulcasts. Realistically, I don’t think I could. But I could still take other types of translation work. Everyone’s situation is different, so think about yours. If you’re a full-time interpreter, maybe you’ll decide you wouldn’t be able to do in-person interpreting while sick, but you could do phone interpretation. If you do a type of work that you don’t think you could perform at all while sick, is there another skill you have that you might want to try turning into paid work?
Get health insurance.
This is not optional. It doesn’t matter if you’re healthy–you need health insurance. If you don’t have any and it’s not in your budget, redo your budget. This should be considered as critical as buying food and paying rent. In other words, a #1 priority. Medical bankruptcy is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Of course, being insured does not guarantee you’ll never be in over your head if you get hurt/sick. But consider this: if you don’t have insurance, it could mean owing $50,000 in medical bills instead of $10,000.
Consider special plans if there are people who rely on your income to survive.
All right, you’ve kept your business going at partial capacity by maintaining good client relationships, having emergency savings, offering services at reduced volume, and taking advantage of your health insurance. Awesome! But let’s talk for a moment about a long-term disability–months, years, or even lifelong. In that case, even in our awesome scenario, you still have a reduced income for a long time. And it hurts to even type this, but in the worst-case scenario, you’re just plain too unwell to save your business, and you’ve lost all your income. So, if anyone in your life (including you!) relies solely on your income, and your disability becomes permanent or fully incapacitating, it could jeopardize lives. Or at least quality of life. What can you do about that? If you work for a business or are a member of a union, you may already have long-term disability insurance (check with your employer/union rep). If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, you may not have this coverage unless you’ve purchased it privately. Start researching long-term disability insurance and find out more about it and whether you might need it. But remember, I’m not a finance expert and can’t tell you what you should do! You’re probably not an expert either. So I recommend speaking with a trusted legal or financial professional to help you make your decisions. (See my next point.)
- Note: you may have worked jobs that would qualify you for Social Security disability benefits. If so, this is an important part of your disability planning, but be aware that Social Security programs are subject to change by the federal legislature. These Social Security benefits are not the same as the long-term disability insurance mentioned above.
- Some people also buy long-term care insurance. Others elect to use a different financial tool such as an annuity to prepare for potential long-term care needs instead. (See information about all these long-term care related topics at http://longtermcare.gov/.) I’m certainly not an expert on this topic either, which brings me to my last point…
Know who to turn to for legal/financial advice.
A trusted friend who’s been there pointed out that if you have a really serious health crisis, such as a bad car accident or debilitating illness, you’re best off if you already have someone who “knows the ropes” and can advocate for you while you’re not thinking clearly. She recommends lining someone up now, before anything goes wrong. Whether another party might be liable and you need help straightening that out, or you need help coordinating a complicated disability claim, legal advice could be invaluable. What I immediately thought of was to build a relationship with a professional now by simply hiring one to help me with all that pesky stuff that all of us need: a will, medical power of attorney, long-term disability planning, etc. I plan to try to do this soon, and ask at that meeting whether they’ll be able to provide specific help in situations like the ones we just talked about (and what their fee would be). Colleagues, many of you may already have a CPA lined up for your taxes and other business needs. If so, ask them what they recommend. What can they do for you?
And that’s my plan! I hope disaster never strikes you or me, but if it does, I hope having planned ahead makes it much easier to deal with. One thing NOT to do: When you are sick or injured, don’t let what-ifs get in the way of dealing with reality. This is not the time dwell on what you might have done differently “if only.” That can paralyze you. Instead, focus on doing what you need to do now.