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Yes, you can take a vacation when you're self-employed. Here's how to do it.

If you're part of the gig economy, a freelancer or self-employed, loss of income is real ... but so is burnout.
Time away can be crucial in preventing burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” in its latest report.
Time away can be crucial in preventing burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” in its latest report.Robin Muccari / NBC News

This past May I embarked on my most frightening endeavor in my five years as a freelance writer and editor: a vacation. It wasn’t just any old getaway, but a two-week honeymoon. My husband (a salaried worker with paid time off) and I wed last August, but we kept pushing it back. The reason for the delay was chiefly me — or, more specifically, my concern over what time off could cost my freelance career.

I faced a flurry of “what if” anxieties around unplugging from work for a whole 15 days. What if I couldn’t make up for the lost revenue? What if I missed out on an incredible opportunity from a prospective client? What if my long-term clients, supportive as they were about the time off, replaced me?

What if lost everything I’d spent these past five years working for in two weeks?

Income loss is a real problem — but so is burnout

My fears may have been a bit more extreme than the average person’s, but it’s become clear, upon consulting multiple self-employed folks (including therapists), that vacationing as an independent contractor is generally more challenging than if you’re salaried.

“Without some sort of passive revenue stream, it can mean a loss of income during the vacation period altogether,” says Ben Huber, co-founder, DollarSprout.

Brad and Kaitlyn Blair, who have a home building business called Spruce Homes together, have found that a “true vacation” is too stressful. “We've tried in the past, but have found them to be more harm than good,” Brad says.

But as Huber notes, “study after study has shown that not taking an annual vacation wreaks havoc on not only your body, but also your mental health. On the most fundamental of levels, we need time away.”

Time away can be crucial in preventing burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” in its latest report.

“This verbiage from the WHO is important, as it is specifically related to work and chronic stress,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and the author of the new book “Joy From Fear: Create The Life Of Your Dreams By Making Fear Your Friend”, who like many in her field, is self-employed. “This issue is finally reaching mainstream awareness.”

Both Manly and Vicki Salemi, career expert for who is technically self-employed, emphasize the importance of taking time no matter how you make a living, with Salemi noting, “If you don’t find the time, the time will find you.”

Change your mindset from ‘poverty’ mode to ‘abundance’ mode

For Dr. Manly, whose husband is also self-employed, taking vacations could easily be stressful — if she focuses on what she’s losing instead of what she’s gaining.

“I find that I don’t stress about ‘lost income’ and ‘returning to a mountain of work’ when I change my mindset to one of ‘I deserve this and will be in better form — rested and rejuvenated — when I return,’” Manly tells NBC News BETTER. “This attitude takes me away from a poverty/stressed mentality and into an abundance/faith/gratitude mentality. It seems to work magic, as my income ultimately does not suffer. Funds seem to flow much better with the abundance and gratitude paradigm.”

Manly clarifies that this is no act of mystical manifestation — it’s more rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy tactics of positive self-talk.

“It’s a simple but powerful shift in thinking and semantics,” she says. “People come in and tell me they are so ‘overwhelmed’. How about thinking, ‘I feel challenged,’ instead? This is neuro-linguistic programming. We have to train our brains to set ourselves up for success.”

You’ll be a better worker with this vacation

Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker (also self-employed) works with professionals who are “very high-functioning, overachieving perfectionist types,” where the motivation is to “work harder, work faster and always be plugged in.”

She too champions positive self-talk, adding that vacation should be embraced as a tool to support and improve one’s work life.

“As I explain to my clients, vacation is a great time to reflect, review and recharge for work so that when you come back you hit the ground running with more energy and can ultimately be more productive,” she says.

Stay within realistic parameters (this shouldn’t break the bank)

My husband and I set up a "honeyfund" in lieu of a registry, which is how our honeymoon was possible. For a regular vacation, dashing off to the French Riviera (as we did) probably would not have been feasible. But just because you can’t do something epic doesn’t mean you can’t do anything at all.

“You don’t need to go to Tahiti to unplug,” says Manly. “Even a staycation or a trip 30 miles away to a place in nature can be great. Set a budget and stay within your parameters. We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do [something big], which can be more stressful, but knowing you won’t come home to bills will make your vacation more relaxing.”

Scott Spiewak of Fresh Impact PR, says that he and his wife, both self-employed, have ditched the mega vacation concept for long weekends and random off days with their kids.

“If we get a day and it’s gorgeous and work is tidied up, we hit the beach or mountains for whatever the family vote might be,” says Spiewak. “It’s easier to manage workload and expectations of always being on. The kids are now used to it and it’s brought us closer as a family.”

Give 2 to 4 weeks notice to clients, but alert co-workers ASAP

When planning a longer getaway where you won’t be available, the importance of giving comfortable notice to clients cannot be overstated.

“Two to four weeks is ample notice for clients if all is running smoothly,” says Krysten Copeland, founder, KC & Co Communications.

For co-workers though, she recommends giving as much notice as possible.

“I have four contractors and we have an agency partner as well. They are plugged in as soon as I buy my ticket so there is no confusion,” says Copeland. “Setting expectations is crucial.”

Be sure to schedule an auto-response in your email for the dates you’ll be unreachable.

If you need to make up the income, take on a side gig — but not new clients

Bulking up revenue to make up for lost income is advisable if possible, but you may want to try a side hustle instead of bringing on new clients, which Copeland stresses is an “huge no-no” as it can create bombardment and confusion for both parties.

“If you're going away for Labor Day, you have two months to ramp up,” says Monster’s Salemi. “Maybe work as a lifeguard, a dog walker or bartender — whatever it takes to feel you have a cushion of cash on reserve to go away with more piece of mind. You might find that you like it and even build out a skillset that makes you more marketable, but be mindful not to go to the extreme and create burnout before your vacation.”

Tidy up your desk and tie up clerical loose ends

Do yourself the favor of making your workspace clean and tying up any clerical loose ends before setting off. The idea is to leave with the feeling that everything is settled and you can return to a clean slate.

“I tidy up my desk/business issues before I leave,” says Manly. “I even write out checks for payments that will be due. This leaves me feeling more ready to leave and enjoy time away with the added bonus of not feeling slammed when I return.”

There may never be a “right time” for vacation — plan one anyway

In some industries, like tax accounting and wedding planning, there are seasonal ebbs and flows. If you’re in such a field, you should schedule a vacation during an anticipated slow period.

Hannah Mia Attewell, a business coach and wedding photographer, organizes longer vacations during months when weddings are scarce.

“The majority of weddings are April to September, so I tend to book autumn vacations,” she says.

But business coaching, she adds, “isn’t seasonal at all”; neither is public relations, notes Copeland, who has found that there’s simply “never a good time for a vacation,” — a finding that no longer stops her from taking time off.

“Going into my fourth year of business I realized that I hadn't taken a real vacation in years and that I needed to go ahead and do that because there will never be a perfect time for it,” Copeland says. “If your clients don’t get that, they’re probably not the right clients for you, but I think more and more, people appreciate when we take the time to refresh and recharge. I think everyone should try to go on vacation once a quarter — even if it's just going to an inn for the weekend; it’s just the only way to stay sane, in my opinion — and the work only gets better because of it.”


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