A cross-national comparative research on the work-life balance of self-employed workers.
Did you ever consider to start your own business? You are not the only one. Workers increasingly become – or consider to become – self-employed. The self-employed pursue gainful activities for their own account, either as solo-workers or employers .
With self-employment usually comes flexibility and autonomy. Flexibility makes it possible to work when the kids are at school or go to bed. Autonomy frees the self-employed workers from accountability to a boss, which is especially useful when they want to do another project, need a holiday or just want to do the laundry. In this way, flexibility and autonomy contribute to a better work-life balance.
‘Balance’ refers to a global evaluation of the interplay between work and life domains [2;3]. ‘Work’ normally includes paid employment, while ‘life’ includes activities such as health, leisure, friends, and family . Work-life balance is often measured in terms of workers’ satisfaction, which reflects one’s opinion that his or her resources are adequate to meet demands of different roles .
Work-life balance does not presume that there is an optimal division of work and personal domains that would suit all working individuals  and does not consider the direction of spill-over (from work to life or from life to work) but involves an overall appraisal of the combination of work and other life roles.
The other side of the coin
However, more autonomy and flexibility do not always outweigh the uncertainty experienced by the self-employed. Moreover, self-employed workers generally have a higher workload, more financial worries and less support from colleagues and the national government. Therefore, self-employment is not a panacea for work-life balance.
The “Busyness around Business” dissertation, by Anne Annink of the Erasmus University Rotterdam, proposed to explain the work-life balance experiences of different types of self-employed workers across countries.
1.Different types of self-employed workers have different work-life balance experiences.
In the current research and literature, the self-employed are lumped together and considered as one single group. However, workers increasingly maintain hybrid forms of labor relations. 15% of all Dutch self-employed, for example, also has a salaried job. And do you know the exact difference between a freelancer, a self-employed and an entrepreneur?
Thus, this thesis does make a distinction between different types of entrepreneurs, which made it possible to understand how different types of self-employed workers experience work-life balance.
In turns out that, in comparison to employees, the self-employed are more satisfied with their work-life balance and well-being. However, simultaneously, they experience more conflict from work to family.
Interviews also show that there is always, to a greater or lesser extent, a tension between freedom and uncertainty affecting the work-life balance negatively. A strong identification with work is a threat to private life for many self-employed workers.
If we want to distinguish types of self-employed, it is also important to look at their motivation to start a business. It appears that the self-employed who start because they see opportunities, and thus are not necessity-driven, are more satisfied with their work-life balance.
2. Work and business characteristics matter for the work-life balance of self-employed workers.
Besides traditional job demands such as working hours, working at short notice, job insecurity, supervisory work and being exposed to excessive stress, the work-life balance of self-employed workers is influenced by business characteristics such as running a consumer-oriented business.
This research shows that the self-employed in a customer-oriented company are less satisfied with their work-life balance. Customer interaction may hinder the work-life balance because of last-minute orders, unrealistic expectations of the customer and the compulsion to satisfy the customer at all times.
On the other hand, characteristics such as the degree of innovation, the business phase and the number of employees showed no significant relation with work-life balance.
3.Differences and similarities in the work-life balance of self-employed workers are related to the policy, economic and cultural context
This thesis not only considers the work context but also to the national context. The policies, economic situation and cultural norms in a country can influence the perceived work-life balance.
It is noteworthy that the self-employed receive less support than employed workers or even nothing at all. In addition, the differences between European countries are large. The easier it is to run a business in a country, the higher the satisfaction with work-life balance. In addition, the possibility of falling back on unemployment benefits results in greater satisfaction with work-life balance.
However, the provision of maternity and child care has no effect on the degree of conflict between work and family. This applies to both self-employed and for workers employed.
Contrary to what you might expect, the self-employed in countries characterized by a high level of education, health and income level are less satisfied with their work-life balance. Perhaps you recognize that the more opportunities you get, the higher your expectations are and the less satisfied you become.
That the economic situation is important to work-life balance, is demonstrated by the finding that financial worries lead to a lower sense of wellbeing among the self-employed. The availability of unemployment benefits can mitigate this negative effect.
Also, higher education and more social trust in a country have a soothing effect. Spanish respondents stressed that not only the objective financial situation is important, but also the uncertainty about sufficient work and the negative expectations on the national labor market. In Spain, many self-employed workers in their mid-30s moved back in with their parents and they delayed starting a family.
Social support from the family can increase, but also decrease, workers’ satisfaction. Spanish respondents with financial hardship almost always found shelter and received financial support from their family. At the same time, the strong family ties could hinder work-life balance. This might be if your mother is calling every day or because you have to go to long, obliged family lunches every Sunday.
Finally, there are cultural gender norms that influence work-life balance. Contrary to what you might expect, satisfaction with work-life balance is lower in countries pursuing greater equality between men and women. In these countries, female and male self-employed sometimes feel that they should be a good entrepreneur and a good parent. Meeting this expectation may cause stress, both at work and in the private domains.
In a nutshell
To sum things up, different types of self-employed have different work-life balance experiences. Compared to employees, they experience more balance, but also more conflict. These differences can be explained by work and business characteristics and by the national context.
A negative work-life balance may result in reduced work performance, less income and the decision to quit the business. The European Union considers the self-employed important for economic growth and job creation. But did you know that almost a third quits after one year?
Formulating policies for the self-employed is a big challenge, both at the national and at the European level for example. There are different political views on whether to support the self-employed or not. Is it their own responsibility or should we take care? This dissertation provides suggestions for supportive policies regarding work-life balance.
You might wonder: so, what should I do now to improve my work-life balance? Based on existing research, I would advise you to set goals and priorities, to manage your time better, or to visit a psychologist.
But after you have read the conclusions of this dissertation, you know that context matters. So if you’re self-employed or considering to become one, I recommend you to ponder the following: What is your motivation to be self-employed or to become one? How do you deal with your customers? And what forms of social support are available?
Reflecting on the findings of this dissertation hopefully results in more balance and less busyness around the business.
Read the full dissertation here.
 OCDE 2016
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