Being your own boss doesn’t always offer the right work-life balance

Self-employed entrepreneurship seems to offer an excellent way of finding a better work-life balance. But that is not, by definition, the case. Experiences of the work-life balance differ depending on the type of self-employed entrepreneur. Anne Annink, a PhD candidate at the Department of Public Administration, reached these conclusions in her thesis, which she will defend on Friday 17 March, 2017. In her opinion, governments can help improve the work-life balance. 

Working when you want, putting a wash on when you want and no longer being accountable to a boss. No wonder people give up their jobs and start working for themselves; flexibility and freedom seem very attractive to 45 percent of European employees. And, almost 17 percent of the Netherlands’ total working population consists of self-employed workers. 

However, there is a downside: more autonomy and flexibility does not always compensate for the uncertainty associated with being self-employed. Moreover, in general, entrepreneurs have a greater workload, more financial worries and less support from colleagues and national governments. Consequently, the fact that self-employed entrepreneurs enjoy a better work-life balance cannot be taken for granted. While one self-employed worker may be extremely happy with his or her work-life balance, another may be on the verge of burn-out. How is that possible?

This was the question posed by public administration expert Anne Annink in her PhD thesis ‘Busyness around the Business - A cross-national comparative research of the work-life balance of self-employed workers’. In her thesis, she compared supporting government policies in all European countries, analysed international survey data and interviewed self-employed professionals, such as copy writers, architects, designers and consultants, in three European countries: The Netherlands, Sweden and Spain. 

Types of entrepreneurs
On the basis of her research, Annink concluded that, in general, self-employed workers are more satisfied with their work-life balance and their level of well-being than employees. However, at the same time, they experience greater conflict in the relationship between work and family. 

The experiences of the work-life balance differ depending on the type of self-employed work undertaken. Firstly, characteristics of both the work and the type of business influence this balance; for example, entrepreneurs in a client-focused business feel less satisfied. Last-minute assignments, a client’s unrealistic expectations, and the feeling that the client must always be pleased can negatively impact the work-life balance. In addition, it is important to consider the reasons why a person decides to become their own boss. The PhD thesis makes it apparent that those who choose to become self-employed because they see opportunities are more satisfied with their work-life balance than those who become self-employed out of necessity.

National variations
The national context also explains differences in the way people regard their work-life balance; as government policy, the economic situation and cultural aspects within the country can all have an impact. Surprisingly, the provision of maternity leave and childcare has had no significant effect on the level of conflict between work and family. 
However, two other government measures have had a positive effect. Firstly, the easier it is to run a business in a country, the more the work-life balance is deemed satisfactory. Secondly, the ability to rely on unemployment benefit contributes to a feeling of well-being. The economic situation is also vital; in Spain, insecurity about there being sufficient work and negative labour-market expectations have resulted in many self-employed 30 year olds having to go back to live with their parents and, consequently, delay starting their own families. 

In addition, cultural aspects can also influence the work-life balance of the self-employed. For example, strong family ties often enhance the opportunities to enjoy a good work-life balance (support and accommodation); but, surprisingly, these same ties can also adversely impact the work-life balance. In the latter case, thought should be given to family obligations. 

Finally, it is noticeable that the level of work-life balance satisfaction is lower in countries which strive for greater equality between men and women. In these countries, it would appear that both male and female entrepreneurs tend to feel they have to be successful entrepreneurs and bread winners and good parents. Meeting all these expectations can cause stress, in both a person’s work and private life according to Annink. 

In order to improve the work-life balance of self-employed workers, Annink proposes that governments should make entrepreneurship easier. The processes involved in starting up a business, applying for permits, acquiring funding and paying taxes could all be simplified. 

Annink also advises the government to offer more flexible leave and childcare arrangements, so that it is easier for the self-employed to combine work and family. Imposing a long, compulsory period of maternity leave can have a perverse effect. An entrepreneur who has to close her business for a long period may well lose all her clients. In addition, she believes governments should show greater understanding of and confidence in self-employed workers. “Providing loans and offering education and training are two ways in which the self-employed could be helped in times of financial uncertainty.”

In conclusion, Annink points out that self-employed workers also have a role to play by thinking about whether they really want to be their own boss, by ensuring their working environment fits in with their private life, and by learning to accept that they will need both practical and emotional support. 

About Anne Annink
Anne Annink (1987) graduated in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (bachelor) and completed a Research Master in Public Administration and Organisational Sciences at Utrecht University. In 2011, she was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. A year later she received the NWO Research Talent Grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and she was able to start her doctoral research. 

Anne Annink
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