Small-scale self-employed score worst for well-being

When it comes to well-being at work, self-employed people are often overlooked. In her doctoral study, occupational sociologist Jessie Gevaert investigated working conditions and mental well-being among those working for themselves. She concludes that precarious working conditions among self-employed workers can have serious consequences for their mental well-being. Those who depend on only one client, those who are self-employed because they could not find other work, and small store owners or farmers appear to be especially vulnerable.

Although the self-employed typically have a reputation for being dynamic and entrepreneurial, the mental well-being of the above group is, on average, the worst of all employed people. This contrasts sharply with other self-employed groups - including stable self-employed workers without staff (such as freelancers with a sought-after skill set, for example) or owners of mediumto large-scale enterprises - who score particularly well on mental well-being. Gevaert’s research suggests that job quality plays an important explanatory role for the differences in mental well-being.

Wide diversity in self-employment

The research shows great diversity among the self-employed labour force.

Gevaert: "Since the 1980s, an enormous revolution has taken place. Not only has the number of self-employed people changed, but the internal composition of that group has taken on a whole new face." Gevaert and her colleagues point to the existence of a "traditional" and a "contemporary" type of self-employment person. Whereas the former are mainly those with a limited to large workforce in sectors such as retail, agriculture and industry, the latter are mainly self-employed people without staff in sectors not historically associated with self-employment such as the service sector.

Precarious self-employment is found in all strata

Within these groups, the great diversity in working conditions is also noticeable. Among a significant group of self-employed Europeans, there is an accumulation of socioeconomic vulnerability and unfavourable working conditions: precarity due to insecurity and low income, low decision-making authority, physically demanding work and lack of social support. Moreover, several adverse working conditions often seem to coincide in certain groups.

Gevaert: "What is particularly striking is not only that this accumulation of disadvantageous working conditions occurs in new forms of self-employment, but that traditional self-employed workers in, for example, agriculture or retail also struggle with precarious work. Yet there too we noted an important difference. Whereas the former group often struggles with financial insecurity, the latter mainly struggles with work intensity."

For the groups accumulating adverse work conditions, the researchers found a strong relationship with reduced mental well-being.

Quality entrepreneurship

Gevaert: "What we can especially learn from this study is that to address poor mental well-being among certain groups of self-employed workers, their employment terms as well as their intrinsic working conditions must be improved. Much more than pushing people in the direction of entrepreneurship, we need to focus on creating conditions for quality and sustainable entrepreneurship. The government can play an important role here."

Specifically, the study argues for investment in affordable and accessible training for the self-employed and in setting up collaborative networks. Rethinking policies around labour market activation by encouraging self-employment among the unemployed, as well as improving social and income protection, are also considered crucial to ensure the mental well-being of the self-employed.

The research

Based on figures from the 2015 European Survey of Working Conditions, Jessie Gevaert, from the VUB’s Interface Demography research group led by supervisor Professor Christophe Vanroelen, examined the mental health and working conditions of self-employed workers in Belgium and other European countries, compared to employees. The study is based on a survey of 30,000 employed people, 5,000 of whom are self-employed.

Gevaert constructed several indicators to measure the quality of work of the self-employed. This is a practice that has been applied several times to employees, but not so far to the self-employed. The researchers used several criteria to detect variation: the size of the enterprise, the extent to which someone can build up a client base, whether they can acquire sufficient income and are financially secure in case of illness, the number of days worked per week, and whether they have the chance to develop additional skills. Furthermore, researchers also explored people’s reasons for becoming self-employed as well as the degree of decision-making freedom they have in hiring, making important decisions, allocating their income and taking time off.