I had my yearly health check recently*, and the news was pretty good.
Some key indicators had improved since last year (bad cholesterol, resting heart rate and blood pressure were all improved on last year’s numbers).
What’s the difference? I hear nobody shout. The biggest change in my life since the last check is that I have incorporated my small business and I am therefore self-employed. Last year I had a ‘job job’. Now, we all know that correlation does not equal causation, but I’m definitely feeling significantly more chipper than I was last year so it’s not surprising to me that these numbers are looking better.
There’s also some good research out there which would predict that my new work life would promote health and happiness. I’ve overlaid my experiences with the research, as I believe it sheds some light on why self-employment is good for some people. It also gives some pointers as to why it might not be good for everyone, and why it’s important to time the decision well. And also, I’m a consultant, so just because it works in practice, I want to know if it works in theory (consultant joke there for you).
In the 80s, two researchers at Rochester University named Edward Deci and Richard Ryan were studying human motivation and basic needs. One of their best known outputs was Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
SDT proposes that humans are driven by three basic needs, and that if any of these needs are thwarted or threatened, then wellbeing is at risk. SDT should therefore be a useful framework to help guide decision-making for people considering career or job changes. If the money’s right but some of these basic wellbeing factors look threatened, then I’d be advising caution.
The three basic needs in SDT are:
Autonomy – the need to be in control of our lives, and having a sense of free will
Competence – the need to experience mastery; to be in control of our environment, and control outcomes
Relatedness – the need to interact, to belong and to have high quality interpersonal relationships
So let’s look at my life as a self-employed person in contrast with employed life through these three lenses.
Autonomy. Initially this looks like a no-brainer because self-employment is typically associated with greater autonomy than employment. My experiences so far indeed suggest that I’m more in control of my life than I was. Just this week I’ve attended two events at school during working hours. I always want to get to those events but in the past I’ve missed them due to ‘important commitments’ – i.e., things that other people kindly put in my calendar. I now don’t have to ask anybody when I want a holiday and can start and finish work whenever I feel like it. Let’s face it, the school nativity is woefully crap, but I’m so grateful I haven’t missed too many. I know that flexible working is a feature of work for many, but I also know a significant number of offices still contain eye-rollers who spring into disapproving action when we turn up after nine or leave before five. It’s a shame.
But let’s not get carried away and assume self-employment means full autonomy. There’s still work to be done & deadlines to meet to pay the bills. Self-employment does not therefore offer the ultimate freedom that a life without work does. I’ve taken a few pieces of work that aren’t necessarily my favourite way to spend time and I’ll continue to, so full autonomy is probably an unrealistic expectation for me. As it happens I’m writing this from a not-altogether-swanky hotel that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to be in, but I have to be here because I’m working out-of-town tomorrow and I didn’t book it. Autonomous me would definitely not be here.
There’s another reason to be careful about asserting our autonomy on the world. I know people whose self-employment looks a lot like unemployment, and anybody who goes into self-employment only for freedom is – I believe – at risk of enjoying a lot of days off but not necessarily financial success. My advice is to be ready to work extremely hard but more often on your own terms.
Conclusion – Autonomy needs met more consistently by self-employment
On balance, for the reasonably disciplined, self-employment will tend to offer the well-being enhancing benefits of greater autonomy. So that’s one out of three in the self-determination theory-omiter in favour of self –employment. But be careful – Autonomy does not mean it’s all fun and days off.
Competence. This one is actually quite closely elated to what most of us call autonomy. It’s defined as the desire to be effective in our environment and a desire to see good results from our actions. For me a layman’s definition would be “the feeling that we’re good at stuff, and doing stuff we’re good at”. My experience of the shift from employed to self-employed life is that I’m getting plenty of enquiries and positive feedback about my work. Now, a younger version of Mr MB3 spent a short and disastrous period as a self-employed person. I was far less experienced and therefore not especially good (yet) at my chosen trade. This suggests to me that for the competence need to be met as a self-employed person you have to be experienced and skilled. This is where (for most, other than statistical anomalies) it’s important to time the transition from employment to self-employment so that we’re skilful and credible enough to make a go of it. The non-competent self-employed person will, in most cases, find it detrimental to wellbeing if they find that they’re not actually getting enough gigs to pay the bills. Again, in such cases self-employment looks a lot like unemployment and is therefore likely to be stressful, and not good for mind and bank balance. Anyway, back to me. I’m pretty fucking ok at what I do, and am enjoying getting results with and for a range of clients.
Conclusion – Competence needs met by self-employment
For me self-employment beats employment when it comes to fulfilling the competence need. But beware going into self-employment if you’re not sufficiently skilled and experienced yet. And I mean skilled and experienced in the buyer’s judgements, not just in your own head. Be honest with yourself – are you ready?
Relatedness. This is the need for being around people, experiencing connection and closeness. Our relatedness needs tend to vary, but anyone who says they don’t need to be around people at all is kidding themselves. Freud would say that we all need a bit of contact; humans are like hedgehogs; we need to be close to each other to cope with the cold, but we cannot get too close without hurting each other with our spines.
As a fully fledged extrovert (think-out-loud, needy bore) I certainly enjoy being around people. I’m definitely getting increasingly grumpy and ‘self-contained’ with age but that’s another story. I’ve had moments where I’ve missed office life, and there have been more than a few boring days where I’ve struggled to get down to business in my home office. However, I have a lot of friends and contacts in the industry and one of my frustrations in previous jobs was being so busy doing things that I wasn’t as in touch with them as I wanted to be. The diary is now mine to manage and I’m spending time with people I like, when I want to. There’s another caution here though – I need to get out to network and sell, but if it’s all coffee and lunch, then it’s not enough billable time.
Conclusion – Relatedness needs met by self-employment
My relatedness needs are indeed met more effectively by my new working arrangement, but I need to be careful that I do billable work too. When deciding whether to make a career change, you need to understand what relatedness means to you, and think carefully about how the need will be met once the change has been made. It’s true it can be lonely, and the buzz of office life just works for some.
So, the results are in. Self-employment for Mr MB3 does indeed predict positive outcomes when it comes to what some clever people pose as predictors of good human functioning and wellbeing. The Doctor’s dashboard seems to concur with my gut feel that this is a good thing for me to be doing at this stage of life.
But beware. Many head towards the autonomy of self-employment without paying enough attention to the impact on their relatedness and competence needs. If you don’t have enough “wool on your back” to be regarded as buyable in your chosen trade, maybe consider working a bit longer for the man or woman before taking the plunge. If you’re a right old gossip and love the support, camaraderie and tittle-tattle of office life and all that it entails then maybe working away in the spare room isn’t going to work for you.
Whatever you choose to do, I can tell you that – so far – self-employment is fun and rewarding. It also seems to correlate with good health stats for me.
*note to hardcore frugalists – I think paying for this kind of service is worth it. The health check I was invited to by my local GP on passing 40 was basic to say the least. If we are going to spend money on luxuries, I think a thorough health check is better than some eau-de-toilette (to give a christmassy example).