The quiet guilt of self-employment

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For many people, a major upside of self-employment means having control over how your time is spent. Often, however, it also means feeling a sense of guilt over any time spent not working – leisure time that self-employed workers could theoretically use to make money instead. As a result, people who work for themselves can be prone to long hours, lax boundaries around work-life balance and a nagging feeling that they’re never quite doing enough.

I should know: as I write this, I can hear my family outside, enjoying the late spring sunshine of a long weekend in the Green Mountains of Vermont, US. It’s Saturday, and to offset my guilt over not opening my computer for the past two days, I’m in the passenger seat of our camper van, working.

I’ve been a full-time freelance journalist since I moved to rural Pennsylvania in 2015, and working for myself has helped me make more money and do fulfilling work I’m passionate about. It’s also turned me into a workaholic, who squeezes in billable hours on the weekends, and pushes my bedtime to cross one more thing off the to-do list.

My guilt-driven tendency towards overworking is common among self-employed workers. Shannon Loys, a 35-year-old self-employed graphic designer in the US state of North Carolina, says the guilt is most pronounced when she’s doing something enjoyable.

“I think it happens when you’re doing something that doesn’t feel justifiable,” she says. “Something just for fun is probably the most triggering. I don’t feel guilty when I’m folding laundry; it’s when I’m trying to do a hobby.”

It’s a nagging feeling that can rapidly ruin a good time for all people. A 2021 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed viewing time spent on leisure activities as “wasted” undermined the enjoyment of those activities.

A big facet of successfully being your own boss is knowing the value of your hours. The guilt bubbles up, says Loys, because when you’re spending time doing something unpaid, you can’t help but feel like you’re losing money.

“You build your business by becoming really good at knowing what your time is worth in terms of dollars,” she says. “That’s really hard to turn off when you are going about any other part of your life. I’m a knitter, but I can’t remember the last time I picked up my knitting project, because I could spend three hours knitting, but I am also acutely aware of how much money I could earn in three hours. Anytime you choose a hobby over work, you’re choosing it over money.”

When more time working directly equals more income, the work-leisure equation is increasingly complicated (Credit: Courtesy of Shannon Loys)

But while pricing your working time is key to success, pricing your hours outside of work can make that time unenjoyable, according to one study. Canadian researchers found people who thought about all time in terms of money were more impatient when using some of that time to do something that’s supposed to be pleasurable.

As a result, overwork and subsequent burnout for the self-employed can be hugely problematic. Plenty of full-time workers with an employer overwork, too, of course. March 2023 data from the Pew Research Center shows many workers forgo leisure time for the sake of work; the survey of nearly 6,000 US workers, including about 5,100 who are not self-employed, showed while 62% of people consider time off an important job perk, close to half actually take less time off than their employers allow.

However, when more time working directly equals more income in a way it doesn’t when employees are salaried, the work-leisure equation is increasingly complicated. “For self-employed workers and freelancers, this pressure can be even more amplified,” says Toni Frana, lead career expert at career site FlexJobs. “Because they often aren’t able to rely on a steady income or are fearful of losing projects to potential competitors, it’s common to feel guilty about stepping away from their work.”

Research shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, mentally disengaging from work has massive benefits for tempering stress and improving mental well-being. Unfortunately for the self-employed, some of these workers report it’s much easier said than done – and can be a catalyst for burnout. A 2020 study showed self-employed people were much more likely than traditional employees to be burnt out.

Boundary creation is an ongoing challenge for Loys, who often reminds herself – sometimes aloud – of the importance of taking time away from work. “I will actually say out loud, to my husband and myself, ‘it’s OK to have a day off. It’s OK to not be working right now.’ I think I’m saying it out loud because then one day I might really believe it,” she says.

This is not to say self-employment is all bad. Despite the long hours and the stress of being the sole source of your own income – and even despite the burnout – some data shows some self-employed people report higher rates of satisfaction and feel more fulfilled at work. There’s a good reason many keep at it, even when getting a traditional job can be easier in many ways.

But the trade-off is an irony many self-employed people will appreciate: working on your own time offers flexibility and freedom, but may leave you unable to enjoy free time if you try to use that time for anything but work.

“Yeah, you’re your own boss,” says Loys. “But you can be kind of a terrible one.”

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