Who’s the boss? Exploring the impact of self-employment on family life

Katy O’Malley, Senior Policy Researcher

One in seven of us are self-employed, and our research suggests that many more dream of being our own boss. But what impact does self-employment have on families?  Our recent report ‘Who are the self-employed?‘ showed that there are now 2.2 million children living in families with a self-employed head of household, and reflecting the national picture, many more self-employed families now live in private rented accommodation. This all raises important questions about security for self-employed families.

Each year we help 30,000 people with issues relating to self-employment, so we understand the types of problem that self-employed people face.  We’ve just published the ‘Who’s the boss?’ report the first report in a three-part series aimed at exploring aspects of self-employment.

We wanted to understand more about what it’s like to bring up a family as a self-employed person. This report explores the impact that self-employment has on family life by bringing together data from NPI’s analysis, YouGov’s polling and our own in-depth family interviews with self-employed families.

Juggling work and family life

The self-employed population is diverse. Self-employment attracts a wide range of people and is no longer the preserve of the wealthy entrepreneur. People enter self-employment for different reasons – many through choice, some not. Yet despite this we found that some things, such as feeling you have a degree of control over workload and working patterns, are important for everyone. Although self-employed people tend to work longer – and often less sociable – hours than employees they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, particularly if they feel it gives them choice, control and flexibility.

We found that this is particularly welcomed by parents as it enables them to fit their work around family and other commitments in a way that traditional employment may not allow.

But this can bring challenges such as not knowing how or when to turn work away or how to negotiate with clients. This can lead to overwork, stress and taking very little time off. We suggest that if more free, or low-cost training was available on these skills it may help those starting out in self-employment  to achieve a good work/life balance.

Arranging childcare can be problematic among those who have less control over their working patterns. As formal childcare providers rarely offer sufficient flexibility, self-employed parents are less likely to use formal, registered provision. Instead, some juggle working at home with looking after the children. The problems surrounding short-notice and ad-hoc childcare are currently preventing many self-employed people from balancing their work and home lives.  We suggest the creation of online networks for self-employed parents to enable them to share information and recommendations on flexible childcare providers in their local areas.

Taking time off

When you’re self-employed time off is always unpaid and isn’t always welcome. We found that true time away from work is a relatively rare commodity for a self-employed person.

Approaching a quarter (23%) of respondents to our poll said they had been self-employed when at least one of their children was born. Of these nearly half (44%) took just three days or fewer off work, including 21% who say they took no time off at all when their child was born. The data also indicate that a small number of full-time self-employed women may be taking less than a week off work when their child is born.


This means that many self-employed people are missing out on bonding with their child during the first few crucial first weeks and months of their children’s lives. It may also weaken the appeal of freelancing or setting up a business for parents and second earners.

We therefore suggest that policy-makers consider measures to level the playing field and align support for employed and self-employed parents. This would enable many self-employed people to spend time at home with their family following the birth of their child. Our research suggests this would be particularly well-received by those who are self-employed due to the nature of their job or industry – for example, by taxi drivers and construction workers, rather than those setting up their own business who may struggle to take more the time off. Ultimately though, this is a question of ensuring the provision is there for those who want, and would benefit from this.

Going on holiday also presents challenges. Self-employed people face a ‘double penalty’ when going on holiday – paying for the holiday and not getting paid themselves. For those trying to build up a business this is even more of a challenge – theirs becomes a triple penalty due to the potential loss of business while they were away.

With this in mind it’s hardly surprising that self-employed people are less likely than employees to have taken a family holiday of at least a week over the past year. What’s more, over a third of self-employed people (35%) have taken less than two weeks (no more than ten days) off in the past twelve months, including 14% who reported that they ‘had not taken a single day off ‘. Our calculations suggest that this could equate to 1.17 million people who have taken less than two weeks off over the past twelve months and 470,000 people who have not taken any time off at all. This has been calculated by Citizens Advice: ONS Labour market statistics August 2014 show that 4.59 million people were self-employed. 72.8% of these work full-time (3.34 million). 35.12% (or 1.17 million) of these full-time self-employed people are estimated to be taking fewer than 10 days annual leave.  14.09%  (or 470,000) of these are estimated to have taken no time off at all in the past twelve months.


We believe that the creation of ‘trusted cover’ referral databases for work substitutes could be helpful here. These could be used by self-employed people to find a reliable substitute for when they want to take time off work, and could particularly help skilled tradespeople such as plumbers or electricians.

We will be publishing two further reports in the new year that help us build a full picture of self-employed lives.  

Our secure self-employment campaign runs until the spring and highlights many of the issues that we are investigating.

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  1. Andrew

    My son is getting married to his girlfriend in America can you find out the laws of living here or there please can we sponsor her if she lives in Wales he’s got a job

    1. Eben Foster, Digital Communications Officer


      Hi Andrew, Here’s our information about UK immigration including spouse or partner visas: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-rights/immigration/. If you had any more questions I recommend you visit your local Citizens Advice Office.

  2. Tanya Jamieson

    i fully agree although this seems to be an observation of common problems arising from families with one or more self employed responsible people. I think the biggest issue is stress and the longer you are self employed the harder it is to return to employed work if things do not work out successfully. Furthermore it would be interesting to see how the banks and local government help to support these individuals with both advice and support as what is advertised is not necessarily what is actually offered.

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