Press release

The self employed, prime candidates for burn out


For the first time in francophone Belgium, a university enquiry has evaluated the state of health and stress of the self employed and directors of business companies. It in particular brings to light three worsening physical and mental health factors: the shortage of the number of hours of sleep, the absence of regular physical activity and the large number of hours worked per week. The problem of excess weight is also to be noted, but only amongst men.

Few scientific studies specifically target the stress of the directors of business companies. Therein lies the value of the study initiated by the SMIL Fund and carried out on a large scale by the University of Liège, involving over 1,000 self employed people and directors of SMEs in the provinces of Liège and Luxemburg. The enquiry carried out by Professors Philippe Mairiaux and Isabelle Hansez was deliberately extended to an overall approach to health, as certain health indicators can be potential signals heralding situations of professional exhaustion or even burnout.

Characteristics of the enquiry

The enquiry was carried out in April 2011 together with the UCMs (Employer and Self Employed Organisations) and the Chambers of Construction of the Provinces of Liège and Luxemburg. The statistical analysis was based on a sample 1161 respondents.

Which business companies?

Close to 50% belong either to the construction sector (27.5%) or the trade and commerce sector (22%). For 84.6%, it is a matter of micro-business companies (0 to 9 workers). 12% of the self employed work alone.

Which directors?

The respondents are on average older (47.8 years) and more often male (78.5%) than the overall population of UCM and Chamber of Commerce affiliates they originate from. Their working time is considerable: 37% work over 60h/week and 42% over 10h/day; barely 29% give themselves a day off work per week.

From the perspective of lifestyle, 60% of respondents practice no regular physical activity in their leisure time (that needs to be placed in context, however, as, no matter what age group is concerned, the proportion of directors taking regular physical exercise is systematically higher than that of the Walloon population!).

The health of directors

The frequency of health problems, perceived or established, is systematically (much) higher amongst directors than the rest of the active population.

The perceived state of health

67.3% of directors consider their health to be good to very good (82% in the Belgian sample of the European EWCS (European Working Conditions Surveys); 6.6% feel in bad or very bad health (only 1.7% in the EWCS enquiry).

Health problems

The 5 health problems most commonly experienced by the directors in the preceding year are, in descending order, a general tiredness (74.7%), muscular pain (74%), back ache (67.6%), sleeping disorders (58.2%) and headaches (47.8%).

Over a third of the directors polled (36%) have been affected by depression or anxiety problems in the preceding year, against ‘only’ 9% for the Belgian population!

Excess weight also characterises the directors, but this problem is mainly a male one: 58.2% have excess weight (Body Mass Index > 25) and 16.1% are obese (BMI > 30).

The causes of directorial stress

The main cause of stress is the work load (46%), followed by administrative load (43%), cash flow problems and unpaid debt problems (36 and 35%) and by the management of personnel (34%). These causes are corroborated by the problem situations expressed directly by the directors, in open ended questions in the enquiry.

3 risk factors to be monitored!

The analysis of variables with negative influence on health indicators brings to the forefront the predominant role of three risk factors:

  1. The shortage of the number of hours of sleep: sleeping less than 6 hours a night (a reality for 21.8% of directors) increases the probability of a poor perceived state of health, suffering from back ache, muscular pain, headaches, insomnia and general tiredness, and having excess weight. This factor also raises the scores of professional exhaustion and burnout.
  2. The absence of regular physical activity during leisure time brings about similar consequences but also specifically increases the probability of suffering from anxiety and depression.
  3. The number of hours worked per week: the 37.3% of directors who state that they work over 60h per week have a heightened probability of suffering from fatigue and headaches.

Conclusions and recommendations

For the authors ‘the results of the enquiry paint [...] a relatively worrying picture of the health of the directors of SMEs: these directors feel that their state of health is appreciably worse than that of a representative sample of the population of Belgian workers, and they have a raised prevalence of health problems felt over the preceding year.’ These health problems and stress situations make the directors of business companies prime candidates for professional exhaustion and burnout. One director out of 5 has precursor signs of burnout and statistics show a professional exhaustion score for them which is on average higher than that for the managers of business companies. In this respect the authors nevertheless highlight motivational factors (in particular ‘the passion for work’) which can play a protective role against burnout.

The authors stress the need to undertake health information and promotion actions in the entrepreneurial milieu. They recommend in particular to professional organisations to carry out ‘both thinking through initiatives with entrepreneurs as to the means to be put to work to support their motivation to be active in business and information initiatives on the precursor signs of professional exhaustion and other health disorders.’

Summary of the study, ‘Stress et santé des indépendants : quelles réalités, quelles solutions’?


Contact(s) :

Pr Philippe Mairiaux,
ULg, Faculté de Médecine, Ecole de Santé publique, Santé au travail et Education pour la santé (STES),
04 366 25 00 –

Pr Isabelle Hansez,
ULg, Faculté de Psychologie et des Sciences de l’Education, Valorisation des ressources humaines,
04 366 2092 –

ULg Presse-Communication,
04 366 52 17 – 0494 57 25 30 –

Print version Page updated on 2012-10-19