Society has always emphasised the value of a strong work ethic, with our occupations and career identity forming a significant part of our social interactions.
From when we are young, we’re asked about what we want to do when we grow up, and the conversation lingers when we get older, with people at dinner parties enquiring: ‘And what do you do?’.
It comes coupled with the simplified and flawed notion that if you ‘work hard, you can achieve anything’.
Now all grown up, we’re victims to hustle culture, where we’re expected to ‘rise and grind’ and turn our hobbies into side jobs, as well as curating our social media as a personal brand to boot.
With hard graft so intrinsically weaved into our psyche, it’s little wonder that so many of us have conflated our self-worth with our work. A poll conducted by US publication Gallup found 55% of workers got a sense of identity from their career, a number that rises to seven in ten when looking at graduates.
However, linking work so closely to who you are as a person can be damaging, particularly during a crisis when people find themselves unemployed at such short notice.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has seen one in four of us on furlough, with 1.74 million unemployed, and few job opportunities available.
This is something Ed Kent struggled with. The 28-year-old from Princes Risborough has found himself out of work for the last two months. Having been in the wine trade since he was 22, he left his career two years ago to do contract work abroad, and has since moved back in with his parents while he considers his options.
‘I think when you don’t have a family and you’re in your early twenties, your career becomes quite a big part of how you value yourself,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Obviously, it’s not a competition but you look at how all your friends are doing and what they’re achieving. You do value yourself by how your career is progressing. It’s part of your identity.
‘I’ve been more down on myself, definitely. With the pandemic, you’re just sat around the house, not doing too much. You’re constantly thinking, you’re doing this and you’re not working. You’re not being productive. It definitely affects you.’
Niels Eék, a psychologist and co-founder of mental health and self-development platform Remente, agrees that young people tend to place a greater value in their career, with social media a huge culprit for making some feel insecure about their work life.
‘It is easy to make comparisons between our jobs and those of our peers and feel that, because others are at a different stage in their career, you should be further ahead in your own professional development,’ he says.
‘Seeing a continuous stream of job updates on social media may also add to this feeling, as it makes us acutely aware of what other people are doing and achieving, which may not have mattered to us otherwise.
‘The pandemic may have added to this pressure for many. We usually forge our identities from multiple factors: our social lives, our hobbies, our interests and relationships, and of course our work.
‘Unfortunately, lockdowns around the UK have made many of those things inaccessible, and this may have caused many people to become preoccupied with work as a central component of their life and identity.’
It’s true that many of us who are lucky enough to still be in employment are pouring all our extra efforts into our jobs, mainly because there is little else to do.
With the vast majority of workspaces closed and the government encouraging people to work from home, there is an even smaller distinction between office life and home life as the lines between the two become increasingly blurred.
Many are now feeling the effects, with one study citing how Covid-19 has raised work-related burnout by a staggering 89 percent.
Shaina Waterhouse, from North Carolina, is familiar with that exhausting and exasperating sense that burnout brings.
The 28-year-old senior editorial coordinator and freelance writer explained she chose to quit a previous role after recognising she had ‘burned out’.
It’s easy to turn “I’m not good at this aspect of my job” into “I’m not good enough”
‘I was hired out of college by a content management company as a news and content writer,’ she explains. ‘I was expected to produce a certain amount of content every day for about five different clients. The focus was a bit more on quantity and not so much quality, which was a real issue for me.
‘I would take entirely too long writing one piece and then would struggle the whole rest of the day to make my quota. I’d often end up staying late at work or going home and continuing to write for my clients to meet my numbers.
‘Writing like this completely burnt me out and made my confidence in my writing plummet. I would usually spend the train commute home crying and then sit in front of my computer over dinner and try to squeeze out another article or two.
‘As a writer, burnout was the worst thing for my creative process. Not only could I not formulate new ideas, but I also just didn’t want to write anymore.
‘Eventually, I left that job and moved to a more manageable position, but it took me years to rebuild my confidence in my writing.’
While Shaina has built a successful career around her, she finds herself dogged by imposter syndrome – chronic levels of self-doubt in your abilities despite achievements in your work.
‘When I first began offering my writing services on Fiverr a year ago I felt like a huge fraud,’ she says. ‘I kept questioning the content I was producing for clients and initially priced my services really low.
‘I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and frequently worried that people saw me as inferior. Obviously, most of that was just projecting my own insecurities on other people, but overcoming these feelings took quite a while.’
Niels cites imposter syndrome as a key reason for burnout, as well as our constant accessibility through smartphones and other technologies.
‘Defining self-worth by your career often makes it more difficult to draw a boundary between your work and personal life,’ he explains.
‘Focusing solely on work as a source of validation can mean that other elements of life, such as hobbies, relationships and overall mental wellbeing, can begin to suffer.
‘If we do not establish things that are important to us besides work, then it is hard to get mental respite, even while not working.
‘Additionally, the rise of an “always on” culture can contribute to work creeping into other parts of our lives. While it was previously easier to leave the office behind after a day of work, the pressure to be available around the clock means that people may be more likely to define themselves by their profession, because it dominates so much of their time.’
In part due to often irregular hours, non-linear career paths and tending to stem from a hobby, Shaina believes those who pursue careers in creative industries are more likely to be susceptible of conflating their self-worth with work.
‘For creatives, the work doesn’t feel just like a job, it’s something unique you’ve created, and if you don’t feel like you’re doing well then it’s easy to turn “I’m not good at this aspect of my job” into “I’m not good enough”,’ she says.
‘I think everyone makes this thought transition sometimes, but things like writing and art are so personal that the jump to “I’m not good enough” is a little closer.’
While Shaina still sometimes links her self-worth to work, she now has means to help her cope.
‘My main technique is journaling. Getting my thoughts and feelings out on paper helps me recognise thought patterns and helps stop myself from getting too invested in constant success,’ she says. ‘Whenever I make a mistake, I journal about it right away and frame it as a learning moment versus an error.
‘I also make sure to invest my time in other activities outside of work. I’m taking a Japanese class online as well as online dance lessons. Having these activities outside of work gives me something to think about when I’m feeling stressed and they help me fixate less on my job.’
Niels stresses that having a healthy work-life balance is essential to stop you placing all your self-worth on what you do for a living, but appreciates this is often easier said than done.
‘If you are spending all of your time at work, it is far too easy to lose sight of the other important things in your life,’ he says. ‘Making time for at least one activity that you enjoy, unrelated to work, each day may help you to find other sources of self-worth.
‘This may be a new hobby or skill, such as taking up drawing, learning to play an instrument or learning a language, or it could simply involve scheduling a regular call with a friend or loved one.
‘Embracing other rewarding and enriching parts of life can act as a useful reminder that we don’t have to be defined by our careers.
‘It is also important to focus on yourself, rather than others around you. While setting your own goals can be a positive source of motivation, constantly comparing your own professional achievements with those around you can be unhelpful.
‘There is always going to be someone who is more professionally successful to measure your career against, but professional success is not always a shortcut to happiness, particularly if it comes at the cost of our overall wellbeing.’
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