If you work full-time, you spend at least a third of your day and perhaps half your waking hours on the job. And, if you love what you do, it’s easy to let aspects of your job become a large part of your identity.
You may think of yourself as your job title – “I am an accountant” – or as an employee of your particular organization – “I work at Amazon.” Depending on your company culture, you may find that even your social life begins to revolve around work, as you make friends with your coworkers and spend time networking with people in your field.
All of that comes with obvious positives. It’s good to feel engaged at work, both in terms of your job satisfaction and your productivity (and therefore success on the job). But there are drawbacks, too. For example, what happens when you leave your job (either voluntarily or via termination) and that aspect of your identity changes?
On a recent HBR IdeaCast, host Sarah Green Carmichael pondered these transitions with Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
I think it’s just important for people to realize that they’re going to have very strong emotions when they’re making big transitions in their career. And you know, I think that it feels logical to them when they have strong emotions after being fired or if their company closes or something that signals it wasn’t me. But that when you’re actually proactive about it, you’re going to feel the same sense of loss. And the interesting question is: why is it that our identity is get so caught up in our companies, in our organizational affiliations, which is what the root of it is? You know, we are what we do. And so much of that is connected to who we work for.
Work-Role Centrality and Identity
It’s common to struggle after big career changes – but not everyone struggles to the same degree. A lot has to do with how connected you are to this sense of your job as identity. At Psychology Today, Robert L. Leahy Ph.D. explains the concept of “work-role centrality.”
“It means that work is central to your sense of who you are,” he writes. “People with high ‘work role centrality’ who lose their jobs suffer more. They are more likely to be depressed and anxious and more likely to feel that there is less purpose in their lives. Their identity and purpose seemed to disappear when they lost their job.”
It this sounds like you, know that there are things you can do to deal with the transition.
How to Cope With Big Career Changes
1. Recognize the Role Your Job Plays
“…’you are what you do’ in the more Aristotelian way is you are what you do every day,” Ibarra says. “What you do habitually, what you do most often, how much that shapes you. And because we work all the time and you know, we work more hours than we do most anything else, it’s gonna shape you and so better to recognize it and to make sure it’s shaping you in ways that you want to be shaped.”
If you haven’t given much thought to the question of how your job plays into your identity, now’s a good time to start. The fact is, most of us don’t stay at one job for very long. The median employee tenure was 4.2 years in January 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Odds are, you’ll change jobs several times between graduation and retirement.
Some of those changes may be involuntary. Over 15 million people lost their jobs during the Great Recession. If you weren’t one of them, you probably knew someone who was.
Be prepared for career changes, and not just by updating your resume and maintaining your professional network. Understanding the role your job has in your identity can help you absorb the shock of transition, if and when it’s time to move on.
2. Look for Non-Work Aspects of Your Identity
Even if you own your own business and have a real stake in its success, it’s essential to recognize the other aspects of your identity that aren’t related to your job. For example, you might be someone’s parent, or sibling, or child. You (hopefully) have friends outside of work – your relationship to them forms part of your identity. Have any hobbies? Those go into defining who you are as well.
Relationships, interests, activities, community ties – these are all as important as your job. They just get short shrift sometimes, because they aren’t as obviously tied to your survival as something that pays the bills. But your connections to the world outside your office sustain you as well.
Which brings us to our next point: keep building those relationships. Not only are they good for your mental and physical health, but they could lead to your next job or business opportunity.
Some experts estimate that as many as 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking. Certainly, it’s more comfortable to head into an interview process with an inside track, instead of going in with no information about the organization and its culture.
Tell Us What You Think
How much does your job define your identity? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.