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Is your job title your identity?

September 1, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

Hi! My name is Emily Peck, and I’m here with a daunting task: Grabbing the baton from S. Mitra Kalita and running with this newsletter. I’ll be your new Worksheet scribe, starting with two emails a month while I find my footing. I worked with Mitra at the Wall Street Journal, where I covered careers and management among other topics. Then I spent almost a decade at HuffPost reporting on gender and power. Today, I’m Content Director at Fundrise.

Work is an obsession for me. Not only have I covered issues like discrimination, harassment and diversity for years, but I’m also a longtime worker bee, as obsessed with benefits, office gossip, office snacks, passive aggressive emails, Zoom etiquette and all the other workplace details that can consume the day-to-day.

That obsession though, as you’ll see below, doesn’t always work out.  


Since the pandemic hit, I’ve interviewed many women who were forced out of their paying jobs to care for children at home. Many worried about their long-term career and financial prospects. Without work, one 31-year-old mother, Tommia Hayes said, “I’m worried about losing a piece of who I am.” 

That hit uncomfortably close. I’ve always considered my career, being a journalist, a core part of my identity—“who I am.” Then last March, as I was working long days at home through the crisis, I was laid off. I felt like the car I was riding in on the highway suddenly stopped, and I was flying through the air unmoored.

Since then I’ve been lucky. I got severance pay and ultimately a new job. But the work is outside of journalism. I feel like I lost a piece of my identity.

Who am I now? Plenty of people who lose their jobs wind up asking this question, said Janna Koretz, a psychologist who specializes in treating professionals in high-pressure careers at Azimuth, the practice she founded in Boston. 

Some don’t know who they are without a job. They’ve become “enmeshed.” Psychologists typically use this term when two people become so intertwined that their own identities are blurred, Koretz explained a few years ago in Harvard Business Review. But people can become enmeshed with their careers, too. Especially the professional types Koretz treats, think lawyers, venture capitalists, consultants, academics. 

While it’s fine to identify with your job, Koretz said, enmeshment is something else. People wind up sacrificing their relationships, their health, and interests outside of paid work, until there’s very little else in their lives.     

Then if you lose your job, it’s devastating. “Soul crushing. There’s nothing else to fall back on,” Koretz said.

The resulting anxiety is hard enough to manage, but job loss brings other concerns for her clients. “Not only do they have questions about who they are and what their values are, now they have to do it in the context of how do I find another job. How do I pay for things?” Koretz said. People become depressed.

Multiply that by a factor of pandemic, and you get a sense for how I was feeling in the weeks after my layoff. I threw myself into a job hunt, and took on tons of freelance work. I was desperate to hang on to my identity. Yet, at the same time, I was reading about white-collar workers resigning from hard-charging careers in what’s been dubbed The Great Resignation. More stories like that are popping up every day. 

I didn’t voluntarily walk away from my career, but I could start thinking about the ways I had been set free. 

This thinking process is actually a first step, Koretz said. If you believe you may be enmeshed with your job, there is a way to tackle the problem, she said. 

Like so many of life’s problems the answer is simple but overwhelming: You have to contemplate your feelings and then figure out steps to make change, Koretz said. [I would love to hear your stories about identifying with your career. Email me at emily.peck@consultant.fortune.com.]

“I know that’s kind of a meta answer but that’s important,” she said. Koretz even offers a worksheet that can help you walk through the process. It asks you to evaluate your life according to a list of categories, like family, character, and work. You rank each by importance, and rate whether you’re living in alignment with how much you value each thing. 

Fixing the problem might not require a total life overhaul either. Koretz said that some of her patients wind up making small changes. For a lawyer this could mean moving out of a Big Law firm into an inhouse role at a nonprofit. (For a recovering journalist? TBD.)

“Most of life is small choices,” she said. Given the current resignation wave it seems like a lot of people are already making these choices, too.

Personally, I’m not sure I had an identity crisis, per se. I still get to be a journalist and write this email, after all. But getting laid off and transitioning into a different career hasn’t been super easy. What I’m saying is: I just printed out Koretz’s worksheet. Over the coming weeks I’ll be working on it.

And I’ll leave you with this: About a month after I initially interviewed Tommia, we spoke again. During our conversation, she emphasized how important her son is to her and that she was doing ok. It was clear that her job is only one part of her identity. 

“There are jobs. But my son comes first,” she said. “Especially at this young age. The pandemic has been harder on him than me.”

Emily Peck

emily.peck@consultant.fortune.com

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub presented by Future Forum by Slack. And read more here:

What I'm reading—>1 Quote, 1 Story, 1 Number

I thought I'd change things up a little from Mitra's "What I'm reading" list. Each week in addition to sharing a story I can't get off my mind, I'll also track down a number that points to a trend or interesting news, and a quote to bring it all home. Please send suggestions my way.

 

“We’ll (probably) always have work, but could the job as the centerpiece of American life be on the way out?”

Anna North, Vox

Employees don’t want to come back to the office. Desperate office landlords think bees (WHAT?) will help. 

New York Times

$200Unvaccinated employees at Delta Airlines will have to pay a monthly surcharge on their health insurance starting Nov. 1.

Fortune

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