The Meaningless of Work – Finding purpose through your profession


As a fan of the HBO drama Succession, I was excited to recently stumble across a radio interview with Brian Cox – the classically trained Scottish actor who plays the ruthless patriarch of the Roy family.


In the interview, Cox was asked to comment on a December interview in the New Yorker with Succession co-star Jeremy Strong, who has adopted an immersive style of method acting characterised by his idols Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.


Legend goes that in My Left Foot, Day-Lewis was so focused on playing the role of Christy Brown (who suffered from cerebral palsy) that he asked everyone to refer to him as Christy on the set, learnt to paint with his feet and insisted on being pushed around in a wheelchair.


Now that is what you call commitment. From Cox’s perspective, he is concerned that mirroring this approach is exhausting for Jeremy Strong – and for those around him.


Struggling to separate our identity from our profession


You may struggle to relate to the methods adopted by some Hollywood actors to create screen performances that keep us engaged, but they are an (albeit extreme) example of what psychologists call enmeshment.


Enmeshment – a state where individuals struggle to separate their identity from their profession.


As we continue to come to terms with the forced integration of our work and personal lives over the last two years, enmeshment is something that we all need to keep front of mind as we consider our relationship with work.


For some, the removal of traditional boundaries, caused by working all hours from our basements and bedrooms rather than our office, might make disassociation between our work and personal lives difficult.


In Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s recent book Out of Office, they provide their own sobering assessment of the state of work as we crawl out of the pandemic.


“Work which has long been a source of inspiration, dignity and cherished prospect of upward mobility has stagnated and trapped us. But for so many so-called knowledge workers it’s become an identity above all else slowing redoing the other parts that make a rich, well rounded human existence.”


For others, the separation from our work routines could create the space we have been craving to start up a new hobby or interest – something we’re not ready to give up as we get calls to return to the office.


Regardless, the shock to our system that we have experienced necessitates some navel-gazing as we consider how much of our identity is dependent on work.


Loving your work


Many argue that being attached to your work is a good thing. Being so connected to the task in hand that we feel that sense of flow where time seamlessly passes by. Having an emotional connection to our work can also create the discretionary effort that HR leaders chase through their employee engagement strategies.


The research backs this up. A strong sense of work identity can increase engagement.


My youngest daughter Lucy is a good example. Since the age of eight, she has dreamed of being a vet and is currently fulfilling her ambition studying veterinary science in the UK. This is her “calling” where her chosen profession is an integral part of her identity. While this certainly created pressure for Lucy as she was going through the university application process, there is evidence that she will find her work more satisfying. I hope that is the case!


McKinsey research tells us that 70% of people get a sense of purpose through their work and they encourage organizations to find the alignment between individual and organizational purpose to support engagement and retention. This makes sense when we consider how often we introduce ourselves using our vocational labels: “Hi, I’m Mark Edgar… a recovering CHRO.”, for example.


The downside of enmeshment


But when does a healthy balance with work become dangerous – for both ourselves and the well-being of those around us?


  • When work eats up so much of our identity that we don’t have time for anything else. Our hobbies go by the way. Our families don’t get the attention they deserve. When we’re so focused on the career and the “goal” that we are blind to the fact that we are careering towards burnout. A recent report from Canada Life tells us that 35 percent of working Canadians are feeling burned out – if you are a nurse that increases to a staggering 66% reporting burnout. While one silver lining from the pandemic is our willingness to consider conversations about mental health, this won’t be enough to stem the tide of mental exhaustion that we’re experiencing as a society.


  • When we are so wrapped up in our work. Our status. Our job title. That when the increasingly inevitable “we no longer are in need of your services” conversation comes around it causes shame, a massive impact on our self-worth and, at an extreme, the tragedy of death. In addition to increases in depression, data from Zurich University’s Psychiatric Hospital reveals that the suicide rate increases six months before a rise in unemployment as people deal with the precarity of their employment.


  • When our identity is all consumed by the task in hand that we have little regard for those around us. Our egocentric, win-at-all-costs leadership style bullies others into making sacrifices that they wouldn’t normally make. US reports show a 57% increase in the experience of being bullied between 2017 and 2021 suggesting that tales of bad leadership continue to be on the rise.


In a society where high-pressure jobs with long hours are rewarded with big paychecks, promotions and a certain societal standing, it’s no surprise that we are programmed to strive for this deep identification with work without considering the cost.


Steps to protect your own identity


In a 2019 HBR article, psychologist Janna Koretz explored the topic of enmeshment concluding that it “…prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self”.


To help protect your identity from being all consumed by work, she offered a number of strategies.


Create more time


A recent coaching client (let’s call him Dan) was all consumed by his work. It was affecting his health and how he was being experienced by others. Having worked his way up from the shop floor to a senior position, he had “done it all” making it easy for him to step in and save the proverbial day. Through our coaching conversations, he started to increase awareness of his behaviour preferences and crucially accepted the impact it was having on him and others. He learnt to focus on the activities where he would make the most impact and delegated the other tasks to his team and peers. In addition to letting him experience what it was like to relinquish control, this also created capacity for him to do other things.


Take the first step


In James Clear’s popular book Atomic Habits, he recommends starting small and gradually improving.


“Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.” James Clear


Try to integrate new priorities into your workday that helps to broaden your identity. This could include reading something different, replacing the commute with a neighbourhood walk or listening to a new podcast (shameless plug for The Spin!).


Reconnect with friends


As we emerge from the other side of the latest lockdown (in Ontario at least), now is the perfect time to re-establish relationships with friends and family. Strengthening relationships with people who you trust can help build more self-awareness and confidence in your true identity.


Establish your values


Values act as guiderails for your life helping you make decisions and choices in addition to helping you build more self-awareness. Robert Glazer believes that core values determine, what he refers to as, the Big Three decisions – your vocation, where you live and your life partner.


Think beyond your job title


As a HR leader, one of the more frustrating elements of my role was debating the rights and wrongs of job titles. These labels were always artificial to me and created a narrow perspective of what an individual did and, perhaps more importantly, what they brought to a particular role.


In the article, Koretz encourages us to “consider reframing your relationship to your career not simply in terms of your company or title, but in terms of your skills that could be used across different contexts”.


In a world that increasingly values skills over jobs, taking this approach can help secure, what could otherwise be, an uncertain future.


Don’t wait. Take control


So how do you start this journey of recognizing your own identity and your relationship work?


Despite being a self-declared optimist, while organizations can play a role, you can’t rely on them. Of course, good companies exist, but the majority of them continue to prioritise quarterly results over their people.


I have more confidence in the many talented leaders that are committed to a human-centred approach to leadership where values like care, empathy and compassion define their strategy.


However, not everyone is blessed with such a leader, so taking control yourself is the safer option. Of course, help is available from friends, and family (and don’t forget coaches!), but the hard work needs to be done by each of us to evaluate our relationship with work and determine whether we’re enmeshed.


Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.