When I chose human resources (HR) as a profession (fresh out of university), it was after hearing a very inspirational talk from someone who worked in HR. I had found my dream profession and I was all in!
Years later I realized I was so committed to my profession, and to seeing that inspirational but “rose-tinted” vision of HR through, that I burned out professionally. So much so, I decided to leave the HR profession entirely to pursue coaching. While it’s been a great career move for me, I always wondered what would’ve happened if I hadn’t burned out in the first place? Mine is a cautionary tale. Your career can be a major source of pride, identity, and accomplishment. It’s natural to want to do well and feel good about the work you do. However, it’s important to be aware of the risks of over-identifying with your career.
When you define yourself by your career, you start to see yourself solely in terms of your job title, responsibilities or profession. You may start to define your self-worth based on your job performance, which can be difficult when doing so means continuing to “up your game” year-over-year to attain the same performance recognition. This leads to feelings of anxiety, stress, and possible physical/emotional burnout. In my case over-identification created a loss of balance in my life, impacting my health because I neglected other really important aspects of my wellbeing; like my relationships, hobbies, and physical self-care. Everything took a back-seat to work, resulting in what is almost the worst-case burnout scenario; it re-triggered an autoimmune disorder that ended up calling all the shots in my life (and sometimes, still does).
Over-identifying with your career, can also make it difficult to handle setbacks or changes in your professional life. For example, if you experience a career set-back, like a negative performance review, company reorganization or a change in your job responsibilities (i.e., an unwelcome change in where you sit on the organizational chart), you may feel like you’ve lost a part of your identity. This makes it harder to bounce back and experience continued enjoyment at work, or find a new job or adjust well to changes in your work life. It may also trigger fears around job security that leads to additional stress and can tip you into burnout. In my case I thought I was handling these types of career challenges well. Turns out I’m an excellent liar… to myself. Any change to my status-quo at work was internalized as a threat, meaning even when I wanted to, I had a hard time seeing the opportunity. This intensified my burnout cycle and eventually I needed to step back from work for my health.
It’s important to remember your job does not define who you are as a person, and if all you have to talk about with friends and loved ones is your work, you may be at risk of over-identification. You’re so much more than your profession. But, it's easy to fall into the trap of over-identifying with your career. You spend a significant portion of your life working, and it's natural to want to find meaning and purpose in your role. However, when you tie your entire sense of self-worth and identity to your career, you risk losing sight of the other important aspects of your life, leaving yourself vulnerable to stress and burnout (like I did).
Here are some of the tips I could’ve used when my commitment to my career was out of balance with my life:
I lost track of this truth: While my HR career was a significant part of my life, it wasn’t the only thing that defined my worth. Losing perspective contributed to my burnout. Ensure you have hobbies, interests, and relationships that make up your well-rounded identity. All we each have is this one beautiful and precious life. By maintaining a healthy approach to moderation between your work and personal life, you can reduce the risks of over-identifying with your career, maintaining a sense of fulfillment and happiness in all aspects of your life, creating a work life you can love.
Professional burnout is 100% preventable, but it’s up to you to support what you need for your physical and emotional wellbeing (no one else can do that for you).