Many of us have a work-first mentality, but is it pervading your personal life too? Christobel Hastings looks at what happens when the boundaries start to blur...
Five years ago, a few weeks before I left my full-time job to go freelance, I read a piece of advice that would change the course of my life. The advice in question was slap-bang in the middle of a Sunday newspaper supplement that I was flicking through absent-mindedly: “Don’t become emotionally attached to companies that don’t care about you”. The words had been highlighted in bold for a very good reason: the more I stared at them, the more they seemed to address me directly from the pulpy page. You there, they shouted. Why are you giving your all to a company that doesn’t care about you?
For the next week, I contemplated the question. Then, having failed to come up with decent answer, I handed in my notice, and started pursuing the thing I actually wanted to do in life: writing. Over the next few years, that advice served as a North Star whenever I was uncertain about the direction of my career. It helped me detach from office politics, embrace new and sometimes scary opportunities, and invest more time in my personal life: reconnecting with old friends, crafting with zeal, and finally reading the tottering stack of books on my bedside table.
As time went by, I assumed that I’d well and truly grasped the advice. But recently, I realised that it had not, in fact, burrowed itself lastingly into my brain. That moment came when I was let go from a freelance job at the start of the first lockdown. The news was swift and unexpected; the pandemic had affected the company’s income, and sadly, I was the first casualty. Even so, it was hard not to take it personally: not only was I proud of the work I produced, but my boss felt like a genuine friend, and I’d grown fond of the camaraderie of the small team. As emotion gave way to clarity in the weeks that followed, it became clear that despite my best intentions, I’d got too invested.
"Five years ago, a few weeks before I left my full-time job to go freelance, I read a piece of advice that would change the course of my life. The advice in question was slap-bang in the middle of a Sunday newspaper supplement that I was flicking through absent-mindedly: 'Don’t become emotionally attached to companies that don’t care about you'."
Like most things in life, emotional attachment is not a black and white concept. While some degree of emotional attachment to your work can give you a sense of belonging, stability and happiness, becoming too emotionally attached can actually impede your growth, consume your identity, and convince you that your dedication protects you from change or adversity. At that point, your attachment becomes a forcefield that prevents you from seeing the reality of a situation – often until it’s too late.
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the tell-tale signs. If you find yourself thinking about work in your free time – or worse, obsessively checking emails – you’re too emotionally invested. If you internalise criticism, or find it hard to accept feedback, you’re in too deep. The same goes for feeling overwhelmed by change or panicked when something goes wrong. Making individual sacrifices without getting anything in return? You’re too wrapped up in your job. Then there’s the question of hinging your self-worth on your professional identity. If you’ve ever launched into an exhaustive list of work-related complaints when some unsuspecting person asks how you are, then you’re definitely too emotionally attached. You know what I’m talking about.
If you found yourself nodding at some (or all) of those red flags, you’re not alone. We live in a society that glamorises an always-on work culture. Success is routinely defined as excelling in our professional lives. The majority of our hours are dedicated to work, and the spare time sandwiched either side of the week is spent preparing to repeat the cycle. Despite this, we continue to be burdened with the expectation that you’re supposed to love your job. Is it any wonder work is intricately tied to our self-image?
Things get thornier when you consider the way women have been socialised to work. According to a 2019 Totaljobs survey exploring the emotions of UK workers and managers, women were 25% more emotional than men about stress and frustration. In a reflection of the pervasiveness of gender norms, the research also showed that while women experienced relatively the same levels of sadness and fear as men – emotions typically associated with a lack of power – they were far more likely to disguise it. Little wonder, then, that women are more likely to experience burnout.
Although everyone’s relationship with work comes with its unique drawbacks, what I do know is that the main purpose of a job is financial stability. And once you can be clear-eyed about that, you can begin to divest from the background noise and take back control of your life. As Sarah Jaffe, a labour journalist and author of Work Won’t Love You Back recently noted, we need a “political understanding that our lives are ours to do with what we will” in order to sustain ourselves against the pressures of work. “While we have to do our jobs for a living,” she writes, “we should always be making demands to reclaim our time.”
So, in a post-pandemic world, imagine yourself at a dinner party. You strike up a conversation with a mutual acquaintance, and they ask you this: what gives you a sense of meaning in life? It’s time to start considering your response.
Career coach Sarah Clarke on how to emotionally detach from work
Be intentional about objectivity
We’re more likely to react emotionally to situations that don’t align with our values and beliefs, or when things go wrong or feel beyond our control. When this happens, force yourself to stop, take a step back and look at the big picture. Consider objectively the logical facts of the situation. This way you will re-engage your slower, calmer, less emotional thinking style.
When your brain goes into panic mode throwing up statements like “if I don’t hit this deadline, they’ll fire me” or “the way they signed off that email proves that they don’t like me”, stop and take a step back. Ask yourself, what evidence do you actually have that this fear is 100% true? Are your worries completely valid or are you perhaps catastrophising? The same goes for when things go wrong. Instead of beating yourself up and wallowing, reframe the situation and consider what you’ve learned from the experience and what you could do differently next time.
Find value outside of work
It’s so important that we invest time in developing other non-work sources of value and identity in our lives. When we invest time in pursuing our own personal interests and in developing fulfilling relationships with our families, friends and community; our identities become multi-faceted and our happiness becomes less reliant upon solely our work lives. If you can learn to derive satisfaction from other things in your life, as well as your work, you’ll be more likely to achieve a healthier blend between your personal and work lives.
Evaluate what you need out of your job
It’s so important that we gain awareness of what we truly want and need out of our work lives, not to mention what would make us happy and fulfilled. Take the time to define what success and happiness at work means to you personally so that you can then start to take intentional action towards that vision.
Once you have clarity on your own work happiness vision, you’ll then need to get clear on your non-negotiables and priorities so that you can protect them with boundaries. The next step is to communicate them clearly and assertively to others and then, of course, stick to them! If your employer truly values and trusts you as an employee, they will respect your boundaries. If they don’t, then perhaps it’s to find somewhere you can be true to yourself.
For further information visit Shine Brighter Consulting