Bird eye view of a person with their hands on their head sitting in front of a laptop and notepads.

Live to Work, or Work to Live? : The Work-Identity Crisis

I’m at a friend’s birthday party where I know some, but not all the people attending. I’ve been trying to challenge myself a little more lately by speaking to people outside of my usual crew, so I sit down next to someone new and say hello. After sharing names and some general pleasantries, the inevitable question is dropped: ‘So, what do you do for work?’

Some people live to work, others work to live

Now, I generally don’t mind being asked this question. I love my job as a psychologist, am proud to be working in mental health, and have had plenty of practice reassuring people with a giggle that, ‘no, we’re not analysing you!’. But even I have had times in my life where work hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, and when I haven’t wanted it to be known as my defining feature. And what about those of us who work to live, rather than live to work – is this question really the best way to get to know them?

In todays’ society, many of us tend to equate our identities with our careers. It can feel incredible when we have a job that gives us a sense of purpose, fulfills our values and boosts our self-esteem. Equally, however, it can feel like our sense of self is crumbling when we are forced out of, or are contemplating leaving a particular career path. This is not just because humans tend to feel bad leaving anything they’ve invested significant time and energy into, a phenomenon known as the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’; but also because western society tends to place a large amount of emphasis on our job titles as being intimately linked to our self-worth.

Linking your entire identity to your career can leave us vulnerable

Imagine your sense of self-worth is a boat – and, stick with me here, I’m no expert on boats or analogies, but I’ll try my best to make this clear. Imagine the base of your boat is made up of a few layers of boards, plaster and so on, that all work together to help keep you afloat. Imagine now that each of these layers are made up of different aspect of your self – perhaps a layer is your interest in swimming, another layer your relationships, another one your values of kindness and compassion. And another one – your work. We rely on the multiple layers to keep us afloat when life isn’t quite so smooth sailing.

Now imagine that your boat is made up of only one main later – work – without the other reinforcing structures. What happens when you burn out, decide the work isn’t suiting you anymore, are made redundant, or retire? You sink, or at least, you’re going to have to hope that interest in swimming has lent you some coping skills in the meantime.

This is not to say that it’s a bad thing to have pride in your work, but instead that perhaps it’s healthful to find joy or meaning in other things in life, too. When we attach our entire sense of self-worth to our success in the workplace, it can leave us vulnerable to identity crises, as well as make us more likely to experience anxiety, depression and despair.

Bolstering your sense of self-worth with other hobbies, interests and relationships can help

What to do about it? Diversify. You might find that this has positive effects on your mental health and wellbeing regardless of how you feel about your job. Consider taking small steps to finding more activities or hobbies that feel meaningful to you. Try to chat to that new person at the party and build some social connections outside of work. And importantly, consider what your values are – what kind of person do you want to be? When you think of your role model, what traits do they possess? What do you want your defining feature to be? You will still have your values no matter how important your work is to your sense of self-worth. Indeed, you can take your values with you across various life-stages and regardless of where you work, and they can help as reminders of who you truly are in good times and bad.

We are more than our work

While you’re at it, next time you meet someone new while diversifying your social group? Maybe don’t ask them what they do straight away, leave that one for later in the conversation. Instead, perhaps ask them what they like to do. Ask them what they find exciting, what they find challenging, or what they find meaningful. They might appreciate it, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot more about your new friend.


If you’d like to learn more about your own values, click here. If you’re feeling uncertain about your work and it’s connection to your sense of self, you might also like to check out Simone Stolzoff’s book, ‘The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work’.