When an employee’s identity is subsumed by their profession, they could be on an unhealthy path towards enmeshment. Here’s what HR can do about it.
Sara Blizzard was a weather presenter for East Midlands Today. Lord Igor Judge is the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Usain Bolt’s name speaks to his speed and ability to secure world records in 100 and 200m races.
These examples of nominative determinism, the phenomenon of people’s surnames governing their choice of occupation, may have some scientific basis, or it could just be anecdotal. Either way, our fascination with the topic does speak to how closely we tie our identity to our occupation. Think about it; it’s often the first thing we ask people when we meet for the first time – ‘What do you do?’. In a way, what we’re really asking them is, ‘Who are you? What are you all about?’
This attachment to our work is often a great thing. Identifying strongly with your job, company or profession can increase job satisfaction and meaning. Employees who are passionate about their profession might be more motivated and dedicated to their work. But there is another side to the coin.
Warning signs of enmeshment
High levels of professional identity and job meaning don’t fade away as people’s careers draw to a close. Entering retirement can make many people feel as though the carpet has been pulled out from underneath them.
When Russell Hawthorn was nearing the end of his career as a firefighter, he had to come to terms with becoming a “normal civilian”.
“You are no longer a firefighter held in high regard in the community. You are just an old bloke or an old woman. You’re just another person,” he says.
“A lot of people struggle with retirement because they’ve lost their identity.”
The feeling of loss upon entering retirement is often heightened for individuals who feel deeply entwined with their work identity – for example, professionals working in industries such as medicine, or community services that require a high level of empathy.
When individuals feel connected with their work and view life solely through the prism of their profession, they could be at risk of enmeshment – a psychological term typically used to describe a relationship in which the diffusion of personal boundaries leads to the merging of two or more people – but it can equally be applied to understanding your relationship with work, too.
Dr Ruchi Sinha, Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at the University of South Australia, defines enmeshment as “a lack of tolerance for one’s own individuality”.
“It happens when a person doesn’t have a narrative about who they are without that role,” she says. “It manifests as dependency and a lack of separateness.
“That could be with your family, where you consider yourself a parent and your job in life is to bring up kids, or you can be enmeshed with your career.”
When a person has low tolerance for individuality, some fundamental human needs are only satisfied by a single source, says Sinha.
“It’s a vicious cycle in which you’ve invested in one domain of your life – your work – and it has been feeding all of your psychological needs and giving you a happiness boost.” – Dr Ruchi Sinha, Senior Lecturer in the School of Management at the University of South Australia
This could include a desire for control, belonging and the need to feel competent and have status, respect and prestige.
Enmeshment with work might mean someone struggles to develop an independent sense of self outside of their profession, viewing themselves as Frank the physician, for example, rather than as Frank the father, partner, friend and avid golfer, too.
“It’s a vicious cycle in which you’ve invested in one domain of your life – your work – and it has been feeding all of your psychological needs and giving you a happiness boost. Even if it starts causing you stress and burnout, and if you want to break out of it, you don’t have anything left because you haven’t been nurturing other domains.”
How enmeshment with work evolves
While certain psychological frameworks provide fertile ground for enmeshment with work to take root, it’s the situational factors that contribute to its growth.
Dr Janna Koretz operates a psychology clinic in Boston to help individuals struggling with the demands of a high-pressure career.
In a Harvard Business Review article titled ‘What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity?’, she points to three factors commonly shared by many individuals in high-powered careers:
- An individual’s family or community may place emphasis on certain careers or professional achievements. For example, if someone’s family members are all doctors, they might feel pressure to enter the same profession. Their sense of connection to the family may be predicated on being a successful doctor, and distancing them self from their profession could evoke anxiety about being isolated from their family.
- High-paying professions might enable a lifestyle of luxury. Sometimes it’s not just the work itself that contributes to an individual’s identity, but the pleasures that their job grants them, whether that’s owning a big home, attending exclusive galas, or socialising with others who enjoy a similar lifestyle.
- Working longer hours is rewarded with bonuses and promotions, often generating a self-perpetuating cycle whereby an employee is encouraged to work excessive hours to get ahead, leaving them with less time to contribute to non-work areas of their lives.
These are the factors that “keep enabling enmeshment once you’re in it”, says Sinha.
Once you’re travelling along a career trajectory, it becomes increasingly difficult to step off that path, she says, and you tend to continue investing to justify the effort. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy.
When there’s internal and external pressure to continue on a career path, there’s often an “escalation of commitment because the world believes if you’ve invested any resource into doing something, you’d better get a good pay-off,” says Sinha. “There’s an unconscious expectation we have that when we put in X amount of effort, that Y outcome must eventuate.”
The problem with overidentifying with work
Research conducted in 1997 by Dr Amy Wrzesniewksi, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Yale University’s School of Management, found that people who viewed their job as a calling – that is, they believed their occupation was integral to their identity – were more satisfied with their work than those who perceived their job solely as necessary income, or as a stepping stone to a higher position.
Although a strong sense of connection to a professional role can yield positive results, when the scales tip towards overidentification, problems can brew.
In a study conducted by Yellowbrick, a specialised assessment and treatment centre for young adults in Illinois, 70 per cent of the 2000 millennials surveyed said they identified only through their jobs.
There’s also research to suggest that high-performing professionals who exclusively identify through their occupation are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
Tamar Balkin, Organisational Psychologist and Founder of Balkin Coaching, says that people who are “totally enmeshed in their roles will send emails at all times of day and won’t be respectful of boundaries”.
She says while employees who overidentify with their profession can enter a flow state with relative ease, which enables them to become immersed in a task, this can easily slide into dangerous territory.
“[It] can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of exhaustion. There’s also an emotional impact because we’re not built to work 24/7,” says Balkin. “People make mistakes if they don’t refresh their brain, and it affects their temperament. The dark side of our personality comes out when we’re tired, stressed or bored.”
As a result, employees might start to engage in risky behaviour in order to continue performing well, says Balkin.
“This could be cutting corners, engaging in unethical practices or dropping the ball.”
How to untangle yourself from work
Encouraging individuals who overidentify with their profession to find more balance in their lives requires applying a holistic framework of wellbeing.
“Leisure shouldn’t be seen as trivial, but as essential to wellbeing,” says Balkin. “I often talk to my clients about being ‘loud and proud’ about their interests outside of work.
“Wellbeing is about relationships, purpose, boundaries, energy and flow. It’s those things at work and in life outside of work.”
“People make mistakes if they don’t refresh their brain, and it affects their temperament. The dark side of our personality comes out when we’re tired, stressed or bored.” – Tamar Balkin, Organisational Psychologist and Founder of Balkin Coaching.
Addressing the underlying psychological factors that give rise to enmeshment will also require more purposeful reflection.
HR and managers can help to refine an individual’s purpose and goals outside of work, in areas such as relationships, family, religion or community, says Sinha.
“It makes you aware that all the decisions and actions you take in life are guided towards a purpose,” she says. “It’s looking at your own purpose [and] why you’re making certain decisions.”
Focusing on values can help someone realise that they may be overidentifying with their profession. To prevent this, Sinha suggests HR professionals invite employees to complete a value clarification exercise.
“Career value clarification is about looking at what aspects of your job meet your psychological needs. What kind of impact, influence and control do you want to have in your industry?”
She advises adopting this approach instead of asking standard future-oriented questions such as, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ since plans can easily be thrown off course.
Impelling individuals to ‘find their calling’ can also be a precursor for overidentification.
“We should help people to craft their role to experience meaning, autonomy and competence,” she says.
This sense of ownership can happen in a way that doesn’t guide an individual towards total immersion in their work, resulting in a more well-rounded, fulfilled and likely happier employee.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the October 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
Help your employees set boundaries to put their mental health front and centre with this short course from AHRI. Book in for the next session on 22 February.