Unraveling Work and Self-Worth: Focusing on the Day to Day

By Erica Sweeney

Published October 28, 2022

Erica Sweeney is a freelance journalist who covers health, wellness, business, careers, and lots of other topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, HuffPost, Men’s Health, Business Insider, and many more publications.

When you meet someone new, one of the first questions you probably ask them is, “What do you do?” It’s an easy icebreaker and most people are eager to talk about their jobs. Our identities tend to be wrapped up in what we do for a living. 


It’s great to be motivated and passionate about what you do, but you and your work are separate entities. These lines get blurred sometimes, though, especially with people working longer hours and feeling obligated to check their emails 24/7. When your career identity and personal identity are too intertwined, it can lead to burnout, a loss of productivity and general unhappiness, both at work and at home. 


In this article, we’ll look at what exactly a career identity is, why it’s crucial to separate your self-worth and work and how to prioritize the day to day to increase positive feelings about your job. 


What is a career identity? 


Whether you’re a teacher, marketing director or CFO, it’s common to tie your whole identity to your profession. After all, you chose your job for a reason—you went to college, maybe even graduate school, and possibly got a certification to gain the skills needed to land a role in a dream profession. It didn’t always work like that, though. Historically, jobs were passed down through generations—for instance, if your father was a farmer, you became one, too. 


Now that people have more professional choice, they often welcome the assumptions that come with these roles. For example, if you’re a doctor, you may relish in others believing that you’re highly educated and possibly earn a high income. That’s where career identity comes in. 


“A career identity is a structure of meanings in which the individual links his own motivation, interests, and competencies with acceptable career goals,” according to research published in the International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling. Because being busy and working hard have become highly rewarded qualities, social learning has led us to embrace our career identity—and, in many cases, make it our sole identity. 


Related: How to Disconnect from Work (Plus Why It’s Important)


Why is it important to separate your career identity from your personal identity? 


While we might think a certain job title or occupation will make us happy, we usually need more. As Timothy O’Brien put it in his book When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More, “Maybe you’re a senior analyst at work, but in life, you’re much more than that. Your worth as a person is not tied to your position on the org chart.” 


Focusing on finding a job where you feel a sense of community and energized by your work is likely to bring you a greater sense of wellbeing in your workplace as well as increased positive feelings about your job. This is important because 90% of workers say that how they feel at work matters, and nearly 90% say their happiness at work affects their mood at home, according to the Indeed Workplace Wellbeing Report. Work wellbeing also affects self-esteem, relationships and quality of life. 


So, it’s crucial to learn to separate your career identity from your personal identity. Doing so can offer a number of health and professional benefits, including: 


1. Increased productivity


Working long hours and taking on too many projects may seem like the keys to success, especially with hustle culture so ingrained in the national psyche. But, overwork leads to burnout and diminished productivity. Taking time for hobbies, getting a good night’s sleep and using your PTO will ultimately help you enjoy work more—and make you more productive. 


2. A strong sense of self


Being work-obsessed could lower your self-esteem, increase instances of loneliness and raise your risk for depression. It causes you to lose your sense of self. Learning to separate work and personal identities lets you focus on your values and the aspects of your life that matter most. 


3. More meaningful work


Identifying your personal values lets you define your purpose and find meaning in your work. Being bogged down with tasks makes this difficult. “Your work should add meaning to your life, but it should not be the ‘meaning of your life,’ even if it’s the dream job you’ve always wanted,” Jeffrey Davis writes in Psychology Today. 


4. Better work-life balance


How you opt to balance your work and home life is a personal choice, but getting your work identity under control will reduce stress and even lower your blood pressure, according to Cleveland Clinic. Set boundaries, like not answering emails after a certain time of day, to put some distance between you and your job and focus on self-care activities to achieve more work-life balance.


Related: Top 25 Jobs for Work-Life Balance


How to shift your focus to the day to day


Unraveling your work and self-worth is something you need to focus on all the time. Shifting your focus to the day to day helps ensure that you have positive workplace wellbeing and a solid work-life balance. You’ll end up happier at work and at home. 


To find balance and learn to distinguish your identities, start with talking to your boss about ways that you can adjust your work schedule or duties. Then, if you don’t feel satisfied, it might be time to find a new job. Whether it’s in your existing role or a new one, these tips will help you determine what your day to day should look like to separate your career identity and personal identity: 


1. Define your workplace values 


Since how you feel at work affects how you feel at home, it’s crucial to match your personal values to your company’s. Doing so keeps you motivated and makes you feel included, appreciated and happy. If you’re a creative person, for instance, make sure your role encourages sharing new ideas—otherwise, you’ll feel stifled if you can’t express yourself. When you’re searching for a new role, look for employers that value creativity and reward people who strive to bring new ideas to the table. 


While pay, benefits and flexibility matter to employees, our Workplace Wellbeing Report revealed that feeling energized by work tasks, a sense of belonging, and trust were the top drivers of wellbeing at work. 67% of workers view workplace wellbeing as a right, not a privilege. Find out about a company’s culture by talking to current employees and asking plenty of questions about how the company practices inclusivity during job interviews


Related: 6 Steps to Discover Your Core Values 


2. Redefine what success means to you 


How do you define success? If it’s getting a promotion, earning a high salary or climbing the career ladder, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, there are other markers of success, such as living a happy life and having a strong sense of who you are. 


As you navigate different roles or seek new jobs, reframe your thinking about what success means to you to make wellbeing a priority. Linking success to things outside of work helps you start to distinguish your career identity and personal identity. Look for jobs that offer resources to support you outside the office, such as mental health benefits, educational stipends, or unlimited PTO.  


3. Set boundaries 


Boundaries are crucial to separating your career and personal identities. Without them, the lines between your work and self-worth will be constantly blurred. 


Cleveland Clinic recommends making a list of things that would make your job easier, less stressful, and separate from your home life, as a way to start setting boundaries. Be specific about what you need to do your job well and feel fulfilled at home. Do you need to work from home two days a week because you don’t have childcare? Would you prefer not to respond to emails on the weekends? 


Then, talk to your boss about establishing these boundaries, or bring it up with potential new employers. Ask about remote-work policies and how supervisors ensure that employees’ mental health and wellbeing are a focus. 57% of employees say employers are responsible for happiness, but 50% think companies aren’t doing all they can to improve employee happiness and wellbeing at work, according to the Workplace Wellbeing Report. 


Related: 16 Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries at Work and Why It Matters

4. Do more things that you enjoy 


If your time and brain space are consumed by work, work, work, it’s time to change that. Intentionally make time and space for yourself to relax and do things that you enjoy, whether it’s going for a hike, crafting, or binge-watching your favorite shows. Block off time on your calendar for these activities if they don’t happen organically. 


Doing more of what you enjoy will help you feel like you again, as well as refreshed and ready to take on the day. It’ll also give you a self-esteem boost. “These moments will provide little reminders of your strengths and talents beyond your work identity,” clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff said in a Verywell Mind interview


5. Take care of yourself 


Taking care of yourself by prioritizing self-care and setting work boundaries is a step toward separating your self-worth from work and focusing on wellbeing. Take time off when you need to recharge and learn to manage stressby: 


  • Exercising regularly, which takes your mind off your work. Aim to get about 150 minutes of exercise a week, by walking, taking a spin class or swimming. 


  • Learning to meditate. This can include stepping away and taking a few deep breaths, taking a yoga class or using a meditation app for a guided practice. 


  • Getting plenty of sleep. A good night’s sleep, of at least seven to nine hours a night, will improve your mood and give you energy throughout the day. 


Always talk to your boss if you’re struggling and feel that more could be done to foster workplace wellbeing. If you still feel stressed, it might be a good idea to talk to a therapist. Many companies offer employee assistance programs or benefits connecting you with a mental health professional. This could help you find ways to deal with stress, create a work-life balance, and unlink your self-worth and personal identity from your work.


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