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Am I My Career?

Updated on August 25, 2012

Self Esteem and Identity in the Workplace

I am writing this hub as a response to the tragic shootings at the Empire State Building that occurred on August 24, 2012. Public acts of violence are deplorable, but I believe they are preventable. As a student of social psychology, I am intrigued by the root causes of such acts. This case interests me because its cause is related to a dysfunctional workplace relationship and the subsequent results of a layoff. I believe that in order to prevent workplace violence we must understand the effects of negative forces in the workplace and how these forces affect self-esteem and identity.

As I watched the details from yesterday's shooting unfold, I learned from the earliest reports that the perpetrator had been laid off by his employer. My first impression was that it was a recent layoff, but today reports that the layoff occurred two years ago. The report goes on to mention that for two years the perpetrator put on a suit and left the house to go to a job that did not exist. I have read other reports of such behavior. To many of us, it sounds strange to get up everyday and go to a job that does not exist, but to other individuals it is denial disguised as an effort to deal with waning self esteem and confidence

Several years ago I changed careers. I did not plan things to happen the way they did. In fact, I did not even see the change coming. Even worse, I was not prepared to make the change. I did not lose my job, but I lost a title. The loss was devastating to my self esteem. This title was a major part of my identity. I thought I could handle being an average worker without a title, but the transition was more difficult than I could imagine.

Losing one's work identity is commonplace in today's fragile economy. Employees are being forced to reinvent their work identities and, in turn, are taking serious hits to their self esteem. Psychology Today reports that "Meaningful work has long been one of the important ways to feel good about oneself (2001)." If our vocation becomes the basis of our identity, we suffer serious damage if it is taken away from us.

Work and vocation have been a subject of interest for social philosophers since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Karl Marx heavily criticized industrialization and believed it forced workers into a state of alienation in which they became disassociated from society. Sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the loss of direction a person feels when he or she has lost his or her purpose. Perhaps when we combine the concepts of alienation and anomie, we begin to see why layoffs have such traumatic results. When an individual loses his or her meaning and purpose in life to the point where they suffer a disconnect with society, the end results can be dangerous.

To avoid certain tragedy, we must not "become" our careers. Instead, we must learn to maintain a work-life balance that allows us to manage our roles in a healthy manner. We should encourage individuals to pursue other interests outside of the workplace and we must monitor the work environment to ensure that workers feel valued and have access to counseling programs in the event of crisis or tragedy. Losing one's identity in the workplace can be prevented. We just need to understand the root causes and watch for red flags in ourselves and in others.


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