One of the quickest paths to burnout is allowing your career to consume your identity. But as someone who genuinely takes pride in their work — and who also exists in a society that tells us our worth is defined by What We Do — it can feel difficult, if not at times impossible, to keep this from happening.
Are you simply in a busy spell, where work is commanding a larger share of your attention, or have you reached the point where your job has taken over your entire sense of identity? We heard from experts about the signs your identity has become overly wrapped up in your career, and how to achieve some healthy separation between the two.
1. All of your goals are tied to your career.
As an ambitious executive, it’s likely a good chunk of your goals are professional ones — but they certainly shouldn’t all be.
“Yes, setting lofty career goals is an excellent thing to do,” Sumit Bansal, CEO of TrumpExcel, said. “However, it’s critical to keep in mind that your job is not your life — merely it’s one piece of the puzzle. Therefore, do not let it consume the entire picture.”
Haven’t felt connected to a personal goal in awhile? Learn a new skill by, for instance, enrolling in a foreign language class, or do something as simple as taking a more intentional crack at your reading list. Identify something you can work toward that has nothing to do with professional (or financial) gain.
2. You’re carrying your team’s entire load.
People whose identities are overly wrapped up in their career often have a hard time saying no at work — which means they wind up taking on more than their fair share of work.
“The thing about being a go-getter is that lazier employees can smell you a mile away,” Girish Redekar, Co-founder of Sprinto, said. “Once you demonstrate your willingness to take on additional work, you’re going to find yourself with an increasing number of tasks added to your plate.”
If you find yourself in this position, make the effort to correct it sooner rather than later, Redekar said.
“It’s probably time for you to reevaluate, speak up and demand fair treatment. While it’s beneficial to be a team player, you do not want to become a doormat.”
3. You take work home with you, often.
While it’s true that, in today’s age of remote work, drawing boundaries can often feel trickier, a total lack of work-life separation can point to a career-defined identity.
“If you bring your work laptop home with you every evening like a security blanket, check emails obsessively during dinner with friends, or skip family get-togethers in favor of work that comes up, chances are you’re putting your job ahead of your overall well-being,” David Wurst, CEO of Webcitz, said.
“Balance is important for both your personal sanity and your professional acuity. If you can’t completely unplug from work after hours, learn how to bring work home in a healthy manner to avoid burnout.”
4. Your identity is, literally, your job title.
When’s the last time you met someone new and didn’t use what you do professionally as your go-to self-descriptor?
“When asked to describe yourself and how you spend your time, this can subconsciously present itself as, for example, constantly talking about your job regardless of the context, or quickly jumping to explaining your job title and responsibilities when asked to describe yourself,” Shad Elia, CEO of New England Home Buyers, said.
If you find yourself doing this, make an effort to consciously change up the way you talk about yourself, he advised.
“Take a step back and consider what actually matters to you — aside from your job”, he said. “What skills do you have? What do you like to do with your spare time? What causes are important to you? So much more than what you do for a living affects your self-worth.”
5. You internalize criticism at work easily.
People with overly job-tied identities can have a hard time maintaining objectivity at work, since what they do professionally feels like who they are personally.
“When your boss or coworkers give you constructive — but difficult-to-hear — feedback, do you feel crippled and crushed?” Darshan Somashekar here, CEO of Spider Solitaire Challenge, asked. “Criticism isn’t always a sign of failure; rather, it’s a sign that you’re pushing yourself to try new things.
Learn to accept feedback for what it is: an opportunity to learn and do better the next time, rather than reacting defensively. In fact, many managers prefer employees who can respond to constructive criticism quickly and properly over those who never make mistakes in the first place.”
6. You don’t remember the last time you used a sick day.
Even if you (luckily) haven’t been physically ill in awhile, as Lauren Cook-McKay, Director of Marketing & Content at Divorce Answers, put it, sick days are still meant to be used.
“If you work in the corporate world, you are given a set amount of sick days or paid time off each year — and most of the time, if you never take time for yourself, this time is wasted at the end of the year,” she said. “Every now and then, a sick day might be really beneficial. Sick days allow you to rest, focus on your mental health and practice self-care, all of which are important for your overall health and well-being.”
Although it may feel dishonest to use a sick day when you aren’t ill, “you’ve been given this time for a reason,” Cook-McKay added.
“Expecting yourself to work 365 days a year is unhealthy and unreasonable,” she said. “Take advantage of your earned sick days — they’re yours to keep — and spend some much-needed time refocusing your energies on your physical and emotional needs.”
7. You’re having trouble sleeping.
Does your mind race at night, as you struggle to silence thoughts about work? That’s a major red flag your job has an outsized hold on you, Steve Pogson, Founder of FirstPier, said.
“If your level of productivity is so important to you, make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” Pogson said. “Do you find yourself up late at night worried about an approaching deadline or an approaching meeting? Recognize that whatever form of work-related insomnia you’re dealing with is just hindering your effectiveness.
You’ll be more productive the next day if you focus on sleep hygiene. There’s just so much you can get done in a day, so when you’re at home, practice detaching your mind from work so you can fall and remain asleep.”
8. Your personal relationships are suffering.
We all hit a busy spell from time to time, and your friends and family should be understanding if there’s an event or two you have to miss accordingly. But if round-the-clock work has become a mainstay in your life, it’s hard for that not to make a dent in the health of your relationships.
“If your friends or significant other make not-so-subtle jokes about your workaholic habits, or if your relationships are marked by frequent arguing or growing distance, look into the source of the tension,” Jason McMahon, a Digital Strategist at Bambrick, said. “It’s possible that you’re projecting your work stress onto your relationships.”
When this happens, take some time to seriously consider what impact your career-as-an-identity problem is having on those you love — then adjust your attitude accordingly.
“While jobs come and go, your relationships are the lifelines that can help you get through difficult times,” McMahon said. “Remember that the people you care about are usually on your side and will support you — something you can’t always say about your job.”