Loss of Work Identity – Never Imagined Experiences in the COVID-19 Reality

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In a society that touts meritocracy, many Americans have come to believe that going to work every day, perhaps even working 2-3 jobs to meet basic family needs and covering healthcare insurance, would allow them to experience self-sufficiency and autonomy. The emergence of the Coronavirus outbreak, an uncontrollable variable, is undeniably calling attention to not only income but also health, and questionably impacting levels of life satisfaction among all walks of life across a range of professional settings. Heads of households have been furloughed, college students cannot continue their work study assignments or part-time jobs, and more than 6.6 million are filing for unemployment. This is not the career and work scenario most of us ever imagined. In mid-April alone, according to the Department of Labor, 22 million are now unemployed.

The surge of collective loss being experienced at one time is producing more urgency for recognizing psychological needs that are met through having employment—our work identity. Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, known for his theory of identity across the lifespan described two of his stages as Intimacy vs Isolation (ages 21-39) and Generativity vs Stagnation (ages 40-65). These are exactly the ages when people expect to be applying their skills and education in meaningful ways. Interviews on social media sites underscore the sense of loss, confusion, frustration, and questioning about the meaning of work and work identity that many had not considered before.

“Many of the tasks employees are doing now were not imagined even weeks ago. People are becoming crisis managers, sanitation monitors and work-from-home coordinators. Meanwhile, workers in overrun government offices, hospitals, grocery stores, as well as those operating out of the public eye in supply chains, are having to find new ways of working that allow them to manage the onslaught of professional responsibilities they now face.”

-Article on theconversation.com (Cohen, 2020)

What is a work identity?

According to vocational psychologist David Blustein (2013), work identity is derived from a sense of value pertaining to one’s role and function in a given job position, and location is often associated with our work. Going “there” and spending time “there” with colleagues and peers is a way of affirming our work identities. We know why we enjoy the work we do; we know what picking up an extra shift means for us personally and for our families; and we know what we hope to accomplish each day we show up. Work identity gives us a sense of purpose and according to Freud, the tasks of adulthood are “to love and to work”. Affirmations of work identity also include a sense of competence, that is, that we are good at what we do and that others think so too. Though messages about competence can be communicated via email and a Zoom call, the emotion of being told in person—“great meeting” or “terrific problem analysis” likely fall short.

Ambiguous Loss

“The Rona” (slang for COVID-19) is perhaps one of the clearest examples of being uncertain whether one’s work identity is active or extinguished. Psychologists define this type of loss as ambiguous – there is inherent awkwardness as whether to hold out hope or grieve (Worden, 2009). This experience may be dependent upon a person’s ‘essential employee’ status. For example, it might prove difficult to accept the challenge of a new work role for families whose dominant caretaker has recently become schoolteacher among parent, student, and employee or businessowner; adaptability and flexibility are new realities.

The Kübler-Ross model of death and dying (Kübler-Ross, 1970) outlines stages of loss and grief for survivors. The model has since been adapted as it relates to other forms of loss. Herein, we will briefly outline the stages specific to a loss of work identity. Depending on where someone is in their work identity development, different reactions can occur within any of the stages of loss. While the stages do not necessarily happen in order and reactions are not explained exhaustively, more than one stage and less than all stages can be experienced with a significant work-related loss:

Stage 1: Denial

“This is not really happening.”
“I have worked here for 20 years; no chance of losing my job.”
“I’m healthy so I will get through this.” 

When news broke about a contagious virus, messages in the media said it would be contained. ‘Stay at Home Orders’ have become a reality for most workers although some, may still wonder whether compliance is necessary. When purpose is found in our work, it is normal to want to protect that part of our identity that seeks connections and drives to fulfill meaning in life. In this stage, a person might be temporarily convinced they are untouchable.

Stage 2: Anger

“This was supposed to be a temporary situation and now it has been more than a month. I’ve been lied to and now I’m out of a job! What does furlough mean?”
“It’s not fair!”

As days led to weeks, and the pandemic spread cross-nationally, from mid-March to mid-April, concerns about employment uncertainty heightened as did emotions. Professionals are angry about projects put on hold. Students looking forward to high school or college graduation are upset that they will not walk across the stage to receive their diploma. Some Olympic athletes anticipate a magnification of pressure regarding opportunities to showcase their work being cancelled and postponed. The anger stage emerges when individuals recognize denial cannot continue. At home, work-related topics may provoke intense emotions and defenses between loved ones in confined spaces together.

Stage 3: Bargaining

“There must be other ways we can be productive, just tell me what they are.”
“I’ll do anything to feed my family.”
“I can still work on my projects from home, you can pay me right?”

Changes to what it means to work have begun to develop as we notice new practices in place as schools and non-essential businesses are forced to close. ‘Waiting’ is highlighted under the definition of productivity – while furloughed employees wait for businesses to reopen, workers are forced into feeling like bugs that have been knocked on their backs from a big gust of wind, struggling to flip back over. It’s exhausting. The relevance of a negative impact to working has been involved with wars, famine, and risks to personal safety (Blustein & Blustein, 2013). In knowing a negative impact is related to a health crisis, we may be overworking ourselves to adapt. It is valid to ask if the bug can flip back over, if it can receive help in doing so, and whether to believe it has a future. Often times, negotiation with a higher power is exhibited in the bargaining stage in exchange for a reformed lifestyle.

Stage 4: Depression

“I feel useless. I’ll never get that promotion with this kind of loss in my company’s revenue.”
“At this age, how will I be able to be hired by another company if mine does not reopen?”
“I miss my job, why get out of bed?”

The burden of loss increases in the depression stage. Here, depression  is evidenced by a person’s realization that a job role or professional identity and work style may never be the same. Many university faculty have been thrown into online teaching for the first time and are now hearing that this may be the new mode of instruction permanently. Becoming silent, refusing work-related tasks, and spending time crying and grieving may allow persons to disconnect themselves from the love and affection they have had for the lost job role and future hopes.

Stage 5: Acceptance

“I’ll have to dip into my emergency savings to get through this, I’m prepared.”
“This is temporary, it’s okay.”
“Everyone in my position is in the same place.”
“I have lots of experience and skills to leverage, there have to be opportunities out there.”

In this stage,  individuals recognize that he, she, or they will be required to adjust and likely change. At the same time, they will find that it is important to maintain a core sense of who they are as a working person amidst multiple changes and losses. For some, their work identity will persist because of recognition of their capabilities and willingness to ‘start over” if necessary. With a sense of acceptance, individuals can turn a corner.

Closing Thoughts

Challenges to one’s work identity during the COVID-19 crisis will be a shared experience and memory for many years to come. The consequences of this interruption to one’s work productivity, earnings, and future work directions may take years to resolve. By becoming aware of the importance of work identity psychologically and pragmatically, we will all be in a better position to support one another and be kind to ourselves as we move through these various transitions of loss, change, and renewal in the months ahead.