As the first quarter of 2024 is already hurtling by, let’s make some time to reflect on the year that’s been and where we would like to go. Before we dive in, try answering this question: Who are you and what do you do for a living?

What springs to your mind?

Often, when we’re asked to explain who we are, what we do, and where we’ve come from, our natural tendency might be to respond by mentioning our job title somewhere in our answer. For most of us, this is pretty automatic. After all, the society we live in has largely dictated that work has become so central to our identities.

This dictation is worth questioning, however. In reality, we all come from unique backgrounds and hold diverse views, values, and beliefs about the role work plays in our lives. For some of us, we might metaphorically describe ourselves as a “cog in a machine” – where work is a means to an end, a place we clock in and clock out of, for financial security. For others, work might be deeply tied to our sense of identity and self-worth. Or we might find that the importance and meaning of work tends to fluctuate and change over time. 

If you’re someone who strongly identifies with your role and finds great meaning in your work, how often do you pause and reflect on the way that you prioritise work?

Do you live in line with your values in a way that is fulfilling? Or maybe you often find yourself diverging away from what is truly important to you?

Who and what do you aspire to be? How do you want to be with those around you? And what does a “good” life or a “life well-lived” mean to you?

If your identity is your work, and you lose your job (for example from redundancy, illness or retirement) – what’s left? Rather than viewing our jobs as the central axis around which the rest of our life orbits, would it be liberating if we separated our self-worth from our performance and accomplishments? 

These are all important questions to get you reflecting about your work, your values and your identity. This is also known as “values work” in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – a popular approach to psychotherapy that helps you accept your thoughts and feelings as they are, while committing to living in line with your values.

We don’t have to get ourselves into an existential crisis here. Simply taking a few moments to reflect inwardly on our thoughts and feelings may give us that extra level of self-awareness that we need to gain a new perspective on things.

And, in line with common sense, there is psychological research that shows that we get the most satisfaction when we pursue goals and actions that align with our values and interests.

Why is it so hard for me to prioritise my personal life?

For those who believe that work is more important than their personal life, you might subscribe to what researchers call the work priority ideology.

Simply put, ideologies are beliefs. If you have a work priority ideology, you might find that you often prioritise work demands and commitments over your personal life. At the other extreme, you might have a strong life priority ideology, where personal life is prioritised over work.

Where do my beliefs about work come from?

The work priority ideology comes from the theory of the “ideal worker” norm. This is the idea that employees are required to demonstrate unwavering commitment and dedication to work and give work priority over personal life commitments. 

These norms that have been so entrenched in society, that many of us to believe that if we aren’t “ideal workers”, we’ll be poorly evaluated by our managers.

Of course, these views are also shaped by the society we live in, the organisation we work for, the community which surrounds us, cultural norms and expectations, personality, and personal upbringing.

Research also suggests that our career beliefs are affected by the use of metaphors. Interestingly, many of us tend to rely on metaphors to explain our professional lives. One example is hearing about people trying to “get to the top” or “climb the career ladder”. This is also known as the path metaphor, where we view our careers as a journey. 

These career metaphors can serve as a powerful tool for us to express ourselves in simpler ways. But these metaphors may become problematic when our thinking about work and careers becomes constrained or limited by the stereotypes that are so deeply embedded in these metaphors.

Have a think about what type of metaphor you’re using to explain your work to yourself, and to those around you. How is this perspective limiting or enhancing your view about the possibilities of work? 

But is it a bad thing that I often make personal sacrifices for my work?

As any researcher always says – well, it depends. 

Employees with the work priority ideology often go the extra mile whether that’s staying late at work or taking on extra projects that are outside of their job description.

These behaviours are known as citizenship behaviours, and are found to be beneficial for organisations. Research shows that citizenship behaviours enhances group and organisational performance, promotability, and helps to create a positive working environment.

However, this might become an issue when employees go beyond common citizenship behaviours and begin to sacrifice work-life boundaries. This might look like working during holidays or cancelling plans to spend time with family, to work on a project for example. 

These types of extreme citizenship behaviours are found to have detrimental effects on employee wellbeing, and can lead to role overload, job stress, work-family conflict, fatigue and turnover.

There are plenty of reasons as to why employees make these personal sacrifices. This could be driven by an employees’ desire to get ahead of the game or simply because they love the work that they do. Or maybe avoiding important issues or conflicts in their personal life by burying themselves in work.

Regardless of why, we do know that having work as the only domain in life that matters can be a risk factor for burnout. This is because when we constantly invest our resources (such as our time and energy) into work, this will make it difficult for us to disengage and take part in activities that make us feel restored and replenished. And so, while it’s not always a bad thing to make sacrifices for work, going to the extreme, or being pressured to, can be very harmful for both employees and organisations. Have a think about how often you find yourself making personal sacrifices for work and why that might be – whether it’s inside or outside of your control.

As we wrap up this piece on reclaiming life from work, what are your takeaways from this reflection? For yourself? For your team? Or for your organisation? Depending on the role you hold – and/or how much of an advocate you want to be – you can share this piece and suggest a time with your colleagues to discuss some thoughts and recommendations you might all come up with. 

Feel free to share those ideas with us (anonymously) to flow into Part 2 of this article on practical tips we can implement to prevent work from “taking over” (if this is what you want of course!). Contact: [email protected] for your idea to be featured in our next article.