Career identity: “I’ve built my whole life around work. How do I press undo?”

For many of us, our careers are much more than how we pay the rent. Our jobs are part of our identity. But what happens when we start to re-evaluate our lifestyle after years of being wedded to work? Two women explain how they reassessed their identities after stepping away from work. 

With job openings at a record high, it seems that more of us than ever are quitting our roles, changing career paths, or simply stepping back from the workplace

For those in office jobs, over a year of working from home has caused many to rethink what they want from their careers, while endemic burnout is causing droves of workers to leave sectors such as the service industry and social care.

For many of us, our careers are about much more than how we pay the bills. What we do for a living can be an important part of how we create our identity, how we spend our time, and how we perceive ourselves. 

Taking a step back from work may mean a colossal re-evaluation of our values, lifestyle and sense of self. We spoke to two women who’ve experienced this to find out how they coped. 

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Ruth, 31, is a counsellor based in Edinburgh. After the birth of her son in 2018, her attitude towards work started to change, but it wasn’t until she became seriously unwell with Covid in 2020 that her perspective completely shifted.

“My career has always felt all-consuming. I work in a very competitive industry, and I would use my career progression as a way to self-affirm when life felt chaotic. Trying to be perfect in my career often led to me feeling burnt out – I was working at an organisation that I’d always coveted, but still felt a massive sense of imbalance between my work and personal life.

When I first had my son at the end of 2018, things changed. My career had been my main coping mode, and due to maternity leave, it had been pulled out from beneath my feet. I felt completely at sea, and I realised that something had to change. I returned to work, but it just wasn’t the same. I was deflated and I knew that I wanted to scale my career in a better, more sustainable way.

The final push came in April 2020, when I became unwell with Covid. Powering through the long-lasting cough and fatigue, I didn’t reach out to my GP for a few months. When I did, I was diagnosed with a serious strain of pneumonia. I spent almost a year receiving outpatient treatment – it was the scare I needed to make significant changes to my career.

I quickly reduced my client and patient load with the assistance of the wonderful NHS staff around me, and shortened my days. I stopped saying yes to every opportunity that came my way, and binned the idea of pursuing a PhD. The relief was instant. I learned that my to-do list didn’t need to be completed every day, that it was OK to work part-time without guilt and shame, and that my career did not, in fact, define me.

I’m now finally at a point where I no longer use my career as a way to cope or self-affirm. A key lesson for me was learning how to fail – I realised that my need for perfection had kept me stuck, and that failures can help me to grow.” 

Taking a step back from work may mean a colossal re-evaluation of our values, lifestyle and sense of self.

Chourouk, 37, lives in London and works in communications. She recently handed in her notice after working for the same company for eight years and is now figuring out her next steps. 

“I’ve worked in communications for over 12 years, moving from sales executive to marketing assistant, and eventually head of PR and events at a global firm. It’s always been important for me to continue to progress, but over the last five years or so my perspective started to change. I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled, and I couldn’t find real purpose in my day-to-day role.

The real shift happened during the pandemic. The initial three months of lockdown was the first time in years that I’d actually been able to slow down. Before then I was always on the move, whether it was commuting to work, visiting my family outside the country, going on holiday, or even just attending social events in London. It was fairly full-on, and it was only when I was forced to stay at home that I realised how much I needed that downtime.  

In addition, the numerous social and racial movements that we witnessed in 2020 really started to bother me. Because I was at home, not distracted by the normal rhythms of life, I could really take in what was happening – and it wasn’t pretty. When a friend of mine told me that she was involved in a project that would involve working with people from marginalised communities, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I loved my job, but I needed more than a nine-to-five. I needed purpose.

At first, I only made small changes. I blocked out Mondays and Fridays to dedicate myself to actual work rather than meetings and blocked out every other early morning for exercise. Then, a couple of months ago, I finally handed in my resignation in order to dedicate some time to myself, spend time with my family and travel – if restrictions don’t get in the way. My next steps aren’t completely defined yet, but I’m hoping to eventually work in an environment that is more people-centric.

After spending almost a decade in a job that I considered home, starting over and on my own is a bit daunting. One minute I’m excited to leave, the next I’m dreading it. But before I handed in my notice a friend of mine messaged me saying: ‘Be afraid.’ It’s really stuck with me. It made me think – when was the last time that you really challenged yourself or were scared of what you will do next? I probably haven’t felt that since I first came to London to find a job. 

But this time it’s different – I have the experience, the maturity and a willingness to take a risk. I know that I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but I’m excited that I can finally make this move on my own terms.”  

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How to let go of work

Maya Gudka is an executive coach at Wondersource. She gave us her top tips for taking a step back from work. 

Listen to your gut

The desire to rethink the way that you work might be triggered by burnout, a desire to focus more on family, or external events like the pandemic. The chronic high pressure of work might be zapping your motivation and joy, or you might want more time and a slower pace of life. 

Your intuition is trying to tell you something here – something needs to change and it’s time to explore that. Is it the content of your work that you are tired of, or is it the hours? Is it a complete overhaul that you need or a new working pattern? 

Focus on creating small spaces for rest and reflection, and consider taking some annual leave to allow for new places and perspectives before making big decisions.

Remember that what you have done up until now

Your phase of all-consuming work may have run its course, but it can always be part of your self-worth. Your values have evolved, but the doors that have been opened and the possibilities that have been created by your hard work remain. 

Take time to think and celebrate yourself, making space for a new phase that builds on your self-worth rather than detracting from it.

Daydream about what you want

How would you fill the space currently consumed by work? More time with family, more exercise, or more time for other interests and friends? We are trying to create a vision for this next phase of life. Write it down, so that you are moving towards this new vision as well as away from your current situation.

Identify role models who have made similar shifts

These might not be the obvious leaders in your field, but others who are enjoying an alternative path and way of life. How have they done this, and what do you like about what you see? Can you talk to them? Every career is different, so get curious and knowledgeable about the options within yours.

Recognise that identity is both personal and social

It’s natural to be apprehensive about an identity shift that comes with a pared-down approach to working. However, we develop our identity through our relationships with others as well as personal reflection and enquiry. By connecting more with those beyond your immediate workplace, you will both strengthen your support structures and your identity. 

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