In Singapore, many of us regard our career accomplishments as a yardstick for success. While there is nothing wrong with being career-driven and enjoying the affirmation from your work accomplishments, tying our self-worth closely to our careers can be damaging for our mental health in unfortunate circumstances such as missing out on a promotion, or worse — retrenchment.
Throughout the pandemic, many social workers, counsellors and career coaches have observed the negative impact of job loss on individuals’ mental health.
Ms Christine Gan, Workforce SG’s principal career coach, noted that it is not unusual for retrenched individuals to have negative emotions, such as feeling a lack of self-worth and a sense of uncertainty.
Likewise, Ms Joyz Tan, a senior social worker at the Fei Yue Family Service Centre, shared that she had seen clients who became suicidal when they lost their jobs.
“Emotional health can be affected when we strongly associate our self-worth with our job or job security,” she said.
In one news article, psychotherapist Mr Ben Douch explains the impact of having one’s self-worth dependent on the success of your work.
“By tying who you are to what you do, you can find yourself on a treadmill of continuously striving to feel good through competence, comparison and approval,” he says. “Success in work can certainly boost self-esteem, but it’s not something which will last. The more you get, the more you’ll need.”
In other words, the constant pursuit of career success is like a black hole you will never be able to fill. Eventually, this can lead to stress and burnout.
It is important to realise that our lives comprise multiple facets — our social relationships, hobbies, families and more. Work is just one aspect.
Even if your career forms a large part of your self-worth and identity, it is not too late to make some changes.
For a start, devote some time to the things that you may have neglected in your pursuit of career excellence. These could be exercising, spending time with your loved ones or even engaging in a new hobby. Doing so will enrich your life beyond work.
Then limit the amount of time you spend on social media and the Internet. According to this Channel News Asia article, doing so will “free yourself from the limiting images of mass media telling you what success looks like.” Granted, that is not easy, but it is still worth investing in this as it will improve your mental health in the long run.
You can temporarily use browser extensions such as StrictWorkflow to block social media sites. Alternatively, you can set a goal like spending less than 30 minutes a day on social media. Ms Debevoise also suggests reminding ourselves that what we see in the media is not a true reflection of reality, but a biased one.
Then give yourself credit for the different things that you are proud of. For instance, Health Hub suggests creating a list of positive things about yourself to feel good. In the list, write down the following items.
1. A few of your good qualities.
2. 10 things that you can do, such as playing a musical instrument or speaking a non-native language
3. Describe three achievements that you are proud of.
4. Two of your past mistakes and what you have learnt from them.
5. Describe your weaknesses and think of how to improve them. These weaknesses should be changeable.
When you feel doubtful or negative about yourself, take out the list and read through it to remind yourself that these aspects of your life need to be celebrated.
As humans, it is natural that we want to be accepted for who we are instead of what we own or our job titles.
By untangling our self-worth from work, it is easier to bounce back when things do not go well at work because we have other parts of our lives to cushion us from a career setback!