Nurse. Teacher. Accountant. What happens when you don't do what you 'do' anymore?
Mel, 25, was at her job as an associate producer on a national television program when she got an unusual email from her boss one afternoon asking her to come along to a meeting with the HR department.
Confused, she showed the email to a colleague, who was just as puzzled. "I was coming up to the end of my six-month probationary period so I thought I might have to sign some forms," she remembers.
But when Mel got to the meeting, she was blindsided by some unexpected news. "[My former boss] said, 'I'm really sorry but it's just not working out'." Mel was asked to hand over her BlackBerry, pack up her desk and immediately leave without even finishing the segment she'd been working on that was due to go to air that night.
The self-described "committed, organised go-getter" says she'd had no prior warning that she hadn't impressed her boss while doing the role that had "completely consumed" her life."It was long hours and heaps of weekends; I had to have my BlackBerry on me at all times. I got sick a lot because I wasn't exercising or eating well. If you left the office for more than 15 minutes, you'd get a call [from a colleague]!"
Mel struggled to process how this could have happened to the girl who had scored a university scholarship and was headhunted for a cadetship right after graduating from her journalism degree. "It destroyed my confidence," she admits. "I felt like a complete failure. I'd worked so hard to get to this point and for the first time in 10 years I had nowhere to be the next day."
The job fallacy
Psychologist and careers specialist Meredith Fuller (meredithfuller.com.au) says you don't have to be a workaholic to feel defined by your job. "When we first meet people, they ask us 'What do you do?' rather than 'Who are you?'"
Fuller says the sheer amount of time we spend at work also means it's inevitable that our job "becomes the central element that defines who we are". So it's not hard to see why you might easily find yourself in the middle of an identity crisis when you don't do what you 'do' anymore.
Lost in transition
Mel's world was turned upside down in a matter of minutes after she was abruptly booted from her job. Without a source of income, a quick check of her bank balance confirmed she'd have to give up living in the middle of the city. "I couldn't afford [the rent] without a job, so I had to move back in with my parents," she says. "Having Mum driving me to the train station felt like I was back at high school."
You can still experience feelings of loss or depression even if you leave your job by choice. Sarah, a writer and mother of two, made the decision not to return to her job from maternity leave so she could have a more flexible lifestyle. But away from the workforce, she soon began to feel lonely and depressed.
"I missed the interaction and being part of a team. Freelancing was very solitary," she recalls. "I'd take it personally when I received rejections after pitching stories. I lost my confidence, even though I'd been [writing professionally] for over 10 years. Chasing work and invoices started to take its toll on my self-esteem."
There's more to you
It's risky to rely solely on a job to provide you with self-satisfaction. Instead, Fuller says we need to balance work with other parts of our lives. "The more roles you have, the more you are able to insulate yourself from losing your sense of being, confidence and self-esteem if you lose your job," she explains.
Fuller says it's helpful to think of your job as part of an industry, not just the organisation you work for. She recommends joining an association or attending industry events. "It's great for networking if you do lose your job, but it also expands your sense of identity beyond your actual employer."
Your roles as a daughter, sister, niece or friend are easy ones to neglect when you're busy slugging it out 9 to 5, but having people who knew you before you were a wage slave can help you keep perspective. "Your role in your family is one of your identities," Fuller says. She also insists we should all have a social activity outside of work like a book club, exercise boot camp or volunteer work "something where you meet other people who understand you in a different way [to your work identity]."
Blessing in disguise
As Mel discovered, being unemployed can be life-changing for the better. Just days after losing her job, a friend who drives a tour bus invited her to travel up the east coast for free. "On the trip I met many tourists on career breaks and it helped me to get perspective. I realised that you don't have to follow the career path you chose when you were in Year 12. You've got to love your job, but you need to have other passions, otherwise you can become a career robot."
Fuller agrees that this time out can provide a rare chance to reflect. "When we're working at a fast pace, we don't get a chance to be reflective. It's important you see this as an opportunity to ask yourself, 'Who am I, what do I love and what do I really want to do?'. It's like coming back to the core of your being."
On a career break?
Fuller suggests some ways to make the most of being suddenly job-less.
• If you can, take some time off instead of jumping straight into job hunting. "You'll be clearer about what you want rather than feeling burnt out. It's okay to have a break; you're not going to end up never working again!"
• Do some freelancing, short-term or contract work to beef up your CV.
• "Do unpaid work experience or volunteering and find out about other jobs and opportunities that you're normally too busy to look into."
• Catch up with yourself. "Sometimes you don't know how tired you are until you stop. You might have lost track of friends or particular interests."
• Be positive when you tell people you're in the market for a job. "When you let people know you're looking, it's amazing how they want to help."