We spend a third of our adult lives working and another big chunk preparing for our careers. Historically, work was rarely seen as a source of meaning and purpose. During the vast majority of our 300,000-year human evolution, work was in fact pretty simple. We worked to eat and avoid being eaten. Meaning and purpose came from somewhere else, like spirituality, art, religion, or science.
The notion that we are meant to find meaning at work–or find work meaningful–is a rather modern, if not postmodern, invention. Only one hundred years ago it would have been rare to see someone return from a typical workday at a factory or assembly line and complain to their spouse that they didn’t experience a sense of purpose.
By the same token, the idea that we ought to bring our “whole self” to work is a pretty novel and recent form of career advice. Its origins can be traced to William Kahn who invented the concept of employee engagement 30 years ago. His point was that employees differ in the degree to which they identify with their work persona. Some see work as merely a job and clock in and out every day, without bringing their whole self to work. Work is just not a core aspect of their identity, and their concept of themselves is built on other social categories like mother, husband, American, Christian, captain of the local soccer team, etc.
Others, however, have very low psychological distance with their work persona, seeing it as intrinsically intertwined with who they are. They don’t just come to work, they are fully immersed in their careers and have a spiritual type of connection with their jobs. They are, it seems, almost possessed by work and are the type of workaholics most companies yearn for.
In light of all the popular career advice encouraging people to “be themselves” at work or “bring their authentic selves” to work, it should not be surprising if a growing number of people now experience guilt when they fail to identify with their work persona. What if your job seems pretty meaningless? What if your job is just a job? Who says you are under any obligation to showcase your whole identity or share intimate aspects of your self-concept to your work colleagues and bosses? Since when is it the norm to have no life outside work, or keep nothing private? Should we feel guilty if we don’t bring our whole selves to work?
In fact, there are actually clear benefits to not identifying with our work persona, such as being better able to manage negative job circumstances.
If your career represents the core aspect of your identity, you are putting all your eggs in one basket. Failing to get a promotion, a bonus, or positive feedback during a review will hurt much more than when your self-concept is based on aspects of life unrelated to work. Naturally, this also means you will be less excited by successes at work, but since you have other passions in life, who cares?
It is also obvious that not everyone has access to meaningful and engaging careers, which perhaps explains the prevalence of high disengagement and high passive recruitment rates. One could also imagine that if people had lower expectations about how meaningful and purposeful their careers should be, they would spend less time complaining about their current job or trying to find a better job.
Since managers play a major role in driving engagement (and disengagement), in part because they are in charge of making work more meaningful for their employees, employers should upgrade the quality of their leaders if they truly expect employees to bring their whole selves to work.
In an age when organizations seem so preoccupied with diversity and inclusion, the least we can ask an employer to do is to create a culture where people feel accepted and respected irrespective of how invested they are in their work personas. In fact, the only reason to expect everyone to come and find a sense of purpose or a higher sense of calling at work is if they are part of a cult (note that culture and cult share the same root).
So, while it is nice to provide people with a sense of purpose and help them see their work as more valuable and meaningful, let’s keep in mind that a significant proportion of any company’s workforce may never see work as a central part of their life, yet that won’t stop them from making a valuable contribution to their organizations and be good organizational citizens.