Are You 
What You Do?

By Dr Emily O’Leary

Are You 
What  You Do?
Our occupation plays a big part in our sense of identity and our wellbeing. So why does our day job – whether it’s as a dentist or designer, poet or police officer – have such an impact on us?

What do you want to be when you grow up? This question starts being asked of children at a young age, and it’s usually an enjoyable exercise with answers ranging from astronaut and fire fighter to hairdresser and builder – sometimes several careers in the same breath. For adults, that same question can provoke anxiety and confusion: What do I really want to do? Am I doing it? Is my career what makes me me?

As a late bloomer, I understand this confusion and the concept of identity has long been an area of interest. Often, though, there is not one clear answer as to what identity is, but basically it refers to your qualities, values and aspects of character that differentiate you from others.

How we define ourselves is often a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and psychological factors. But are all these factors equal? As social beings we often evaluate ourselves based on others’ perceptions, and work is a major player.

The work connection

Josh, a 24-year-old real estate agent, gains self-esteem from reaching his monthly KPIs at work, not to mention relaying stories of his sales prowess. Meanwhile Mary, a mother of two, feels a sense of accomplishment by making it to work on time without baby dribbles on her shoulder. These two examples seem worlds apart, but they illustrate how your social identity can be your personal identity. While Mary and Josh have their own self-imposed standards, they also rely on their work group for validation and acceptance. This is one of the reasons why, when people are made redundant, the loss or “disconnection” can be so great.

So are we just part of a herd? Professor Alex Haslam, of the Psychology Department at the University of Queensland, has been exploring this idea for more than a decade. He says that social group memberships give people a sense of who they are, based on their internalised self identities. Haslam believes that personal identity is defined by many things, including childhood, but to a large degree it is shaped by our connectedness to certain groups, whether that be “mother”, “CEO”, “nurse” or “budding journalist”.

“Part of having a secure identity is based on attachment and positive early childhood experiences,” Haslam explains. “However, what people think of as personal identity is often a social identity. Take a surgeon, for example. It may seem that they are defining themselves by their education and unique set of skills. However, much of their internal representation – how they view themselves – 
is defined by their colleagues or context.

“Work provides group membership and social identity. People have meaningful interactions and connections in these groups, which allows them to define their place in the world,” adds Haslam.

Research in 2010 by associate professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues at Brigham Young University, Utah, supports this theory, showing that people who have a lot of social engagement with multiple groups are happier and live longer. Placing this research in the career context opens a whole new level of understanding as to why, in addition to the financial repercussions, so many people become depressed and feel lost when they are not working.

Group participation

But not everyone does. Mark, a 30-year-old professional, has been unemployed for seven months, due to a combination of factors within his industry. He says, “One of the main things I miss is the professional conversations. We used to sit around talking about what was happening. Now I feel out of the loop.”

But Mark says he doesn’t feel down as he has filled his time with family and friends as well as professional development opportunities. He adds: “If I had no family, friends or means to talk to people, I 
could easily see why people would get depressed.” Mark has found other equally meaningful groups as “dad” and “mentor” to be a part of, and because of that he remains purposeful and connected.
This need for connectedness starts at a very young age. Child and family psychologist Emily Anderson says she is treating increasing numbers of children feeling depressed and anxious as they feel they do not belong in friendship groups.

She reports many children say they are “in a group, but do not feel they belong. While schools try and address the issue of belonging by mentoring, the focus is on the individual and not the sense of community and connectedness.”

These comments reminded me of a client many years ago who described spending the first day of her maternity leave crying, not because she was depressed, but because she had no idea what to do. She was a professional woman who enjoyed a high level of status at her firm.

She was shocked by her reaction that day and felt quite confused about her feelings of emptiness, as she was looking forward to being a mother. What was happening was that she was struggling to transition from “professional” to “mother”.

It is being part of one or more groups, rather than just being employed, that makes the difference.

Sharing your identity

“There is strong evidence that group membership – work, hobbies, friendship circles – and having a shared identity is strongly linked to mental wellbeing,” explain Haslam. “In other words, when a person does not have this sense of belonging it negatively impacts on all areas of their mental and physical health.”

An interesting question arising from all of this is why, as a society, we invest a lot of time on self-development, yet little attention is paid to our sense of connectedness and community?

For example, retirement can mean white sandy beaches and endless days playing golf. It can also mean a lot of time with limited contact with the outside world. Retirement can be a major assault on identity – not only is the person removed from colleagues, they are also disconnected with the many professional groups and memberships associated with their job. What seems to make a successful transition is extensive and varied social engagement.

A study led by Dr Ilke Gleibs of the London School of Economics in 2011 highlighted this idea by looking at “water clubs” in care homes which had been established to counteract the dangers of dehydration. Researchers found that the increased focus on water made no difference to dehydration rates among care home residents, but their overall wellbeing was improved in correlation to the increased social interactions. This is an important lesson for us all as we are living longer and will be spending 15 to 25 years of our lives as active adults outside of the work place.

So are you what you do? The answer is that you are what you do in all aspects of life. Your identity comprises “mother”, “son”, “long distance runner” or “volunteer”. Identity is multifaceted, but our chosen career is a massive contributor because we spend so much time with our colleagues.

As an exercise, take a moment to ask yourself: how would I define myself without my social identities? And the next time you are in a meeting wondering whether you need to pick up milk on the way home, remind yourself that you are shaping others’ identities by merely being present.

Our new columnist
The newest addition to the MiNDFOOD team, clinical psychologist Dr Emily O’Leary, is the founder and director of Anxiety House and the OCD Clinic in Brisbane. With more than 10 years’ experience, she has presented her research internationally and is passionate about increasing mental health awareness. Read O’Leary’s monthly blog on


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