On the first Monday in March, I woke up slightly surprised to find I still existed. Four weeks earlier I had resigned from my job, bringing to an end five years of working at a national newspaper (this one). Over the years I had, in ways I hadn’t noticed, become used to being a part of it.
We start each day with a number of identities in place, but I hadn’t realised the degree to which, across a spectrum in which I am friend, daughter and godparent, my job title carried “me” weight. Or how I would feel without it as a freelancer.
Last year, 15% of the UK labour force wereworking for themselves, and the trend of peopleleaving full-time employment and taking on short-term contracts appears to be ongoing. Stepping away from an “institutional role” to uncertainty is likely to bring a significant sense of loss to anyone, including to those who have chosen to do it, says Professor Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD. “The transitional stress is high,” he says.
According to Professor Herminia Ibarra, a careers expert and author, “organisational affiliation is a big source of identity and status, and also shorthand for explaining to people who we are. People nod when you tell them you work for a known company. Sometimes they don’t know what to make of you when you don’t.”
What we miss if we leave a staff job also depends on what it represented to us. The degree to which we feel we are our jobs is described in psychology as work-role centrality. For people whose work-role centrality is high, the loss of a job will mean they feel there is less purpose to their lives as a whole, even when the loss is an interim measure and the hope is for another role. More positively, it tends to be an attitude people have towards work in general rather than to a particular job.
At its simplest level, an organisation makes us part of something and there is also the loss of connections. A 1960s study of group dynamics by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion identified ways in whichworking groups can operate on familial or kinship relationships. With this in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder that there is a particular sense of bereavement when you leave a job. Peter Warr, of Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology, says there are some core elements of potential reward in the workplace, including structure, social contact and boundaries.
Cooper suggests that once you have left a role there are measures you can take to overcome the challenge to your sense of self. “Increasingly, people outside the formal workplace seek a social identity in the absence of their former institutional one,” he says.
Whether it’s on retirement or during a mid-career gap, we can enable a new form of self-definition by adopting a title (and role) such as prison visitor or volunteer, or by involvement in local politics, Cooper tells me.
He says he has seen many people who don’t really retire – they just operate in another capacity, be it doing part-time work or “grandparenting”. In my situation, helping to train a friend’s dog and being there for another after her separation from her partner would have featured anyway, but they take on a new focus outside the infrastructure of my former job.
Cooper has noted a tendency in freelancers to cleave to an organisation. “People often prefer to present a project they are engaged on by saying, ‘I am working for X organisation’ rather than to present themselves as freelance,” he says.
Ibarra suggests experimenting and using unconventional strategies to uncover a new identity and, indirectly, the way forward. She says freelancers like me should look for kindred spirits. Whether it’s a case of sharing office space or simply finding out how others did it, the sense of being part of a community can reduce the isolated feel of going solo.
Regarding the transition from full-time employee to freelance, Ibarra tells me: “People experiment with different ways of structuring their time. They may try to reproduce the normal company schedule or interweave personal and business activities throughout the day. They experiment equally with different ways of explaining what they do and why they left a former place of work.”
Career consultant Janet Sheath of Kingston University agrees that freelancers often express the desire to manage a working week and to create a portfolio – aims that speak of a need to mimic some of the characteristics of an organisational framework.
There is relatively little published research on how it feels to make a mid-career transition and more on what work entails. Over the past 10 years, a division has been made between “bounded” (organisational) and “boundaryless” careers. More current in employment psychology, says Almuth McDowall, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London, is the idea of working across boundaries, in the way an NHS or BBC consultant might operate in that capacity for a couple of days a week and then do something different on other days.
In managing the “dipping in” and working outside boundaries, we can carry part of a former job identity into what we do beyond it.