Diversify Your Self

Recently, a woman working for France Telecom sent an email to her father. Then she walked over to the window on the fourth floor of her office building, opened it, stepped through, and jumped to her death.

The email read: “I have decided to kill myself tonight…I can’t take the new reorganization.”

If this were an aberration, one depressed woman’s inability to handle change, we could dismiss it. But, so far, 24 France Telecom employees have killed themselves since last year. And more than that have tried. One man stabbed himself in the middle of a meeting.

When confronted with this high rate of suicides, management at France Telecom claimed that, because of its size, 24 suicides isn’t that surprising. But there is something unusual happening, and not just at France Telecom. According to America’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, work-related suicides increased 28% between 2007 and 2008.

It’s tempting to blame the companies. A good article in The Economist pointed to a variety of things — the drive for measurement and maximizing productivity, recession driven layoffs, poor management communication — that contribute to a disheartening, depressing work environment. The article concludes that “companies need to do more than pay lip service to the human side of management.” I agree. For sure there are things leaders can and must do to handle employees with more care, compassion, and respect.

But the problem is deeper and more complicated than a callous management team that cares about nothing except profits.

The problem is also in us.

It’s in how we see and define ourselves, in our identities.

The first question we ask when we meet people is “what do you do?” We have become our work, our professions. Connected 24/7 via blackberry, obsessively checking email and voice mails, we have left no space for other parts of ourselves.

If we spend all our time working, traveling to work, planning to work, thinking about work, or communicating about work, then we will see ourselves as workers and nothing more. As long as work is going well, we can survive that way.

But when we lose our jobs or our jobs are threatened — and whose isn’t these days? — then our very existence is put in question. “Establishing your identity through work alone can restrict your sense of self, and make you vulnerable to depression, loss of self-worth, and loss of purpose when the work is threatened,” Dr. Paul Rosenfield, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, told me in a recent conversation.

Who am I if you take away my work? That’s a question to which we’d better have a solid answer. Fortunately, once we realize this we can do something about it.

We can diversify.

I don’t mean diversifying your money, though that’s a good idea too. I mean diversifying yourself. So that when one identity fails, the other ones keep you alive. If you lose your job but you identify passionately as a mother or a father, you’ll be fine. If you have a strong religious identity or a view of yourself as an artist, you’ll be fine. If you see yourself as an athlete, or even simply as a good, loyal friend, you’ll be fine.

According to Dr. Rosenfield this is an issue of mental health, even for the mentally ill. “People with mental illness often feel their identity is reduced to being mentally ill. Part of their recovery involves reclaiming other parts of their identity — being a friend, a volunteer, an artist, a dog lover, a student, a worker. It takes an active and bold effort to broaden and overcome the diminished sense of identity that results from dealing with mental illness, hospitalizations, medications, ones doctors saying ‘you need to accept being mentally ill’ without also saying ‘but I believe you are more than your illness and you still have potential to do so many things in the world.'”

Here’s the thing though: it’s not enough to see yourself in a certain way, you need to act on it. It won’t help if you identify as a father but rarely spend time with your children. Or if religion is a big part of your identity and yet you rarely engage in religious activities.

One obstacle is money. For many people, an obsession with work is really about the concern of having enough money to support themselves or their family. How can we work less and still survive?

Perhaps it’s the only way to not only survive but thrive. As I wrote about in an earlier post, stepping away from your work might just be the key to increasing your productivity.

And having multiple identities will help you perform better in each one. Because you learn things as an athlete or a parent or a poet that will make you a better employee or leader or friend. So the more you invest yourself in multiple identities, the less likely you’ll lose any one of them.

Of course, if you do lose one, you’ll be okay because you’ve got the others.

If you still believe that doing nothing but work is a necessity to support your lifestyle, then it’s worth looking at ways to reduce your lifestyle, so you don’t kill yourself trying to maintain it.

Walk away from the email and have dinner with your family. Leave work at a decent hour and play tennis with a friend. Choose rituals that have meaning to you and do them religiously. Most importantly, be consistent — doing the same thing repeatedly over time solidifies your identity.

A good friend of mine lost her job about a year ago and I called at the time to see if I could do anything. My intention was to help her find a new job as soon as possible; I knew money was tight.

I was pleasantly surprised though. She told me she had decided to postpone her job search for a few months. She was pregnant and wanted to focus on that for a while. Once she felt ready, she would look for work. She was too busy creating an identity as a mother to get caught up in her identity as a worker.

Recently I received an email from her telling me she was back at work. “I love the job,” she told me. “It’s a great balance to motherhood.”