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Who am I if I’m not at work?

A while ago I got a text message that said, “You have been identified as someone who may be at high risk of severe illness if you catch Coronavirus.” Along with about 2 million others in the UK, I cannot leave my house. The original end date I was given was the 18th June, this has now been extended to the 30th June. And given the latest warnings from WHO about the likelihood of the virus staying around and the uncertainty around immunity and vaccine coverage, I’m now planning on a fairly long stretch of working at home. As an academic I’m fairly used to working from home and to working independently. But it is starting to play havoc with my sense of self. Who am I as a working professional if I’m not physically at work?

Identity & Identification

The realisation that this question was bothering me was timely, given that I’d promised a blog about identity and Covid. Identity, and identification, can help us to explain how we see ourselves. This is because our self-concept is comprised of our different identities. We have personal identities (I’m an avid reader), relational identities based on our connections with others (I’m Patrick’s mother and Matt’s wife), and collective identities based on the groups we belong to (I’m an Australian).

But one of the things I find most interesting about identities is that they can shift in and out of importance. Your self-concept is a big tool-box that carries all your identities; you pick up and use whichever ones are most useful to you at any one time. So, when you’re at work, focused on work goals, you use your work-related identities; when you’re at home, with home goals, you use your home-related identities. Over time, you can end up with what I like to think of as different tool-belts of identities that are more, or less, useful depending upon what you are working on.

My Identities

My work-related identities are all based around “thinking”. When I do the Twenty Statements Test on myself, the most salient work identities are being a researcher, a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a Leeds University academic, and so on. But my home-related identities are much more around “supporting” – being a mum and a partner.

Up until the coronavirus lockdown, I used to work from home maybe once or twice a week. I was able to keep my work identities and my home identities in fairly separate spheres of my life. From a goal hierarchy perspective, there weren’t any negative connections between them. I used the cues and routines that we promote for tele-workers to ensure that I had work/life balance and, in doing so, I stopped my work identities from emerging while I was at home. It was all good.


Now I’m working from home permanently and everything has changed. Yes, my home identities are secure. But my work identities are in flux – will I still be a thinker? I’m going through a state of sensebreaking. Sensebreaking was first discussed by Michael Pratt in his study on the cult-like properties of Amway. (I’d strongly recommend reading this work (click here); for an academic paper, it is an easy read, and definitely one of the most interesting). He defines sensebreaking as “a fundamental questioning of who one is when one’s sense of self is challenged”.

I started reflecting on why working from home was challenging my sense of self and it suddenly came to me when I actually looked at the identities I’d written above. My work identities are either collective or relational. In other words, who I am is based upon my relationships with other people and with my organisation.

Which made me question… what happens when the relationships are only virtual? Will the relationships be maintained? If they aren’t, will I lose my sense of self? Or will I change who I am? Already, I can feel myself moving towards more personal-level identities and away from strong identification with more collective-levels. I feel less like a Leeds University academic than I did six months ago, and more like any old professor. The cues upon which so many of my identities were made salient – the teaching rooms where I talked with students, my office where my colleagues and I would have meetings huddled around a little round desk, the kitchenette down the hall where you could guarantee running into at least one PhD or faculty colleague – have all gone. The only physical cue that ties me back into my relational and collective work identities is my laptop.

My identification is becoming wobbly. It’s a bit like standing on a basketball on one leg while trying to pour a cup of tea. It’s just not really fitting together easily.

I know this might sound self-pitying and, honestly, it’s not a cry for help. Instead, I think I’m simply making sense of my shifting identities. Who am I when I’m working but not at work? Going back to sensemaking research, what I need is sensegiving.


The best way I can describe sensegiving is to think about a very young puppy. Anybody who’s ever owned a dog knows just how little a puppy knows. Blank slates are stained compared to young puppies. A puppy is trying to make sense of her world and you, as her owner, help her to do this by providing interpretations. When you’re socialising a puppy, you’re letting her know that she doesn’t need to fear people or other dogs but that busy roads are scary. Your view of the world gets transferred into her view of the world; puppies pick up on our reactions (even when we don’t realise it) and interpret the world accordingly. You’re being the sensegiver.

Right now, I’m the young puppy. Me and everybody else who is going through a seekership phase (searching for meaning and a sense of self). Maybe you’re on furlough and don’t know if you want to go back to your old job. Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you own a small business that might not survive. Maybe you’ve decided to take early retirement. Maybe you’ve lost someone or come close to losing someone or been seriously ill yourself and are re-evaluating your life. There’s lots of reasons why people move into seekership. It doesn’t matter how you got to be a young puppy, what matters is making sure that your owner is doing right by you.

Man steering a boat
Sensegiving is like somebody else steering the boat for a while

There are plenty of agents out there trying to provide frameworks you can use for sensegiving but sensegiving can be used for naughty as well as nice (as the study with Amway showed). Puppies can be socialised into being anxious, fearful and aggressive just as easily as they can be socialised into being cuddly and cheerful.

So I need to be careful in my time of seekership and ensure that the sources I look towards share my own values. For example, in my field the Academy of Management is doing a lot of work to help academics deal with their new reality. And they are providing a lot of information to help sensegiving for all types of academics. Rather than getting into all of these, though, and potentially trying on identities that don’t ultimately fit with my values, I will focus on the divisions to which I feel an emotional, rather than an intellectual, attachment.

Who am I?

Will I still consider myself to be a researcher, mentor, teacher, leader and Leeds University academic in six months’ time? I’m not sure. Perhaps I’ll still have those identities but my identification with them will be lessened so I will connect less passionately with them. Perhaps they will become more personalised rather than relational or collective so I will focus on my personal achievements rather than on developing teams and relationships. Or, perhaps my mighty laptop is strong enough to carry me and my and my relationships through untouched. I’ll let you know…