At this time of year, it is common for us to look back at the year that was.
Unlike other yearly reflections, I have found that this year, COVID-19 has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect on what is important and really question everything that has previously been held of high value.
For many of us, one thing that has been put under the microscope and been put through a well overdue filter is paid work. And I’m not just talking about our current job, but also all the jobs we have had throughout our lives.
I think for many of us, the penny dropped. Well, actually, many pennies probably rained down—more of a thundery storm than a gentle sun shower.
For many of us, when we go to work, we have to put on our professional hats and embody the values of whoever is paying us. Generally, this is the vast majority of our waking hours from Monday to Friday.
So, if we really look at it, what is professionalism? What does putting on this little hat actually mean?
I did a quick search, and Google brought the goods with quite a few articles that explained to me in detail what it takes to be considered professional.
I found out that there were four key themes that seemed to keep coming up:
1. It is considered professional to be able to self-regulate and prioritize the needs of others. We must not let a challenging incident at work impact how we interact with our colleagues or customers.
Perhaps before we had children, we were able to come home and decompress after a challenging day; but where is this space supposed to come from when we live in a society that encourages nuclear families and the lack of support from a village to raise our babies? Do we really have the capacity as often as is needed for one parent to come home and say, “I’ve had a sh*t day, I need to tap out for a while?” The chances are that our partner (if we have one) might have had a similar day, and we are left to negotiate our mental health in competition with another with equally valid and immediate needs.
2. It is considered professional to be polite and not let what might be going on outside of work impact on you at work.
I know that focussing on our own problems all day isn’t necessarily helpful, but we can’t be expected to successfully hide what is going on for us for as long as is required in a workday.
Now, no one needs perfect parents, and so much of our lives are spent in a constant state of rupture and repair with our children. But why do we have to prioritize keeping it all together at work and then create less than ideal environments for our families who love and cherish us for who we are—not just seeing us as a number?
3. It is considered professional to pay attention to our appearance and present ourselves.
I’m not saying we should all be un-showered all the time, but I am also aware of the extra effort being well put together has on working families. Getting one, two, three, or however many people out the door each morning must be a logistical and emotional nightmare (I find it hard with just a toddler, and he stays at home with a caregiver whilst I work). Adding to this morning rush is the expectation that you are not professional if you let standards slip somewhat in the clothes, hair, and makeup department?
4. It is considered professional to keep promises you have made to your boss, colleagues, or customers. Let people know asap if you can’t meet a deadline but do whatever you can to avoid ending up in this situation. Resist making excuses; focus on meeting expectations as best you can.
Yes, being someone who embodies integrity is not a bad thing, but what happens when this creates and perpetuates a culture in an organization of getting a project done at all costs. This component of professionalism is what sees people taking work home after hours or staying back late.
Being conditioned to believe that this level of commitment is expected and valid encourages and forces us to make sacrifices in our personal lives to not just the people who actually care and want the best for us—but to ourselves.
All of these requirements are negatively impacting our families and ourselves. A study completed by the Black Dog Institute supports this idea. The study called “Why your job might be making you sick (2018)” found that 14 percent of mental health problems could be avoided if workers were less overwhelmed.
The institute stated that people who experience higher job demands, lower job control, and more job strain are at a greater chance of developing mental illness by the age of 50 (regardless of sex or occupation). This included working through breaks, taking work home, and having limited control of how you do your job.
So the way many people are being expected to work is contributing to avoidable mental health problems and is making certain that we develop mental illness by the time we are 50?
And what about the further impacts of stress? If your stress response (fight, flight, freeze, or flop) doesn’t stop firing and your stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, your long-term health can be impacted. If you are not intimately aware of the long-term impacts of stress, then I highly suggest to get to the internet right now and upskill and inform yourself in this area—’cause this sh*t is bad.
Okay, I’m calling it. I am terming the extreme traits of professionalism—they are toxic.
To add further complexity to this messy situation, we are conditioned to think of work as an incredibly important part of our self-worth and identity. The cultural scripts we take on prove this.
How often do you catch yourself saying something like, “Hi, my name is Jess, and I am a…”
But, for many people, who they are in their professional life isn’t their authentic selves. It’s perhaps not even a version of themselves they like much. It is a watered-down version that has been put through the filter of the organization’s own values. It is rare that someone makes a living from being in their truth in exchange for money. Is it really that surprising that so many of us struggle with self-worth?
If we continue to put this notion of toxic professionalism on a pedestal, we will continue being treated as a number in an organization. We are replaceable.
I believe that whilst as a collective we work in organizations that require us to leave our authentic selves and real-world problems at the door, we will continue to make ourselves sick and damage our family relationships (for this generation and the next one). We will continue to unknowingly impart a way of life that is damaging and will continue to be dismissed as culture and just the way things are.
I say this with so much compassion for how we have done things in the past. This is just what has been expected of us. So much of this is subconscious. But I just wonder: does it have to stay this way?
So here are my questions:
If, as a collective, we start expecting to be treated differently at work, if we really truly continue to celebrate employers (including small business and sole traders) that are doing things differently, can we then create a circuit breaker for our children’s future experience of work?
Will this lead to some improved well-being and health for our families and ourselves?
What were your COVID-19 realizations, and what have you reflected on as 2020 comes to an end?