A name tag that says low self esteemThe University of Phoenix School of Business recently reported the results of a survey showing that almost half (47 percent) of working adults in the U.S. gain equal or greater feelings of self-worth from their jobs and careers as they do from their personal lives. The survey of more than 1,000 working adults in the U.S. also shows that even though we’re still in tough economic times and have a national 6.1 percent unemployment rate, 60 percent of working adults would quit their job if it decreased their feelings of self-worth.

Other survey highlights include:

-45 percent of workers are still searching for the right career, and more than one-third (37 percent) plan to change careers in the next two years.

-Younger workers are the most interested in transition, with 66 percent of workers in their 20s still searching for the right career and 55 percent planning to change careers in the next two years.

-The youngest and the oldest working adults are the most likely to quit a job if it decreases their feelings of self-worth, as reported by 69 percent of workers in their 20s and 72 percent of workers age 60 and above.

-54 percent of employees surveyed believe that pursuing additional education would increase their feelings of self-worth.

A 2013 USA Today article supports the findings of this current study. The article, “At Work: Job, self-esteem tied tightly together,” references a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index of 100,000 Americans, which revealed that 11.4 percent of unemployed Americans  last year were depressed compared to 5.6 percent of those working full time during the survey period. Another 16.6 percent of Americans not in the workforce were depressed at that time.

“It is possible that there is something about employment that contributes to lower depression rates, or it could be that those who have depression are less able to seek out and retain employment,” Gallup wrote. The USA Today article quotes a psychotherapist who supported this concept. It reads:

“Being employed helps you feel wanted and that you’re contributing to your finances, says psychotherapist Elizabeth Lombardo. It also gives you social support — “a buffer against depression.”

In his practice, psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert sees a lot of unemployed people who are depressed.

He describes them as usually feeling hopeless and helpless, their sense of identity greatly diminished.

“Employment provides a sense of purpose, … of belongingness,” he says. “Those who are unemployed lack that purpose.”

The article also quotes another psychotherapist, Charles Allen, who believes working and self-esteem are closely aligned. The article reads:

“When you have a job, you have a continuous source of feedback that you are a contributing member of society, he says. That’s not to say you go to work thinking, “Hey, I’m a valued member of society.” The idea is largely subconscious.

“You feel it in the depths of your brain,” he says.

Allen notes that this idea of self-worth and career is “largely subconscious.” Many things in our world play on our subconscious, and one’s career is no different.

Think about how our society is setup: We’re told to go to school, get a degree and get a job.

Degree=money and opportunities (to make more money)

Money=stability, ability to support oneself/family

Stable family life=happiness

A degree also symbolizes an accomplishment, and there are varying levels of being deemed “accomplished” in society.

A high school graduate is accomplished compared to someone who earned a GED. And a person holding a doctorate degree is held to a higher esteem than one who earned a BA in English.

So then we transfer this title and/or accolade definition of success to our careers and self-worth. A job equals hard working, but unemployed equals lazy.

And the more distinguished the role, the more distinguished the individual.

Dr. Jane Doe is held to a much higher esteem than security guard John Doe, even though both are college educated and employed. Yet, both Jane and John are “higher up” and/or superior to Jim, Pam, and millions of other unemployed persons, especially those who have been unemployed long-term and receive government assistance.

Of course, the above example is just a brief snapshot of our society’s hierarchy and not a complete depiction (nor does it represent everyone’s views) but it does offer one simple explanation of why people define so much of their self-esteem by their occupations.

Most of us have been trained to follow these ‘steps for success’ and these societal standards and definitions of success have been driven into our subconscious since we were little.

I say we have to make the decision to define success for ourselves. Not every worker equates his or her self-worth with his or her job. Having a college degree, owning a company or even having millions in the bank are not universal signs of success and accomplishments, although we’re pushed to believe this.

Success is objective, and this holds true for one’s occupation. Think about what makes you happy, fulfilled and accomplished as an individual, and then pursue that.

Define success for yourself and on your own terms, and don’t attach your sense of self-worth to any one thing or person—especially not a job or title that could literally be yours today and someone else’s tomorrow.

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