As unemployment skyrockets during the COVID-19 pandemic, our occupational identities may not be the first thing on our minds. But the social changes we are facing may threaten these core identities, which endangers our mental health. The reality of unemployment, reduced hours, or furloughs is pervasive. For those of us fortunate enough to remain employed, the nature of our work has changed. Many white-collar workers are suddenly working from home, in a virtual environment, often while trying to balance work with parenting. Strained finances, physical health risks, and the loss of our usual social outlets are stressful.
My research on occupational identities began during the Great Recession, when I interviewed unemployed people for my dissertation. The result was a book — Job Loss, Identity, and Mental Health (Rutgers University Press 2016). The research participants disclosed three “mismatches” that threatened their identities after job loss as well as some ways of coping with those threats. I’m hoping that what I learned can help us during our current crisis.
First, many of us are experiencing feedback mismatches which occur when we receive messages (from others or from self-monitoring) that we are not who we believe ourselves to be. If you lose your job, you’ve received a direct message that you are no longer the teacher, hairdresser, or manager you once were. You can no longer perform the actions you normally would in that role, and you lose everyday interactions with role-relevant others. This makes identity maintenance difficult. Even if you’ve kept your job, COVID-19 has probably changed the way you interact with role-relevant others (e.g., colleagues, customers, students), especially if you are telecommuting. Unfortunately, virtual interactions offer fewer feedback cues than face-to-face interactions. Technical glitches and delays can make it seem like others are not paying attention. When we are less certain about how others are responding to us, feedback mismatches are likely.
Second, the sudden nature of the changes brought on by COVID-19 has left us without time to prepare for identity transformation. This leads to the experience of time mismatch in which we feel like we are no longer the same person we used to be. Losing a job may leave us feeling detached from ourselves and our past, especially if our work was central to who we were. For people who are still employed, sudden changes in working environment (e.g., online teaching), limited resources (e.g., lack of ventilators), or increased expectations (e.g., heightened workload) can make our former work identities unrecognizable.
Finally, status mismatches occur when one of our social statuses (e.g., gender) clashes with society’s stereotyped expectations for a role. For example, unemployed men may feel less masculine because unemployment does not match society’s expectation of them as financial providers. People with college or graduate degrees may feel like unemployment challenges their identities as educated people. People in their thirties who have moved back in with their parents may feel like unemployment harms their age identities because they should be self-supporting.
So how can we cope with identity mismatches during COVID-19? Some people in my research shifted the focus of their identities to a pre-existing non-occupational role. For example, several women emphasized their mother identities during their job search. Others emphasized volunteer work or hobbies unrelated to their profession, such as coaching.
Other unemployed people sustained their occupational identities by finding a role that was similar enough to their lost job. This way they could continue to perform their occupations and get identity-affirming feedback. For example, a former vice president in banking volunteered to do accounting at his church, and a woman who previously worked in public safety volunteered as an emergency medical technician.
Strategies of shifting and sustaining both worked best when the new role was embedded in an institutional context. This helped define the role and promoted identity-affirming feedback. Shifting, however, typically only worked if the new role matched society’s expectations for their statuses. For example, women had an easier time than men shifting to a parent identity because it was easier for them to get validating feedback from others.
Identity threats are common when jobs change or are lost. Unfortunately, policymakers and employers rarely consider identity’s connection to mental health in their policies. Stimulus packages should explicitly fund mental health resources. Professional counseling organizations should encourage therapists to address identity threats with their unemployed clients. Websites for people to share “sustaining” ideas and help people connect their identities and expertise to existing institutional needs through volunteering may also be fruitful. Employers can help furloughed or telecommuting employees stay connected to their organizational identities by organizing regular (optional) virtual coffee hours. Financial assistance helps address monetary needs, but identity-related problems necessitate identity-focused solutions. As sociologists, let’s use our expertise and compassion to advocate for both.