Let's talk about work ethic, identity and guilt


For as long as I can remember, I have prided myself on my work ethic. It has always been a core part of my identity, an attribute that has shaped how I see myself and present myself to the world. I had my first job at 14, washing up pots at a local pub for £3.20 an hour. I had two part time jobs while studying for my A levels, three during my final year of university. In recent years I’ve hustled away at my day job for 40 hours a week, before coming home and spending another 20 or 30 hours working on my blog and side projects. Work has always been a source of fulfilment for me, and I’ve never shied away from it.

It was always going to be that way. While my upbringing was definitely comfortably middle class, both sides of my big Liverpudlian family have identified as working class for generations. My sister and I were afforded a childhood of foreign holidays and Christmas lists not because of inherited wealth or automatic privilege, but because our parents and grandparents grafted as hard as possible in order to give us as much as they could. When I look back at my childhood, everyone was always working - my parents, my grandparents, my aunties and uncles. In fact, my Nan was still working up until 3 weeks before she passed away, aged 81.

And so it’s probably no surprise that I inherited a similar work ethic and have applied it to everything from my academic studies to my career. That work ethic saw me travel to China and Hong Kong on my own for work at 23, and sit in shows at London Fashion Week at the age of 19. It’s allowed me to win awards and review 5* hotels that cost hundreds of pounds a night to stay in. I’ve attended movie premieres and presented to global senior leaders. I’ve had my words printed in magazines and regional newspapers. I’ve parasailed and paddleboarded and danced until dawn, all in the name of work. And perhaps most importantly, that work ethic has allowed me to take care of myself. It’s afforded me both security and enjoyment - a beautiful home and a steady pension pot, with plenty of holidays thrown in too.

I don’t say any of this to brag or show off. I say it to highlight the fact that working hard has been the driving force behind so many of the fun and exciting memories that have defined my twenties. My work ethic has afforded me incredible opportunities and privileges that I couldn’t have dreamed of back when I was washing pots in a pub at 14. Embracing it has given me independence, fulfilment, and plenty of anecdotes to share with my grandchildren one day.

And yet, I can see now that that same work ethic has also taken so much away from me too. It’s stolen hundreds of Sunday evenings that were filled with anxiety and panic about the weeks to do list, instead of rest and relaxation. It’s stolen precious holiday time, hours spent replying to emails from my sun lounger instead of getting stuck into a good book. It’s stolen evenings that could have been spent with my husband and friends, as I tapped away at my laptop long into the night. Work has absorbed so much of the past decade that there hasn’t always been much time left over for living.

And I find it really difficult to reconcile those two things. I find it hard to appreciate how much work has added to my life, while simultaneously accepting that it has also taken so much away. And all of this is bubbling to the surface for me at the moment because I know I need to make a change. I know that I need to take my foot off the gas a little bit. I know that I need to release the grip that work has over my life, and give more time over to the other things that are important to me.

But how do I do that when my work ethic is such a huge part of my identity? How do I do that when I can see how much work has added to my life? How do I do that when my hard work has always been rewarded and praised? How do I let go of the guilt that comes with not working to maximum capacity? Here’s what I’m learning and doing so far…

Rewiring my brain for rest

I know wholeheartedly that I do my very best work when I prioritise rest. I am more productive, more efficient, more creative and more motivated when I give my brain the opportunity to switch off every now and then, and yet, whenever the to do list feels too much, my default action is to spend more time chained to the desk.

I’m trying to rewire my brain at the moment to choose rest over hustle when the going gets tough, as well as building rest into my routine as a non-negotiable. That means set bed times, half an hour each evening for reading, and leaving time in my diary to binge watch Netflix. I’m slowly learning that sometimes doing nothing is the very best thing for business.

Untangling work from worth

I think one of the reasons why I struggle so much with workaholic tendencies is that I’ve always assimilated work with worth. We live in a society that rewards hard work, and it’s certainly something I was taught to value by my family too. But along the way I’ve let my self worth become too enmeshed with how hard I work.

The way I’m trying to get around this is to start to unhook from that external praise and build a better sense of worth on my own terms. It’s not a straightforward process by any means, but I’m trying to give more weight to my own needs and feelings, while also remembering that I can be a better friend, family member and colleague when I’m not completely frazzled.

Leaning into the other parts of my identity

For as long as I can remember, being a bit of a workaholic has been such a huge part of my identity. I’ve always been the girl who did well in exams, or the girl who was ambitious in her career. I’ve been the colleague who could be counted on to pick up the slack, or the friend who always had one eye on her emails.

But I don’t want that to be the biggest part of my identity anymore. I don’t want “hard worker” to be the most interesting part of my personality, and so I’ve been leaning into the other parts of my identity. I’ve been remembering what it feels like to be the bookworm, or the travel addict, or the city girl who not so secretly prefers the countryside. Leaning into these different parts of my personality has reminded me that I am so much more than my work.

Leaning into what feels good

And finally, I come back to what seems to be becoming a bit of a mantra for me this year - leaning into what feels good. It’s a simple idea, but one that I’ve found can be useful in so many situations, including this one. Quite simply, I’m giving myself permission to lean into what feels good at any given moment.

Sometimes what feels really good is sitting at my desk and doing some work I’m really proud of, and sometimes it’s curling up on the sofa with my book and a cup of tea. I’m trying to learn that both of those actions are equally valid, and that they each enrich my life in their own way.

What’s your relationship with work like? Do you struggle to switch off from work like I do, or are you better at finding a balance?