Sally Webb says work does not define someone.

Sally Webb says work does not define someone. Photo: Anthony Johnson

First, Erin Riley felt someone’s hand on her shoulder. Then, waiting for her behind closed doors, was a human resources manager to tell her that the finance sector company she worked for was struggling and she no longer had a job.

Riley, 29, collected her things and left the building. At home, the tears came. She’d quit a long-term job mid-last year to go to the Sydney CBD company. She’d thought it was a good career move. The new job had lasted eight months.

“I was basically curled up in a foetal position. I barely got out of bed, I was crying constantly,” says Riley. “Because I don’t have a family, don’t have children and I don’t have a partner, my job is a really big part of my life and so to have that taken away suddenly was really disorienting.

Missing the camaraderie: Scott Hall

Missing the camaraderie: Scott Hall Photo: Peter Rae

“I think that was the biggest shock – ‘Who am I now?’.”

Hundreds of Australians have lost their jobs in the past month alone at companies including Qantas, BHP and Ford. As many of them will likely soon discover, redundancy is often a blow to more than just a person's income stream. It can be "an incredibly emotional experience,” says Nadine Flood, the national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, which will deal with the aftermath of the 16,500 public sector job cuts announced in the federal budget. 

“They’re asking the question, ‘why me?’ and ‘what’s wrong with me?’ 10, 15, 20 years later,” says Dr Joanne Earl, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of NSW.

Moving on: Adam Batten.

Moving on: Adam Batten. Photo: Brendan Esposito

Psychologists file the matter under the labels “role theory” or “work centrality”. “It’s not just the tasks and the responsibilities that the person has been displaced from … they’ve potentially been displaced from social networks and a purpose, so it’s a bit like a bad break-up with a partner,” says Earl.

Mark Petersen* understands how work and identity can become entangled. In 2011 he was living in China and working as a senior technical executive for a chemical company when he was made redundant. He was 54. “It was brutal,” says Petersen. “The fact that I was, for the first time in my life, without a job was absolutely devastating.”

Aggravating his distress was the fact he’d just saved the company half a million dollars by solving a problem that had been the basis of a massive damages claim against his employer. “After pouring myself into a big issue for three or four months, working 16, 18 hours a day, to be discarded like a dirty tissue, was really hard to take.”

He hadn’t been aware that his identity was so tied up with his work. “The thing I’ve learnt most now is to dissociate my identity from what I do. What I do is not a fundamental part of who I am,” says Petersen, of Wollongong, who took nine months to find a new senior job.

Even people who choose a voluntary redundancy are not immune from the tangle of emotions – rejection, grief, loss, hurt, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, anger, betrayal, helplessness – that can accompany a job loss and contribute to a loss of identity.

“In Australian culture, identity can be very closely tied up with work and, often, one of the first questions you’re asked, is ‘what do you do?’,” says Nadine Flood. It’s a question that Kim Jones*, an academic at a Queensland university whose work unit has been “dis-established”, will soon be seeking an answer to.

“When you say you’re a lecturer at a university it has a sense of esteem attached to it,” says Jones, 48, whose area of speciality is so niche that she might have no choice but to apply for jobs in other areas of the university. “I would always say if asked, ‘oh, I’m a lecturer’. And people would go, ‘Wow! what do you lecture in?’ Whereas I’m likely to say, ‘I’m only a project manager’.”

Sydney business and executive coach Peter Black says the loss of identity can be even more pronounced for someone made redundant from a high-status, high-salary job. “They see themselves as having a worth in terms of the salary they were earning,” says Black, whose diary is filled with clients using his “career transition” services. “That’s probably one of the hardest messages to get across – you’re worth what the market is prepared to pay you now, not what your previous employer was.”

Belonging to the tribe

Work that allows someone to flex a set of skills, or to problem solve in challenging situations, or to deploy their talents in a creative pursuit, contributes to growth and a sense of accomplishment.

But the workplace matters, too. A workplace “tribe”, can provide a sense of connection and belonging, says Randwick clinical psychologist Anne Devlin. “In those places like Shepparton people will have a heritage of families and grandfathers and cousins working there; there’s a whole social structure around that.” (Thousands of Goulburn Valley jobs were in danger until February when the Victorian government announced a $22 million assistance package for the struggling SPC Ardmona.)

Scott Hall, a fitter and machinist from Winston Hills in Sydney’s north-west, has lost his tribe. The 49 year-old accepted a redundancy from Boeing Aerostructures Australia in Bankstown in March last year. “I’m missing the camaraderie of the place,” says Hall, whose entire working life was spent at Boeing. “It was extremely important to me; that was my first and only ever job I had. I did my apprenticeship there.”

Aviation is just one sector to have fallen on hard times. Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and book publishing are under pressure too. More than 1500 journalists have been made redundant since June 2012 around Australia, according to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, including more than 400 from Fairfax Media, the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, more than 600 from News Limited and about 150 Network Ten employees. On Monday, the ABC announced that about 80 people, including journalists, producers and technical staff, would be made redundant.

Sydney editor and publisher Sally Webb was one of the early ones to feel the ill winds blowing across the sector. She lost her job as deputy editor of Fairfax Media’s Travel + Leisure magazine when it closed in 2009. Three years later she again became a victim of an industry in transition when Allen & Unwin bought Murdoch Books and her role as food publisher disappeared.

“I was passionate about what I did – I didn’t do it because I got money for it,” says Webb, 48, of Annandale. “Through no fault of my own, someone else took that right to do that job away from me and that was devastating.”

The redundancy process itself, with its dehumanising, euphemistic language, can contribute to the devastation. Former CSIRO mechanical technician Adam Batten was told, “your position is surplus to requirements”. Batten, 49, finished up at CSIRO’s Lindfield operation in April after 23 years. “It was an absolute kick in the guts.”

Nor are there too many human touches in the restructures often accompanying redundancies. Kim Jones, the academic whose work unit was “dis-established”, says her organisation’s new structure includes levels designated by letters and numbers – but no names. “It’s about roles and position descriptions, not about people; it’s about functions for what a new entity will perform, not about personalities or existing areas of expertise.”

Adam Batten, 49, of Baulkham Hills, has done his best to move on from his redundancy. “I’ve got a lot of working life in front of me and it’s an opportunity to make a shift into another career,” says Batten, whose thinking on the matter has been helped along by a beer or two. The married father of two and enthusiastic home brewer is exploring opportunities in the brewing industry.

Executive coach Peter Black says being agile and flexible are the keys to reinvention. He advises people in corporate roles to adopt an “entrepreneurial approach” to their work. “You [should] regard yourself as a one-person business that just happens to have one client. I put the question to people – what is your client service like, what is your client account management like, what are you doing to develop your skills, what are you doing to develop your networks, what are you doing to manage your career from a strategic perspective rather than leaving it in the hands of an employer?’.”

Sally Webb is determined never to put anything in the hands of an employer again. After her second redundancy she took an eight-month “small business incubator” course. It led her to start her own business, “Travel Without Tears”, for which she has self-published a book and launched a website. “I refuse ever to be a pawn in anyone else’s game again. The only person who’s going to close down my business is me – if it doesn’t do well – but I’m not planning that as an option.”

In addition, she has separated her sense of identity from her work. “I’m a mother of two children, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, and what redundancy makes you realise is that those things are way more important than anything you do during the working day.”

* Names have been changed.