Rethinking may be better than resigning when your job shifts under your feet

Adapting to imposed new tasks isn’t easy but can lead to personal and professional growth if employees are supported through the process, new research shows.


Health-care professionals whose jobs underwent major overhauls initially saw it as a threat to their identity, but those who had support were able to adapt successfully, even reporting they were serving patients better, according to a new study. (Photo: Getty Images)

Over the past two years, the nature of work for some has changed dramatically, whether it’s working remotely, relying more heavily on digital tools or adapting to restructuring and shifts in the economy. Many of us have been reflecting on whether our jobs are giving us what we want out of life.

Canada may not be witnessing a “Great Resignation” of millions — as we’ve seen in the United States — but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been questioning how our work aligns with our values and identity, especially when change is beyond our control.

The relationship between work and professional identity is one that business professor Trish Reay has explored in some depth. She recently completed a study on how professional workers adapt to imposed job redesign, and discovered that while initially uncomfortable — in some cases resembling grief — change can eventually result in fulfilment and personal growth.

The study followed a number of health-care professionals in a U.K. public services organization who faced a major job redesign, requiring them to take on entirely new skill sets for which they had no training.

University of Alberta business researcher Trish Reay (Photo: Supplied)
Business professor Trish Reay found that professionals faced with major changes to their jobs went through four stages of finding a new work-related identity, from initial resistance and avoidance to gradually becoming willing to learn and affirm their new roles. (Photo: Alberta School of Business)

You are what you do — or are you?

To improve efficiencies in caring for elderly patients at home, rehabilitation professionals such as occupational therapists and assistants were expected to provide financial consultations in addition to caregiving. Caseworkers had to learn rehabilitation skills in addition to providing financial services.

In both cases, the imposed work fell so far outside the employees’ comfort zones that it amounted to a significant identity threat. The reaction was predictably acute: about a third of the employees quit, and the rest retreated to a position of denial and avoidance.

“People clearly didn’t like it,” said Reay. “They would say, ‘I didn't sign up for this, and I don't want to do it.’”

When given the right training, encouragement and support, however, those who opted to stick it out were eventually able to adapt, even admitting the services they provided had improved.

“In some ways it’s equivalent to the Kübler-Ross stages of grieving,” said Reay, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Finding a new professional identity

In her own study, she identified four stages of restructuring professional identity in response to job redesign:

  1. Resisting identity change and mourning the loss of previous work
  2. Conserving professional identity and avoiding the new work
  3. “Parking” professional identity and learning the new work
  4. Retrieving and modifying a new professional identity and affirming the new work

The crucial third stage allows for what Reay calls the “liminal space” necessary to “park” one’s professional identity, temporarily setting aside one’s old self to try new ways of working.

“It’s a bit like holding your breath, or saying, ‘OK, I’ll just suspend judgment on who I really am and focus on learning the new work.’

“That turned out to be a bridging piece to move through what they needed to do, and then kind of pick up their identity again, much like leaving your car in a parking lot. You come back to it, and you can think about it a little differently.”

When given the time and space to work through the process, many employees in the study discovered positive outcomes, especially when their older adult clients could see and appreciate the improvement in delivery of service.

“It was an ‘aha’ moment for the professionals to realize, 'Wow, I was really thinking about myself here, but I care about these clients and they’re telling me this new way is better,’” said Reay.

While time to mourn the loss of one’s old professional identity is important, it should be limited, she added. Workers must be immersed in the new assignment as quickly as possible, with clear expectations from management, otherwise workers will continue to avoid it.

“You need a little space, but not too much,” she said. “Our study showed that people had to actually start doing the work, and management took steps to ensure they were doing it.

“Professionals hold very strong identities that make change difficult if managers don't put expectations in place.”

As for pandemic-related changes, Reay said her research points the way to some light at the end of the tunnel. It shows that if we can learn to be open-minded and willing to briefly park our identities, we can adjust.

“Online teaching is something I never wanted to do, but I didn't have a choice,” said Reay. “I certainly miss the in-person classes, but what we're collectively learning is that at least some parts of our workplace can maybe be done better without being in person.

“I've learned I can adapt, which is good to know.”