UW-La Crosse Sociologist Studies Link Between Job Loss, Identity And Mental Health
By Amanda Magnus
When people lose their jobs, financial problems are often the first worry. But money isn’t the only problem when someone loses a job — the fear of losing your identity and risking your mental health are also concerns, said Dawn Norris, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse sociology professor and author of “Job Loss, Identity, and Mental Health.”
“In the United States, who we are is largely based on what we do for a living,” Norris said. “One of the first things that people ask us is, ‘What do you do?’”
In the world of sociology, people have multiple identities and roles, things like being a parent, an author, an athlete, or an employee. A big piece of our identity is our job, Norris said.
“When we lose that (job), we lose that sense of stability, and we become confused about who we are,” she explained. “One of the most harmful things that can happen, that can harm our mental health, is that loss of identity.”
While writing her book, the sociologist interviewed people about how job loss affected them. She said lots of those interviewees talked about the impact being laid off had on their identity.
“People talked about not being the same person anymore, or not getting feedback from other people that they were who they thought they were,” Norris said.
She expected people to share fears about their finances in these interviews. But most people didn’t bring up their finances at all. Instead, subjects independently brought up how their identities were challenged by job loss, she said.
“Part of the problem here is that we do live in a culture that emphasizes work and making money and what we do. And it’s really, really hard to de-emphasize that when you don’t have the support of your culture,” Norris said.