Public Sector
August 19, 2014

So, what do you do?

New Acquaintance: “Hi, I’m Bob. Pleased to meet you. What do you do?”

You: “I’m a public servant/executive/lawyer/manager. What about you?”

New Acquaintance: “I’m a plumber.”

It’s a question we ask all the time, and the question of what somebody ‘does’ is charged with evaluative undertones. While there are a range of possible answers, the expected response is somebody’s paid employment or profession. The implied question is “What do you do to earn money?” We focus on paid work, though other responses would be equally valid – e.g., “I build model rockets” or “I’m a father of triplets.”

We could just as easily ask, “What are you passionate about?” though the likely answer is a blank stare, combined with an honest “I don’t really know.”

Our jobs can define us, and this can be dangerous. I first learned this a few years ago while on secondment to the National Managers’ Community (NMC). I supported managers in a period of downsizing stemming from the 2012 federal budget. For many, an implicit expectation of employment in the public service was (relative) job stability. Losing this stability, or even the threat of instability, was deeply unsettling. When you define yourself by your job, the threat of losing your job is stressful. Beyond the practical loss of income, there is a deeper loss of identity.

During this time the CBC reported that a lawyer at Justice Canada had committed suicide. He had been struggling with depression combined with the added stress of losing his job (or keeping it at the expense of a colleague). This dedicated public servant tragically ended his own life. According to his widow: “I guess in the end, the mental illness took over, and his whole world became wrapped up in what he did for a living.”

What can we take away from this tragedy? It is all too easy to get caught up in a job and start living to work rather than working to live.

On June 28, 2012, I received a notice that my job was affected – GovSpeak for “might be laid off”. The mere possibility that I might lose my job caused me to rethink assumptions I had made about the public service, and about myself as a public servant.

I had naïvely expected that if I worked hard and did my job well, I’d be rewarded with stable employment for life. I had defined myself as “a public servant” and the thought of being booted out of the civil service threatened my self-worth and self-esteem, creating unease and a feeling of precariousness.

In the end, I didn’t lose my job. After six months of uncertainty, I received a letter advising me that the ‘affected status’ was rescinded. In addition, none of my immediate co-workers were laid off. This was, of course, the best possible outcome. I thought, “Thank God it all turned out okay” but then wondered, “What about next time?”

The stress left lasting impacts. Among other things, I realized that I should never let a job become my sole – or even my primary – source of meaning and purpose. I now choose to define myself by my skills and passions rather than whatever job I’m occupying. I’m a great husband and father. I’m a gifted public speaker and teacher. I love to help people learn new things.

Paradoxically, this reframing process has caused me to become a better employee. I worry less about the stability of my job and focus on how I can contribute to the organization, while simultaneously building my repertoire of skills. I even used the stress of downsizing to learn more about change management, layoffs, and building organizational resiliency – topics I wouldn’t have otherwise known much about.

Work is a necessary part of life – it provides income for basic necessities and the occasional luxury. It can help provide us with meaning and relevance in a world of complexity. The danger lurks when it becomes the only source of meaning and relevance.

Relationships, health, and personal growth are all more reliable sources of pride and accomplishment. These are best discovered by having an honest conversation with yourself about your passions.

So, what are your strengths? What are your passions? Are you following them at your job or elsewhere? When somebody asks “What are you passionate about?”, do you have something to offer other than a blank stare?

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Public Sector
 
The Government of Canada was the nation’s largest employer with 274,370...
 
In the show today, J. Richard Jones talks with Dean McKeown,...
 
The Ontario Public Service (OPS) is at a crossroads. The 2018...
 
Since debuting in 2000, Survivor has traversed the world and humanity...
 
In June of last year, I returned to my roots. After...
 
There’s no doubt that digital transformation is a crucial topic, not...
 
There is an interesting paradox playing out with the public sector...
 
Canadian Government Executive, in collaboration with Dalhousie University, is seeking your...
 
Barring a massive emergency, on December 7,h 2018, Prime Minister Justin...
 
My experience in government has spanned across municipal, provincial and now...
 
“Innovation is a foreign word in the public sector.” “Public employees...
 
In a fast-paced business world, people often don’t have time to...
 
When James Cattell, a delivery manager at the UK’s Department for...
 
Welcome to the fall edition of CGE. Since our last issue,...
 
The Northern Federal Council (NFC) is a collaborative network of over...
 
Usually, the summer period is a relatively slow time for public...
 
As a new professional working in government, I hear a lot...
 
Most people go into public service because they want to improve...
 
Canadian Government Executive media (CGE) announced today that Lori Turnbull has...
 
Recently, CGE Editor-in-Chief George Ross sat down with Patrick Borbey, President...
 
The UK Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t have an easy mandate:...
 
We all ask why governments fail, often spectacularly, to carry out...
 
Innovation labs and units have become so fashionable in the public...
 
We would like to introduce a new section on Canadian Government...
 
In this episode, J. Richard Jones, publisher of Canadian Government Executive...
 
The January/February 2018 issue of Canadian Government Executive is on the...
 
You could hear the oxygen leave the room after I asked...
 
‘Elephant in the room’ is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious...
 
Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day – an annual initiative that...
 
Canadian Government Executive is honoured to have Michael Wernick, Clerk of...
 
It’s that time of year when some of us think reluctantly...
 
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This quote from management specialist Peter...
 
Professional development is tremendously important to members of Canada’s public sector....
 
Public servants are responsible for providing advice and support to the...
 
The International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index project, a collaboration between...
 
Today, the challenges facing governments are increasingly shifting away from traditional,...
 
Rankings of public sector entities has been big trend for quite...
 
Have you ever met a virtual human being? By common definition,...
 
In today’s workplace, individuals increasingly face dynamic and difficult challenges that...
 
In a rather unusual, quiet manner this past summer, a new...
 
We are happy to share with you the September 2017 issue...
 
We are pleased to provide you with an opportunity to help...
 
Innovation is vital in every sector; public service is no exception....
 
In this episode of CGE Radio, George Ross, Editor-in-Chief of CGE...
 
For over 20 years, Canadian Government Executive (CGE) has been a...
 
In this episode, Editor-in-Chief of CGE, George Ross talks with Sir...
 
How does a mandate for innovation challenge evaluation? Increasingly, the public...
 
The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA Alliance) is Canada’s One Voice...
 
Currently, there are ten organizations at the federal level that function...
 
Risk is always present in any undertaking, no matter the size...
 
In 2015, the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED)...
 
The critical challenge facing the public service is changing its culture....
 
What we do in life echoes in eternity (GLADIATOR (2000) An...
 
In this issue of Canadian Government Executive, our lead story is...
 
For all its subtleties and mysteries, the Westminster system of government...
 
Several factors are driving an increased interest in horizontal assurance in...
 
The bootleg fentanyl overdose crisis that is sweeping across Western provinces...
 
Terrorism operates with deadly regularity. In June 2016, a gunman who...
 
It’s a common notion that young workers born in the mid-1990s...
 
According to the latest Viewpoint report issued by the Montreal Economic Institute, Quebec’s...
 
The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) has released new research...
 
The association representing more than 42,000 physicians and medical students in...
 
Yesterday, arbitrator Michel G. Picher accepted Canada Post’s proposal during final...
 
Contrary to the stereotype of eagerness and politesse, the second Bold...
 
Between the streetcars, buses and subways that interconnect across the city...
 
After writing the book “Megatrends: The Impact of Infrastructure on Ontario’s...
 
Over the past forty years, ministers have grown remarkably more media-sensitive...
 
Though many of Canada’s immigrants have above-average education, they often find...
 
Governments around the world are seeking to tap technologies such as...
 
The fact that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has struggled mightily under...
 
The union representing Canadian postal workers has rejected a proposal from...
 
The possibility of mail delivery disruption on Friday this week loomed...
 
The Senate committee looking into Canada’s Syrian refugee program wants the...
 
Computer software company Adobe, has migrated more than 11 million pages...
 
As a consultant, I work primarily with private sector organizations including...
 
The recent retirement of seven federal deputy ministers (DMs) reminds us...
 
On June 7, over 40 senior executives from within the public...
 
All’s fair in love and war JOHN LILY (1578): EUPHUES: THE...
 
Whether it is convincing companies to build R&D centres, factories, or...
 
The fact that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has struggled mightily under...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
The actions and decisions of public servants have consequences for the...
 
Public sector design thinking has evolved from obscurity to something of...
 
The procurement group within the Government of Canada is undergoing a...
 
People caught a glimpse of the work of partisan advisers in...
 
Veterans Affairs Canada is not adequately managing the drug component of...
 
The Trudeau government is now six months into its mandate and...
 
Some public servants will have to request their departments for emergency...
 
It almost goes without saying that good governance requires fair and...
 
One of the most important powers at the disposal of Canadian...
 
Two years ago, Bixi, a not-for-profit, para-municipal bicycle-share firm of the...
 
Following the various mandate letters from the Trudeau Administration, the Minister...
 
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) yesterday heard from several...
 
Years and years ago when I was unemployed, being able to...
 
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) today begins a public...
 
In dealing with the impact on the sharing economy on transportation,...
 
Professors are obliged to set regular weekly office hours, something most...
 
Things just get curiouser and curiouser. Lewis Carroll (1865): ’s Adventures...
 
As Toronto’s city staff prepares top release proposed regulations for taxis...
 
The Prime Minister is now well into the consolidation phase of...
 
It is no secret that evaluation reports in the federal public...
 
  The pressure is always on to make government services to...
 
The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Lab is...
 
Eight years ago, the always prolific University of Chicago Law School...
 
Canadians expect their public services to be delivered in a way...
 
The Liberal government is expected to announce on Tuesday a new...
 
The Trudeau Liberal platform of instituting “delivery” capabilities has garnered considerable...
 
Shared Services Canada appears to be in trouble again – this...
 
Growing public expectations on the speed at which they can received...
 
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health is poised to hold a news...
 
A while back there have been numerous media reports about the...
 
Monday was the final day for Canadians to donate money to...
 
Prime Minister Trudeau is off on one of the most intense...
 
A number of studies of Canadian federal and provincial government policy...
 
That the new Liberal Government has embraced ‘open government’ is hardly...
 
Meet Bob Heart.  He is an outstanding employee who works hard...
 
There is no shortage of examples of businesses that effectively used...
 
This year is the “International Year of Evaluation”, an area that...
 
By Craig Killough In March of this year, the Prime Minister’s Advisory...
 
Written By Jason McNaught The Public Service Alliance of Canada was...
 
Written by Jason McNaught Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page doesn’t...
 
Public servants deliver the government’s agenda and serve Canadians in policy,...
 
As with any other industry, technology plays a vital role within...
 
In 1990, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada published The...
 
Our jobs can define us, and this can be dangerous. I...
 
The Veterans Ombudsman’s office is accepting nominations for the Veterans Ombudsman’s...
 
“I wasn’t really nervous until he hooked up the wires,” said...
 
CGE columnist David Zussman, Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in...
 
The public service is a funny beast. We have so many...
 
The health of our public service executive cadre should matter not...
 
The government of Saskatchewan gave the Premier’s Award for Excellence in...
 
Since the Clerk’s Blueprint 2020 launch in June, departments have been working full...
 
What’s the purpose of jargon? Jargon that is incomprehensible to the...
 
Can an organization change through new leadership alone? Related posts:
 
The official travel card suppliers for federal employees of the government...
 
Anxiety, fatigue, and exhaustion in a leader can burnout the team....
 
Passing on shared knowledge and letting new leaders emerge are ways...
 
When the public face of an organization or a well-known leader...
 
HR has a poor reputation for innovation. After all, risk might...
 
What do you do if you’re a leader in a large...
 
School bullying has been an issue in the news, and it’s...
 
The simple basics of brainstorming are forgotten far too often, and...
 
Motivation can be linked to the following job characteristics: skill variety,...
 
Taken every three years, this is the latest feedback on what...
 
What matters most to managers?High productivity? Efficiency and organization? How about...
 
It remains perennially important to distinguish between what makes a great...
 
A public relations mishap can be turned into positive attention, as...
 
James Kendrick’s January article The Right Leadership got me thinking about...
 
With innovation, the question is not just how, but who? Who...
 
In October, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service...
 
Last spring, the Mental Health Commission of Canada launched the country’s...
 
The best of the Editor’s Choice articles...
 
In the Nineteenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the...
 
Air travel can be stressful and harmful. While the destination may...
 
They told us that technology would usher in the ‘era of...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007 I am writing this from my...
 
Whether it’s travel, improving your golf swing or finally tackling the...
 
Quote of the week “Unless a public sector executive knows a...
 
Is retirement on your horizon? Do you plan to finish with...
 
Mental health matters. No one knows this better than Sylvie Giasson....
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
The Government of Canada was the nation’s largest employer with 274,370...