Why thinking of your work as a family can be so toxic and what you can do instead


As layoffs have swept through the tech industry over the past several weeks, one thing has become clear: Your workplace isn't your family. 

As tens of thousands of jobs were cut at the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others, laid-off tech workers described feeling blindsided and hurt that their roles were unceremoniously cut — at the same time, some leaders lamented losing employees that felt like family. But experts told Insider that pushing the idea that the workplace should have a family atmosphere can be toxic — and can lead to this "gut-punch" feeling of betrayal many workers are describing post-layoff.

"That layoff feels not only impersonal, but it can feel dehumanizing," said Sylvia Bonilla Zizumbo, a career and leadership coach who spent 17 years at Google before launching her own company three years ago. "It's a blow for those who are laid off, but also for those that are still with the company, what message is it sending?" 

What happens when we think of work as a family

There are clear upsides to treating your coworkers as a family: It could pave the way for building lasting relationships and allow you to feel like you're part of a community. 

But oftentimes, when business leaders promote the family narrative and their actions don't align, it can be manipulative — a means of encouraging workers to sacrifice for the "family," the journalist's Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen wrote in their 2021 book, "Out of Office." 

"You already have a family, chosen or otherwise," they wrote. "And when a company uses that rhetoric, it is reframing a transactional relationship as an emotional one."

The workplace family "works as a means to distract and compel workers to ignore their own exploitation," they added. "It's a subtle means of discouraging requests for raises and time off, dismissing complaints about coworker behavior, and deflecting managerial malfeasance. It dissolves the best attempts at boundaries." 

What to do instead

So how should we be looking at work instead? According to Bonilla Zizumbo, there are four steps you should take: 

1. Separate your identity from your job

There's a difference between doing our best at work, challenging ourselves, and being great team players and thinking of work as our whole life. In order to get out of an unhealthy dynamic, it's important to start untangling where work ends and you as a person begins, she said. 

Work "isn't who we are, our identity," she said. "Recognizing this and separating the two is really important." 

2. Figure out what work-life balance looks like for you

There's no one-size-fits-all solution. For some people, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, striving for an even distribution of work and personal life doesn't work — he prefers work-life integration instead.

Mostly, this balance is about prioritizing the people we care about and the hobbies or interests that bring us joy, but it also means no longer putting off things like vacations or even doctor appointments, she said. 

3. Invest in yourself

For many of us, it's difficult to imagine piling another task on top of everything else we've got going on. But continuing to learn and grow is crucial and often falls by the wayside, Bonilla Zizumbo said. 

Setting aside time to learn and acquire new skills will increase your value as an employee and your marketability. She recommends asking yourself some questions: What other areas are you interested in? What are you curious about? What can you leverage? What aligns with your values?

For some, this could mean developing a side hustle. Bonilla Zizumbo spent nearly two decades working in tech before deciding to launch her career-coaching business, and it started as — you guessed it — a side hustle. 

This doesn't have to be something you can monetize right away, she said. It could be as simple as helping out on a project within your own company or volunteering for a cause you care about. Ultimately, it's about fostering a new interest and building something for yourself, something that could potentially support you down the road if you're between jobs. 

4. Nurture your professional relationships

Networking is another thing that can fall by the wayside when we make work our whole lives, Bonilla Zizumbo said. 

"We get complacent and don't do enough to nurture the relationships we have and build new ones," she said. "And these are really important for ongoing support — personally, professionally — providing important insights, connecting you to other people, and being a source for new opportunities."

What's more, these relationships become crucial in the event of a layoff or other job changes. A large professional network can provide a feeling of community, she said — and can also help you look for new roles elsewhere. 

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