"Work Isn't Family..."

"Your work is not your family."

I've been hearing this a lot lately. To be perfectly honest, until recently I bought into the statement. I considered that a perceived family-level attachment at work was a bad sign. The idea that someone's actual family connection was weak enough to feel that they needed to attach to people at work as if they were family seemed so sad. I felt like boundaries between work and home should be very clearly set, but I think I was wrong. Owing to what I know about the complexities of family dynamics, I should have known better.

I started watching "Severance" in its first season. The premise of this show is very thought-provoking. From Wikipedia,
A biotechnology corporation, Lumon Industries, uses a "severance" medical procedure to separate the non-work memories of some of their employees from their work memories. One severed employee, Mark, gradually uncovers a web of conspiracy from both sides of the division. 

 Severance. (2022, November 9). In Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severance_(TV_series)

The show sets the stage for what could be described as a work-life balance to the absolute extremes. As season one transpired it became increasingly evident that key characters were not as blissful and content as one would hope having made such a drastic decision to separate their work lives from their lives away from work. Why would one take such drastic measures to erase memories of their personal life while at work, and in turn, do the same for any memory of work when not at work? Among other emerging details of the plot, it appears that doing so did not necessarily have the desired effect, and that simply erasing a contextual bank of memories doesn't actually disconnect one from the experiences that created them as effectively as the characters may have hoped. The show really is a brilliant exploration of the deeply dynamic personal, and interpersonal connections between how we function and perceive home and work.

I also consider the concept of "third place." I worry that people don't know what a third place is leave alone whether they have one or not. A person's third place is described sociologically as,

the social surroundings that are separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and the workplace ("second place"). Examples of third places include churches, cafes, clubs, public libraries, bookstores or parks. In his book The Great Good Place (1989), Ray Oldenburg argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Third place. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place

We have obviously lost some ground during the Covid 19 pandemic replacing actual places with virtual spaces that I'd argue can't fully take the place of the visceral, multi-sensory environments that we might consider to be our 'third places.' I'm left reflecting on the possibility that work might, for some, serve as their second, and third place. I've begun to realize that the story one tells themselves about themselves, in particular, where they see themselves fitting amidst the complexity of varied social environments largely determines where they actually end up fitting. If one sees themselves fitting best in the social-dynamic environment of their work context, perhaps that is where one needs to fit.

I recently started a new role at work as a "Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator." I have become more focused on issues of mental health and wellness as a result, and I've been questioning some of the presumptions I made before assuming the role. it seems that people are having a difficult time coping with the world as it is right now. Complex and frustrating political, social, and economic issues are prevalent in every direction. It's hard to quiet the 'noise' that surrounds the unstable realities of our times. I've always perceived that one's perceptions determine their truths. We all write our own stories, and the tone that our story takes largely sets the tone for how we perceive the stories of others. As I've said before, the deep personal feelings that underpin our perceptions are difficult to understand until we make the effort to walk a mile in the other person's shoes we can't get a glimpse of the lives they have experienced outside of their emotions, their politics, their beliefs... their private logic. According to Alfred Adler, until we commit to asking ourselves how others would finish the statements,

"I am... the world is... other people are... therefore..."

The answers to these prompts are critically important if we're to be self-aware and perhaps, other-aware to the largest degree possible. Knowing the answers that we provide ourselves, and the insights regarding the answers of others don't necessarily make them honest and true, it just means that we are aware. Don Miguel Ruiz writes about this in his book, "The Voice of Knowledge." Tapping into ancient Toltec wisdom, he warns,
Don't believe anybody, but this doesn't mean closing your mind or your heart. Listen to other people tell their stories. You know that it's just a story and that it's only true for them. When you listen, you can understand their story; you can see where people are coming from, and the communication can be wonderful. Other people need to express their stories, to project what they believe, but you don't have to agree with what they say. Don't believe, but learn to listen. Even if it's just a story, sometimes the words that come from other storytellers come from their integrity. When this happens, your integrity recognizes it right away, and you agree with what they are saying. Their voices go directly to your spirit, and you feel you already know that what they are telling you is the truth.

It's certainly their truth; we all have our own personal truths. How does this awareness impact the way we feel about others, or perhaps even ourselves if we believe our work is "like family?" The lens I look through regarding this has definitely changed. If people tell me their work is their family, I believe them. There isn't any other option. If they truly believe it, I won't change their mind. I wouldn't even want to try. It doesn't matter what the objective reality is if we could even ever know that conclusively. What matters is what we do to provide the context they're looking for.

Who would complain that their work environment is unconditionally accepting? Who wouldn't appreciate that they are supported and given the benefit of the doubt at work? If we can help others feel safe, happy, cared for, appreciated, and loved at work, why wouldn't we do that? After all, there is a chance that objectively speaking, they aren't getting that anywhere else, and that would be the saddest reality ever.


  1. Thanks Sean for this thoughtful post. Ironically I recently wrote about this topic as well. https://ideasandthoughts.org/2022/05/17/should-your-workplace-be-your-family/ I appreciate your perspective here. The distinction you share is more around employee's perspective while I focused more on employers trying to suggest that work is family. After reading your post, I now will add the idea that if someone needs their work to be their family, that should be seen as viable personal choice. Thanks again for sharing.


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