We Are All Essential

I am essential

Has your job been classified as a “non-essential service?” Do you have clients who have been classified as a “non-essential workers?” Labels. Although often needed and helpful, they can also do harm.

In order to control the spread of COVID-19, some jobs were categorized as “non-essential services.” The categories of “essential” and “non-essential” determined which businesses would continue to operate during the pandemic and which would temporarily shut down.

As a result of this categorization, I have come across several clients, friends, and family and community members who have been laid off, put on leave, or let go entirely as their jobs fell into the non-essential service category.

On one hand, some good has come of this. It has helped control the spread of COVID-19 in Canada and many jobs that were previously under-valued have now risen to prominence and become highly appreciated. Some jobs have been recognized with temporary increases in salary, and advocacy groups are now mobilizing and becoming vocal about having fair wages implemented permanently.

So here is where things get interesting. I’ve noticed that there has been a lot of open discussion regarding the financial, familial, and professional consequences (such as loss of income, routine, job status) as a result of being labelled non-essential. However, I am encountering other, less often discussed impacts on non-essential service workers: a loss of morale, purpose, and identity.

The term non-essential can, for some people, translate to not important, not needed, or replaceable. Ouch, right? Some of the emotions and feelings I have had clients express include confusion, hurt, and anger as they’re told that the work they’ve been doing, whether paid or unpaid, is suddenly considered non-essential.

They hear platitudes along the lines of “It’s not personal. Don’t take it that way.” Well, that can be easier said than done.

The potential emotional and psychological impact on non-essential service workers varies from person to person, but can be profound. Clients may start to question their purpose, role in society, and self-worth as they struggle to make meaning of what they have been doing up until now.

A client may equate being labelled non-essential with “My role in society is not essential,” which can easily spiral into “I am not essential.”

So, I have put together 4 exercises (great for journaling topics!) that I hope may assist you and/or your clients — anyone who may be experiencing some of the psychological effects of being on the non-essential service list.

I welcome everyone to partake in these exercises as they are great career exploration and personal development tools, no matter what your situation. They will help you strengthen your mindfulness. The exercises do not need to be done in any particular order, nor do they all need to be completed. Feel free to make them your own.

I hope these exercises will help you shine a light on your sense of essentialism, meaning, and purpose!

1. Define your work.

Define what essential service means to YOU, as opposed to how it is defined by our government.

According to your own definition, is your work essential? Why? Your reality and your voice is what should matter the most to you. If your role is essential to you, then it is essential, right?

2. Conduct a role identity exercise.

Who are you without your paid job? If someone asks, “What do you do?”, try answering without making any reference to your paid work. Some examples of responses: neighbour, customer, father, aunt, friend, yoga class participant, volunteer, student, parent of a fur-baby.

Yes! I am talking about roles. I use this exercise with clients, especially after a job loss, in order to get them to recognize and focus on all of the important roles they take on outside of their paid work.

By verbalizing or writing down their many roles, individuals are able to view their identities through a more holistic lens. We are all so much more than our jobs.

3. Map your essentialness.

Okay. Say this out loud with me: “I am an Essential Service.” “I am Essential.” Because, without you, sure,  life may go on, but think about all the people whose lives you impact — directly or indirectly — through your work (focus specifically on your job for this exercise).

This activity is a bit like a mind map. Place your name and job title in the centre of a piece of paper. Doing this in 2nd person narrative can help you take a metacognitive stance on your essentialism! Now, you have 5 minutes for this exercise. Start linking people, places, and anything else that is impacted by the work you do. Keep branching outwards as one connection leads to the next. You may notice that you are running out of space. That’s why I like to limit this activity to 5 minutes.

Stop. Go though each connection and ask yourself how you, by being part of its/their life, positively affects it/them. There are probably more impacts than you may have initially thought there would be, right?

I’ll give you an example using someone who works as a movie theatre cashier. His or her connections might be families, children, “regulars” who enjoy a friendly chat, co-workers, the manager, the theatre itself, vendors, and the cashier’s family. When reflecting on positive impacts the cashier has, things like friend, ambassador, peer supporter, provider of enjoyable experiences, contributor to family income and the local economy, film industry supporter, etc.

4. Perform a “3 things” self-reflection exercise.

Think of your current (or most recent) job. Here are some questions for thought:

  • What are 3 things that you are most proud of during your time in your job?
  • What are 3 positive things that would not have happened had your job not existed?
  • What are 3 negative impacts on society that you are noticing as a result of you not doing your job (as it has been categorized as non-essential)? For example, if you are a hair stylist, perhaps one of your answers might be “questionable hair styles.”

Okay, let me wrap it up. Sure, some services are “nice to have” versus necessary for the welfare of society, and the term “essential” is subjective. For example, an esthetician may be essential for some while others could easily go without the service.

No matter what your job or volunteer position, remember that it was created for a purpose. It was determined to be necessary. But, as things change, and some jobs stay while others go, know that the labelling of a job as non-essential does not mean that you yourself are not essential  — unless you define yourself by what you do. But, if that is the case, if you’re not able to “do,” who are you? Now that’s something to reflect upon.

But let us leave that existential question for another day.

Fanie Zis is a Certified Life Coach and Career Development Practitioner based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She works as a Contract Service Provider for Homewood Health’s Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). Fanie practices in the areas of Career Coaching, Career Counselling, Relationship Coaching, Grief and Loss Counselling, Stress Management, and Pre-retirement Planning. She is currently working towards her accreditation as a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF).

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Excellent article Fanie! Thank you for sharing.

Thanks for your comment and taking the time to read it Lotte!

This article is very insightful. It captures so many things we do not think about all the time. I’m sure Fanie’s information is going to help a lot of people. Keep writing Fanie. I look forward to reading your next article. I’m a CRS/CPRW in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Hi Karen, Nice to meet you! Thank you for your kind words and encouraging feedback:)