Career Self-Companion & your career wellbeing

mindset Jun 13, 2023
Sign saying breathe

Career Self-compassion in a world (of work) fixated with productivity and high performance.

Self-compassion the ability to engage in activities in the present that bolster your long-term ability to continue to engage in those activities into the future.

In a world of work fixated with productivity and high performance we often find ourselves striving to be more...more resilient, more successful, more happy, more professional…you name it to be successful in our careers, we should be more of something…

This relentless pursuit of ‘more’ pervades every aspect of our lives, both personal and professional.

Intuitively, we each know that this quest for ‘more’ is not only unachievable but counterproductive to our personal and career well-being.

Perspective reset – when doing more doesn’t result in more (of anything).

What if the key to having it all, a sustainable career, as well as personnel and career wellbeing lies not in searching for more but instead needs us to slow down, not only, before, but if, we are to do more.  

I know, slowing down sounds (and feels) counter intuitive when you have to-do-list as long as your arm. Let’s face it, we are all taught that success only comes with working harder and longer, while doing more of everything.

Work hard, and play hard…is a familiar phrase, one that many of us live our lives by.

Perhaps this cliché once served a generation of people, but it not alone fails those of who yearn for personal and career wellbeing but it is setting the next generation up for more of the same. When that phrase was coined we lived in a very different social and cultural context. During that time, work happened in a fixed place at a fixed time, while evenings, weekends and holidays. Your time off was just that, sacred and ringfenced, a space from yoru paid work during which NOBODY dared to contact you about your job. Not alone was the world of work different, but most homes were single income with one person working in the home and the other outside the home.

Flash forward 70 years, or more, and the lived experience of workers could not be more different. The facts and reality could not be more different. 63.7% of Irish women in 2020 were active in the paid workforce. 70.2% of two parent families were also dual income homes. 47.8% of one parent homes are in the workforce.  36% of families in Ireland are defined as nuclear, that is made up of heterosexual married parents and children living together without grandparents. The remainder of households, and therefore the majority, live in homes that are ‘non-traditional’. The ubiquity of technology since then now means that work is wherever you are, whenever you wish to access, and on whatever type of device you have at your fingertips.

With that ease of access to our work, a romanticised notion of constant work took a stronghold, and become essential to, if not inseparable from, the definition of success. Long days in the office, early starts, late nights, and skipped lunches are portrayed as badges of honour, and in many cases rewarded with promotion and career progression.

But for 21st century workers, this deeply ingrained belief is more of a myth, than a roadmap to success that culminates in either personal or career wellbeing? The key, as research shows and our personal experiences increasingly suggest, lies not in constantly hustling, but in cultivating a sense of pause into our daily routines.

Don’t mistake this attempt to challenge our thoughts around productivity as an opportunity to cop out or a reason to decide not to work hard. This is about shifting perspective so that we see our focus, and how we define success, shift from quantity to quality, from mindless hustle to mindful goal focused productivity.

A definition of success within which it is possible to lead a full life at work and in your personal life. One that accounts for the personal alongside the professional and where wellbeing is considered to exist at the intersection of both.

What could the research telling us?

Could research, from some of the leading critical psychologists of our times, reveal to us that our societal glorification of busyness is in fact an illusion of productivity rather than a reflection of it. More to the point, is there really any link between increased hours and increased productivity.

This is especially important to consider, as we have access to an array of recent research that shows a causal link between constant work (either paid or unpaid) and decreased productivity. Not alone this, Professor of Economics at Sandford University, John Pencavel, there is a casual link (clear relationship) between increased working hours and harmful effects such a burnout, chronic stress, anxiety, and a host of other physical and psychological health issues.

Pencavel, debunks the myth that increased hours at work is linked to productivity. His research found, and others have since confirmed, that if you work more than 50 hours per week your productivity per hour declines sharply. If you hit 55 hours per week, the same research found that productivity drops so sharply that putting in any more hours would in fact be pointless. Wait for it, if you work 70 works per week, you only as productive as someone working 55 hours per week!! And yet, 'hustle culture' leads us to believe that clocking up extra hours is the road to success. Broken down, the research is telling us that busyness does not lead to success, it is in fact an obstacle to it. 

The antidote to always on culture…

One of the antidotes to this very complex maze of thoughts, and behaviours practiced over years and years around always on culture, is self-compassion.

When most of us think about self-compassion we often view it as a passport to complacency or an excuse for meritocracy. This leads to the idea that self-compassion offers the opportunity to escape accountability and therefore suggests a lack of ambition. But these thoughts and ideas accompany an unhelpful narrative built on a neoliberalist agenda.

Self-compassion instead refers to the ability to treat yourself, and others, with kindness, understanding and respect at all times, most especially during times of failure, mistakes or in the face of adversity. It is about meeting challenges with the belief that when you need to rest, reset, or relax that making the decision to do so, is not a sign of failure, but an act of bravery! An act that speaks to our unique and natural human need to take a break and switch off if we are to remain well in our career and personal life.

Research on this topic, is led by Kristin D. Neff from the University of Texas, and in that research, she offers a truly transformative insight into the role of self-compassion in finding a way to live life while making a living. She found, originally in 2003 and most recently in 2023, a clear link between the ability to show self-kindness and to engage in mindfulness, as ways to protect yourself from physical and psychological health issues. The research shows that self-compassion is a sustainable way to manage your wellbeing in the long term, and not a form of selfish self-indulgence, something many of us (sadly) believe.

In this context, the research shows that self-indulgence is taking the easy way out for short term gain, while self-compassion is a way to engage in activities in the present that bolster your long-term ability to continue to engage in those activities into the future. In terms of the perceived selfish nature of self-compassion the research shows zero effect in the relationship between self-compassion and lack of compassion for others. Amazingly, it showed the opposite, in that people who are self-compassion are more able to connect and engage with others. 

Some good news…you can learn self-compassion.

First, off self-compassion is a skill not a trait or talent, which means it is a skill that we can learn and practice. There are simple things that you can do to help improve your levels of self-compassion.

Acknowledge – When faced with a challenge or feeling overwhelmed acknowledge how you are feeling and where you are experiencing the feeling. Aligning what you are thinking and what you are feeling, gives your brain the opportunity to align thinking and feeling. If you notice that you are self-critical as you do this, pause and ask yourself

  1. Would I speak to a friend like this?
  2. How is critical talk serving my current needs?
  3. If I decided to speak to myself like I would to a friend what would I say?

Writing  - is one of the most powerful tools that you can add to your self-compassion tool kit. Take 60 seconds and write freely about how you are feeling, as you do think of alternative ways to approach the situation you are facing. As you write your brain will begin to problem solve, and help you to find a solution. While that solution may not be immediate it will emerge over the coming days.

Touch – finding a way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system through touch is an immense act of self-compassion. It may be a hug form a supportive person, or a moment taken to massage your own hands, listen to some music or put your bare feet on the ground. This type of supportive touch will help you to feel calm and equip you to deal with adversity.

Movement – taking time in the fresh air or in nature is another powerful way to boost your dopamine levels and to increase your levels of self-compassion. Take a break, even for 90 seconds and focus on moving your body. If you can take more time go outside and physically move if even for 5 minutes.


Integrating self-compassion into your daily routine one small step that over time forms the foundations of kindness. It offers a counternarrative to the promise of success through hyper productivity and realigns our focus. This realignment directs us towards a sustainable career, one in which you experience high levels of career wellbeing and overall wellbeing, not one instead of the other. While it is not a magic wand – it does provide a glimmer of light to pave the way to a better future for you, for your peers and for those that follow.  

Remember to design your own version of success because if you don't, someone else will, and you may not like their version…

S x

Further Reading:

Kristin D. Neff, 

John Pencavel, The Productivity of Working Hours.

Jennifer Moss, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How we can fix it.

Siobhan Murray, The Burnout Solution: 12 weeks to a happier calmer you.

Check out The Centre for Mindful Self Compassion for more evidence led resources

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