Professional identity is more than just an abstract construct: it defines who you are as an OSH professional – whether you are aware of it or not, says Dr Jonathan Backhouse CFIOSH.
Today, OSH professionals find themselves in work environments undergoing constant technological, economic, legislative, social and cultural change. While there has always been a need for OSH professionals to have a working knowledge of various disciplines, it seems that today this need has never been greater.
Traditionally, OSH professionals have needed numeracy and literacy skills to write and review policies and procedures; an understanding of chemistry, biology and physics to undertake hazardous substances assessments; and knowledge of engineering and human anatomy to undertake manual handling risk assessments and so on.
As new challenges arise, this permanently evolving role means we need to locate ourselves in a place of continual professional development. The pandemic is the latest catalyst, requiring OSH professionals to develop an understanding of virology to create policies, procedures and risk assessments concerning COVID-19. On top of this, we also find our roles extending further into the world of mental health and wellbeing.
Despite this constant professional evolution, there has been limited research into the professional identity of OSH practitioners and their roles (Provan, 2018). This omission in professional self-study is important because there is only a finite number of areas that we can focus on as OSH professionals: as individuals, we cannot become specialists in everything. We need to know where we fit within the profession so our contributions can make a positive difference and align with our values, motives and competencies.
Edgar Schein (1978) writes:
‘Career anchors reflect the underlying needs and motives which the person brings into adulthood, but they also reflect the person’s values and, most important, discovered talents. By definition, there cannot be an anchor until there has been work experience, even though motives and values may already be present from earlier experience…
'The career anchor is a learned part of the self-image, which combines self-perceived motives, values, and talents. What one learns is not only a function of what one brings to the work situation but also reflects the opportunities provided and the feedback obtained. Consequently, the anchor is determined to some degree by actual experiences, not only by the talents and motives latent in the person.’
What is professional identity?
The term ‘professional identity’ has been defined as a ‘relatively stable and enduring constellation of attributes, beliefs, values, motives and experiences in terms of which people define themselves in a professional role’. This description is attributed by Ibarra (1999) to Edgar Schein in his book Career dynamics: matching individual and organisational needs (1978).
Not taking things at face value, I purchased Schein’s book. The quote, or its essence, was not in the original work. Instead, Schein refers to a series of self-concepts, characterised as ‘career anchors’, which reflect self-perceived motives, values and talents (or competencies) that are gained through our work experiences (see Figure 1). He suggests – in my opinion correctly – that these are continually evolving throughout our career and are, in essence, a self-construct.
There are three career anchors:
- Your talents and abilities – your successes in a variety of work settings
- Your motives and needs – the opportunities for self-tests and self-diagnosis in real situations and on feedback from others
- Your attitudes and values – encounters between the self and the norms and values of the employing organisation and work setting (Schein, 1978).
In many professions, such as nursing, teaching and law, the concept of professional identity is prevalent. However, there has been little similar research within the OSH profession and therefore little understanding of the concept. While studying for my professional doctorate (DProf), I have come to define professional identity as ‘the ongoing critical reflection of the sum of the professional’s values, motives, competencies and contributions made within their community of practice’ (Backhouse, 2021). In other words, we define our professional identity as the values and motives we hold, and the competencies we gain, along with the contributions we make throughout our role as OSH professionals. Our professional identity is not just one aspect of what we believe or do, but it encompasses who we are, within the context of our work.
‘Professional identity’ has been defined as a ‘relatively stable and enduring constellation of attributes, beliefs, values, motives and experiences in terms of which people define themselves in a professional role’
Self-concept career anchors of professional identity (based on Schein, 1978).
Best practice: IOSH’s Code of Conduct
Our motives and values should be in alignment with IOSH’s Code of Conduct. We need to operate with high levels of integrity, competence, respect and service – after all, according to the Code of Conduct: ‘Members owe a primary loyalty to those at risk and should seek to ensure professional independence in the execution of their duties.’
Self-perception and self-construction
Identity theorists propose that individuals have multiple identities and that a defining characteristic of who they are is based upon their association with a specific group (Pratt and Foreman, 2000; Stryker and Burke, 2000).
But why does all this matter? Because, in essence, professional identity is our own construct, which defines how we perceive ourselves. We all construct our own professional identity – whether we realise it or not. We share this on our LinkedIn page, on our CVs, in addition to using (or not) our post-nominals, and it’s something we have all considered as we write up our CPD, or create or update our development plan.
Having an awareness of our professional identity helps us to develop as OSH professionals. Our values and motives are inextricably linked and are likely to have originated outside of our work. There are many reasons why we do what we do – for example, our outward focus may be to prevent harm, develop others, improve workplace safety, or improve culture. Yet we must also recognise that our inward focus will include financial gain and personal achievement (including gaining recognition/prestige, providing information/training, networking and developing a sense of belonging).
We may be passionate about preventing injury and ill health because we have experienced this first or second hand, or passionate about teaching others because we have learned the value of our own academic achievement. Our talents and abilities enable us to contribute to our community of practice – that is, fulfil our role as OSH professionals. We develop and form our talents and abilities through our working careers by gaining a wide range of competencies, including skills, knowledge, attitude, training and experience (SKATE). It is also important to remember that professional identity is not just about taking courses or gaining membership grades; gaining experience or undertaking voluntary work will also positively affect your professional development, which in turn shapes your professional identity.
Career tips: How to construct your professional identity
By incorporating autoethnography, which is ‘an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse [graphy] personal experience [auto] in order to understand cultural experience [ethno]’ (Ellis et al, 2011), within my DProf, I have become the subject of my own research.
While I realise the significance that IOSH has played in my professional identity formation, it has also been impacted from outside my community of practice. An example is the importance – or over-importance – I have given to gaining qualifications and training over experience. Yet this has motivated me to help support and encourage others to reach their potential – something I love to do.
This self-reflection has also taught me that there are some aspects of safety and health that I have little interest in or no experience with, outside that of my professional qualifications. For example, asbestos is something I know about: where it is found, the potential health effects it poses and so on. However, I have no interest in developing my competencies further. Therefore, I would direct clients with asbestos issues to seek specialist help and/or advice. Likewise, I have limited experience in construction, with only my training Construction Certificate. So this is another area of the OSH profession I will pass to those who are specialists.
These short narratives express who I am, what I do, and why. They construct part of my professional identity. I am acutely aware that teaching a course will, in most cases, pay far less than consultancy work – for example, developing a policy for a corporate or institution. While I could say my personal motivation is the satisfaction I feel when my students achieve their qualification(s) rather than financial gain, this is actually only one side of the coin. The teaching is more aligned with my values, motives and competencies than policy writing is: my motivation is to help people reach their potential, as others have helped me attain mine – including IOSH in enabling me to undertake the research for my DProf.
Discover more about yourself and your professional identity by reflecting on:
- Your values and motives: what are these, and why are they important to you?
- Your competencies: how can you develop your talents and abilities?
- Contributions you make: what changes can you make that will enhance your contributions in line with your values, motives and competencies?
Potential and limitations
By reflecting on our values, motives and competencies, we can have a more fulfilling career. Conversely, if we are engaged in some aspect of OSH that does not align with our values, motives and competencies, we will become disillusioned and stressed.
As we reflect on the contributions we make – for example, writing a risk assessment or delivering a presentation – we evaluate, firstly, what can I do to develop my contributions in the future; but also, secondly, is this an area I want to progress further?
In summary, professional identity is multifaceted; it is an abstract concept and involves an ongoing process of identity constructions and deconstructions. I am not the same OSH professional I was 20 years ago, nor will I be in another 10 or 20 years. Understanding more about who I am and what I do has helped me gain a deeper appreciation of the profession to which I belong. It has enabled me to realise both my potential and limitations, and focus my efforts on making further contributions to the OSH profession. I have learned through my experiences and the contributions I have made to the profession that the areas of work I want to focus my time and effort on are those which align with my values, motives, competencies/talents and abilities.
And so I ask you: how can understanding more about who you are, what you do and what brings you that sense of satisfaction and fulfilment make you a better OSH professional?
This article is a small section of my professional doctorate, which was titled Critical review of the role of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in supporting their members’ professional development. I would like to give special thanks to Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher, and IOSH, without whom the project, and article, would not have been possible.
Dr Jonathan Backhouse CFIOSH is a member of the IOSH Council and a fire, safety and health practitioner.
Image credit | Patrick George- Ikon
Ellis C, Adams TE, Bochner AP. (2011) Autoethnography: An overview. Historical Social Research 12(1): 273–90.
Ibarra H. (1999) Provisional Selves: Experimenting with Image and Identity in Professional Adaptation. Administrative Science Quarterly 44(4): 764–91.
Pratt MG, Foreman PO. (2000) Classifying Managerial Responses to Multiple Organizational Identities. Academy of Management Review 25(1): 18–2.
Schein EH. (1978) Career dynamics: matching individual and organizational needs. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co: Boston.
Stryker S, Burke, PJ. (2000) The Past, Present, and Future of an Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly 63(4): 284–97.