Apple TV’s “Severance” Is Redefining What’s at Stake When You’re Not Authentic at Work

Severance” shows what it’s like to completely separate your work and personal lives. Rather than provide the ultimate work-life balance, the consequences are troubling.

Severance Title Card

Apple TV+

Profile Picture
Fairygodboss
May 21, 2024 at 7:41PM UTC

Apple TV’s new series “Severance” asks its viewers to imagine a fascinating and extremely dystopian scenario: complete bifurcation and separation of your work life and personal life.

This is the reality of the “severed” characters in the show, whose brains are split between work and their personal lives. They can only remember one aspect of their life depending on whether they’re in the office.

For many whose work and home lives have blurred and blended since the pandemic or because they continue to work remotely, this scenario can feel more like a dream than a nightmare — no late-night emails; no distractions at work. Total, strict, company-enforced boundaries. Complete separation of work and life.

Yet what the “severed” characters gain in boundaries, they lose in authenticity. They’re completely different people inside the office and outside of it. 

Mark, the show’s main character, is a depressed, heavy drinker outside of work, consumed with mourning his late wife. In the office, he’s a bright, chipper, always-optimistic manager. When he enters the office, he holds his head a little higher. His voice drops to a somber tone when he leaves work and returns to his personal life.

For modern workers who feel they can’t authentically be themselves at work, “Severance”’s separation between work and personal identities is an extreme version of their day-to-day reality.  But employees don’t need to experience a complete separation between work and personal identities to know what it feels like to be divorced from their true selves for most of their waking hours.

This is because office culture was created within a historical construct which suited a specific kind of worker — read: white, male, straight and able. Though we live in a very different, multi-cultural labor force and workplace today, what it means to be “professional” — and who is “professional” — is still often stuck in the past. 

“The standards of professionalism, according to American grassroots organizer-scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones, are heavily defined by white supremacy culture—or the systemic, institutionalized centering of whiteness,” Aysa Gray writes in “The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards.” “In the workplace, white supremacy culture explicitly and implicitly privileges whiteness and discriminates against non-Western and non-white professionalism standards related to dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness.”

This means that non-white and non-Western workers, in particular, may face a heavy burden to act a specific way at work in order to blend in and appear “professional” — even if this means behaving in ways that clash with who they are outside of work (and who they really are). Employees may take it a step further and adopt similar hobbies and past-times to simply advance their careers. Anyone who has ever taken a golf class or forced themselves to grab drinks or attend after-work sporting events — despite no interest in those activities — may be able to relate.

While we are social creatures and may all change our behavior based on context and setting to some extent — we don’t act the same way around our parents as we might out with friends, for example — sometimes the change becomes so great that we become disconnecteded from ourselves.

Particularly when our financial livelihood is at stake, it can feel risky to be authentically us rather than fit into what we know as “professional.”

“Severance” asks the important question: what if we didn’t have to worry about being authentic at work because we don’t know who we are outside of it? But who we are outside of work matters — and it can, and should, impact our work. We need to bring our unique life experiences to the table because it makes our work better. It also makes teams stronger by virtue of bringing different perspectives to light. This leads to different decisions, and ones that may be better, more thoughtful and more inclusive of customers and other business stakeholders.

My work at Fairygodboss is undoubtedly shaped by who I am outside of work — how I experience the world as a woman, as a member of Gen Z, as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a reader, a runner. When my colleagues bring their unique and different life experiences to work, our work as a whole is better, shaped by a collective of diverse experiences. 

Yes, “Severance” shows us what extreme work-life balance is, but it also shows how work-life separation results in creating completely different people inside and outside of work. The disconnect between the two people is troubling. (Potential spoiler alert: that disconnect can lead to disastrous outcomes.)

Feeling inauthentic at work is not as extreme as being severed, but in a way, it replicates that disconnect — the feeling of putting on a mask, code-switching, or acting in a specific way to fit into a place that wasn’t made for you to begin with.

Separation isn’t the solution for those seeking boundaries or feeling unable to be themselves at work. Rather, what we need is balance and the safety to be authentically ourselves at work. We want people to bring their unique experiences to work because it makes for better work culture. We also want boundaries between work and life — but ones that serve us and recognize us as whole, human beings, not people trying to manage a double life.

--

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

What does being “authentic” at work mean to you? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always