Article Published: 2/15/2023
Being forced to change careers can be an overwhelming experience, regardless of the reason. For many of us, our work is such an integral part of our lives and identity that a major, unforeseen disruption can have a considerable impact on our emotional and mental health.
Individuals who find themselves in this situation often benefit from career counseling to discover their passions, make informed decisions, set measurable goals, work toward achieving them, and regain a sense of well-being and fulfillment. It’s a challenge that Barbara Herzog, PhD, NCC, a career counselor in Washington, D.C., has helped clients navigate for the past 18 years.
“The reasons for a forced career change vary,” Herzog says. “The client may have experienced an illness, e.g., a pianist has a serious hand injury. A client may have been laid off as a result of not having continually acquired needed tech skills, such as a marketing manager who is slow at learning Excel. Perhaps the client was laid off because of age discrimination, such as the news anchor who is no longer a pretty face. Another common reason: New technologies or tastes have caused a contraction in the number of available jobs, such as the journalist who faces a shrunken market.
“Whatever the reason, it is not their choice, and the resultant depression, anxiety, and/or anger can affect their readiness and effectiveness in figuring out new prospective careers and moving forward.”
Clients who didn’t make the decision to leave a job often feel aimless and disheartened, as opposed to those who leave on their own, she says.
“When they voluntarily leave a position to change careers, they are usually optimistic and eager to figure out how to make the change successfully, moving into a field that suits them better, and finding a first job in the new career. They will often present as bursting with energy and seeking to partner with the career counselor in maximizing their new opportunity. If, however, a client seeks assistance after being forced to change careers—not just to get a new job—they usually have a very different outlook,” she says. “Often, they are grappling with loss of identity, grief, situational depression, anxiety, or anger, or a combination thereof.”
The challenges associated with changing careers can compound those feelings and seem insurmountable in the beginning.
“For forced career changers, there are numerous roadblocks,” Herzog says. “If reduced status or income is likely, they may have shame and anxiety. They may be concerned that they won’t find any new career that will be anywhere as satisfying as the old one, or that they won’t be likely to have a network to help them get a job in their new career. Or they are understandably concerned about the length of time and difficulty that may be involved in training for the new career. And even if trained, they may face age discrimination from the many employers who would rather hire someone who is 28 than someone who is 58.”
Working with clients who have been forced to find employment is a multifaceted effort, she says.
“Unlike voluntary changers, forced changers often have not thought about other possibilities,” she says. “One has to be careful about making too-early suggestions—never a good idea, but especially bad with forced changers. Working well with them involves striking a delicate balance between providing time to process anger, situational depression, or anxiety, and providing the structure and tools for moving forward. An effective counselor toolkit is essential here, whether it be use of motivational interviewing, Rogerian positive regard, solution-based approaches, Savickas’ storytelling, or other tools a counselor may have adopted or developed.”
She recommends beginning with a pre-session phone call and/or the questionnaire the counselor uses to ascertain initial goals and concerns.
“In the first session, it’s good to review the goals and see if there are changes or further thoughts. If there are multiple goals, it’s helpful to ask which takes priority—or does the client want to work on them simultaneously? Also discuss possible time frames and clients’ preferences for a deep dive or faster work,” she continues. “The counselor can then initiate open questions such as ‘Tell me about how this came about,’ ‘How are you feeling about this?’ or ‘What have you been thinking about so far?’”
Allowing sufficient time for clients to sort and share their thoughts can help to better determine the next steps and lead to a better outcome, Herzog says.
“The counselor needs to figure out how long to listen carefully to the client at the beginning of the first session, perhaps asking in a while ‘It sounds like you are experiencing a lot of the tough emotions that often come with having to make a major career change. Shall we talk more about these emotions and the circumstances prompting your need to change, or make a start on figuring out what new careers will suit you most, or both? What will work best for you?’”
Even a small step forward can provide encouragement early on, Herzog says.
“It’s important that the session be carefully client-responsive and include homework, so the client has a sense of moving forward, at least a little. I’ve found that if no forward action is begun, either on emotions or career exploration, the client may not come back.”
Though each situation is unique, some of the more common strategies for working with clients in this situation include processing emotions; setting goals; assessing values, interests, personality, skills, and the job market; developing criteria for choosing targets; guiding in the acquisition of knowledge about prospective new careers; identifying decision-making solutions that have worked for the client in the past; and then coaching on writing résumés, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles, and networking and interviewing.
Some clients may resist change or feel too old to start over. Openly discussing any limitations with them can be beneficial, she says.
“Implausible statements like ‘You’re never too old’ aren’t helpful. The counselor and client need to work together to sort out what may be off the table because of age discrimination (for instance, being too old at 65 to get into medical school), or reduced energy or capacities. Some cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful if the client slides into making negative, categoric prejudgments about her or his capabilities and the possibility of a new career.
“I suggest paying close attention to resistance and denial,” she continues. “If you run into a lot of it, there’s a possibility that you may not be using the most effective counseling strategies for this client in this situation. Attention to emotions and/or motivational interviewing may be helpful here.”
Herzog often recommends a resource that she’s used for years with her clients.
“Most of my colleagues have good resources but have often not heard of the top resource on my list: SkillScan,” she says. “For a nominal fee, clients can receive an assessment of their relative enthusiasm for 54 different skills in six skill sets, along with lists of careers that use these skills, and suggestions for relevant education or training. The assessment also includes direct links to other resources that provide assessments of interests, personality, and values. One-stop shopping! My clients have found SkillScan to be the single most helpful resource I’ve provided.”
Barbara Herzog, PhD, NCC, is a career counselor and life coach in Washington, D.C. She received a master’s in history from Stanford University, a master’s in counseling from The George Washington University, and a PhD in international relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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