Career Crises

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By Melanie Allen

Is it a crisis or a passing storm?

How do you feel about your job? Are you happy in your work? Most of us have the capacity to keep going when the going gets tough. We ignore our gut reactions, defer gratification and we don't give up. We're resilient, which is a fine thing when it's necessary. But is it always appropriate?

You have to take the rough with the smooth in any work situation, but when the rough outweighs the smooth day after day and a bad patch lasts for months, it's time to reassess.

What's going on?

There are obvious reasons why you may no longer enjoy your work. Restructuring within the organisation may have changed it, promotion may have pushed you into a job that doesn't suit you, or you may not get on with a new boss. Less obvious to pinpoint are the wider reasons for dissatisfaction. Where you are in your life can significantly affect your attitude to work and your priorities.

Crises can occur in the 30-40 age group, when high flyers may experience burnout and disaffection, and life outside work becomes more important.

"I never used to mind the travelling. I just accepted it as part of the package. These days I just hate it. It tires me out and 3 hours a day, minimum, are wasted when I could be with my family."

David, 34, a Business Development Regional Manager

However, nowadays, people in their 50s are even more likely to be affected.

"My pension forecast came in the post, and I suddenly saw 14 years of work stretching ahead of me. I've enjoyed it until recently, but things have changed, and it no longer suits me. Retirement is a long way off - I can't carry on like this."

Maya, 51, FE College Head of Department

So what can you do to avert a full-scale crisis?

Reassess your situation

Take a step back and do some serious thinking before you wake up one morning and hit the wall.

Stage 1: identify the forces in operation

Reassess the situation by doing a simple force field analysis. This is based on the premise that in every situation there are forces keeping you where you are and forces pushing you towards change. The tension created by the opposing forces keeps the situation - and your contentment with it - in equilibrium. Figure 1 shows a simple force field diagram illustrating Maya's situation.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Stage 2: evaluate the forces

The next step is to examine each force. Go through each one and ask yourself:

  • How important is this to me?
  • Has it changed?

Maya's diagram indicates, at first glance, that the forces are balanced. However, analysis of each force reveals a different story. Maya's son is no longer financially dependent on her and her mortgage payments will come to an end soon, so she's financially better off. She'd always assumed that she'd take more holidays and 'up' her lifestyle. In fact, her new financial freedom has weakened her motivation for staying in the job and upset the equilibrium.

Her analysis helped her to see that:

  • She enjoys the teaching and the environment, but not the management side of her role
  • She no longer needs to prove herself and 'get on'
  • Taking the Head of Department job had been based on financial considerations
  • Now the financial pressure is off, her motivation to continue with the stressful aspects of the role has gone.

Use the time to investigate and research

Reassessing your situation gives you time to decide on an appropriate course of action.

Talk to your boss about a change of role

Maya decided that enjoying her work was worth more than the extra cash. She sounded out the Deputy Head to see if she could step back from management and concentrate on teaching - which she did.

Research the market

Find out what's out there. Visit recruitment websites for the sectors you're interested in and scan the papers. This can spark ideas and open up new possibilities. David now works as an account manager with a new company - nearer home.


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