In my early days as a student counsellor at university, I saw first hand how much anxiety students were experiencing about their future careers. What kind of world were they heading into? Would they be prepared enough? What sort of work opportunities would they have? What would be their place in the world? It’s what inspired me to train in and deliver careers counselling.
Given what a profound impact work has on our sense of worth and the dramatic ways in which it has changed over recent decades, it’s little wonder these kinds of questions should cause so much angst. But there are a few things we can do to look after both our careers and our overall wellbeing.
One of the first starting points is understanding the connection between those two factors.
Why work matters so much to wellbeing
David Blustein first advanced his psychology of working theory in 2001 to highlight the critical role of work in individual wellbeing and welfare. He says that every person needs to be involved in some kind of work because it gives a sense of psychological stability. It helps us stay engaged and nurtures a feeling of self-respect, meaning and purpose.
“Working helps us to survive and thrive, connect with others, contribute to something greater than ourselves, be the best we can be, care for others, and, ideally, to live without oppression and harassment,” says Blustein.
And this doesn’t just apply to paid work. Even when individuals are engaged in unpaid work, like caregiving or volunteering, the work still provides them with a feeling of stability and purpose and supports their sense of identity.
As a result, unemployment, underemployment and even precarious employment can have big impacts on one’s feeling of self-worth. These impacts can sometimes have interdependent effects, undermining confidence during job interviews and causing discouragement during job-searching. Indeed, Blustein says that the psychological research shows that unemployment beyond six months is causally related to mental health problems.
New technology and our wellbeing – threat or opportunity?
So how can we continue to thrive, connect and contribute when it feels like our working lives are so much at risk? Isn’t AI, for example, set to steal all our jobs?
Salesforce’s recent research shows 46% of customers, for instance, can think of an example of AI they use every day – up from 40% in 2019. And 84% of marketers report using AI, which is up from 29% in 2018.
As AI-powered robotics and automation continue to transform workplaces, there is an increasing fear that jobs will be extinguished – that we just won’t be needed anymore.
In fact, the news is more optimistic than that. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report 2020, by 2025 it’s estimated that 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, but 97 million new roles are likely to emerge that are more adapted to that division of labour. It’s less about a doomsday scenario and more about whether we’re ready to adapt to a new world of work.
In Australia, research shows that construction and manufacturing are expected to be the industries that see the biggest job losses due to new technologies, while healthcare is set to be the biggest net job creator over the next decade, expanding by 80,000 jobs. The tourism and wholesale and retail sectors also anticipate substantial growth, with their workforces expected to increase by 22,000 and 20,000 workers respectively.
Moreover, a recent report from PWC shows that while 59% of Australians are worried about the risk automation poses to jobs, 75% are ready to learn new skills or completely re-train to remain employable. Eighty two percent are confident they can adapt to new technology entering their workplace.
This is supported by RMIT Online’s recent research in which 20% of respondents said they’d rather have $1000 to spend on training every year than $50 more pay each week and 52% said a “learning culture” is more important to them than a “fun culture” at work.
So while Industry 4.0 is certainly transforming the way work looks for all of us, we needn’t take a doomsday mindset about it. Indeed, part of successfully future-proofing ourselves will be preparing for opportunities, not just challenges.
5 tips for future-proofing your work and wellbeing
Preparing for work challenges and their impacts to wellbeing is the responsibility of multiple stakeholders, including government, educators, employers and individuals themselves.
1. Establish your VIPS
Your values, interests, personality and skills (or VIPS, as I often refer to them) can be a great place to start making an informed decision about what goals you want to set, both in relation to work and wellbeing. While being overly driven can be counterproductive, people with clear goals tend to be more productive, action-focused and ready to adapt.
2. Take action
Any big goal, whether it be to run a marathon or find your dream job, requires action. And this applies more than ever in an environment where our working lives are changing or uncertain. Take opportunities to learn new skills or expand on existing ones where you can. It might be through formal education, workplace training, mentoring, short courses or your own personal deep dive into an area that interests you.
3. But don’t forget to stop from time to time
The value of taking a moment to stop and reflect can’t be overstated and is, I think, something every professional should work at. We all tend to just work and work and work. When the tasks and the calls and the emails keep piling up, we feel we don’t have time to take a time out. The easiest way to make sure you get it done? Schedule it. If you can move to another space while you’re doing it, even better.
4. Talk it out
Visiting a psychologist or therapist gives you the opportunity to have a chat with a trained individual who can help guide you through an exploration of the stuff we hide from ourselves. Ideally, talk to someone who has experience across careers counselling as well so you can incorporate discussion of work-related challenges and the impact they have on your wellbeing.
5. Make room for all your roles – not just the professional one
While paid work is often crucial to our sense of identity, it shouldn’t be at the expense of all the other roles we occupy in our lives. Making time for being a partner, a sibling, a member of the local community, a parent at your school, a citizen of your country, are all important in creating a holistic approach to our wellbeing.
We talk a lot about work-life integration and, yes, there can be many benefits associated with successfully blending our work and non-work lives. But the danger is that the lines become too blurred and work seeps too much into the other aspects of our lives that need attention and nurturing.
So being professionally successful and enjoying the self worth that comes with it is also about creating balance between all aspects of life.
And when you feel like you’re losing your way? It’s time again to take that moment to pause, reflect, and reassess your priorities.
Learn more in The Leader’s Guide to Employee Wellbeing.