Over the last 7 to 8 years there has been a fair amount of research into a phenomenon called “Career Shock”. This timely research has proven useful as we have endured the last two years of the pandemic and the effect that Covid-19 has had on our perceived career paths. I recently came across a short research paper by some of the key players in this field – Jos Akkermans, Julia Richardson and Maria Kraimer – where they have neatly assessed how the pandemic demonstrates how career shock works and I wanted to share my thoughts.

Career shock is defined as “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career” (Akkermans, Seibert, & Mol, 2018, p. 4).

For a career shock to happen it usually comprises of two elements – firstly, an external event takes place to destabilise the job market, and secondly, there is a process of sensemaking within the individual to understand the impact that this external event has on them and their career. Therefore, a career shock is a combination of the individual and the environment they are within.

If this “deliberate thought process” turns into action on mass, could career shock explain the widely used term “The Great Resignation” and, if so, surely if we, as People Professionals understand career shock better, then we can help our people deal with the trauma that the pandemic has had on our perceptions of our career trajectory.

I have added a link to the Akkermans et al (2020) paper below. Here are a few takeaways that I took from the article:

1)  Career shocks can be negative and also positive – overall, an external event that creates career shock is often a negative experience with the loss of income and/or status. However, we have seen examples of positive outcomes under the banner of the “Great Resignation”. The initial rapid change of the workplace at the start of the pandemic made a number people reconsider their current role, either with the move to change an employer or change career entirely. We have seen above that career shock has two elements – the individual and the environment. Those who voluntarily left their employer most likely already had an internal monologue that was telling them that a change would do them good.

You also have those who lost their current job through a downsizing of work at their current employer, or to be furloughed only to then find out there was no work to return to.

In either scenario, there have been cases where, by being given the immediate ability to refocus their thoughts on their job through career shock, the end result has been an improvement in some cases about the satisfaction of the new career route taken. It gave them the needed “kick up the career backside” to produce action. A common example is someone leaving the corporate world to flex their entrepreneurial mental muscles in a venture they always wanted to try.

2)  We can lessen the impact of a future career shock – research has shown that we can develop ourselves to have better personal agency when a career shock happens. The idea of developing career self-management competencies is not new. Many of us have had career coaches and outplacement support in the past. Similarly, the work around career shocks shows us that we can have a positive or negative effect on the external element of career shocks by proactive self-development. Career behaviours are a combination of your personal disposition, the level of your career competence and the circumstances you are in at the time. Career competencies come in a variety of forms from resilience levels and having a growth mindset to being able to be reflective and avoid distractions among others.

When we reflect on those who dealt with career challenges better during the pandemic, those who had the ability to reframe situations and see opportunity around them were often the most successful through a career shock. A number of these behaviours come within the APA definition as elements of Positive Psychology.

3)  The concept of career shock can support our retention strategies – Too often we approach our organisations retention strategy as a way to directly develop the motivation and engagement of our people towards the purpose and goals of the organisation. Yes, this works. Yet I would suggest that this works best when we have stability and are most likely going to retain our best people anyway through the positive fulfilment of the work itself. When an external career shock event happens, such as the recent pandemic, then it is the career competencies that will help our people “sensemake” the world around them, not the motivation towards the common purpose as much.

It follows then, that maybe to help our people remain in our organisations we might need to develop their career competencies whilst they are with us. This may sound dangerous – “it might make them look elsewhere!”. Yet, if you look at the type of competencies above that would help them within a career shock, these could be easily built on work around growth mindsets, resilience and reflective activity. To me, this overlays learning that we would want to instil in our people around lifelong self-development and future talent capability. So maybe, as employers, we can help reduce the effect of future careers shocks, both helping ourselves as organisations, and reducing the traumatic effect of career shocks on our people as individuals.

4)  Finally, as almost always, I find that somewhere in the field of organisational psychology there is some great research and findings about the human behaviour we witness in our workplaces, as shown by the research highlights by Akkermans et al’s article. The trick is to know where to find it.

On this last point, this is why I believe in the value of the new People Professionals Community. As a community, we have the answers within us to help each other make better decisions and grow. By sharing our insights openly as a community, we can bring some of this hidden insight into work lives.

Original source:

Akkermans, Jos, Julia Richardson, and Maria L. Kraimer. “The Covid-19 crisis as a career shock: Implications for careers and vocational behavior”. Journal of vocational behavior 119 (2020): 103434.