Time for Stress Reduction? Or a Career Change?

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Dear Career Counselor:

I am experiencing a lot of stress at work and feeling burned out. I wake early, am edgy and restless, and am exhausted by the end of the day. I think it’s time for a change — maybe even a different field. I am good at a lot of things, so how do I choose one field over another? What fields have the most security, and how do I know which is the right choice?

— Stressed

Dear Stressed:

There are many reasons why you might feel stressed and exhausted at work, from the medical to the mundane. Preparation is key in your quest to improve your professional life, so while it might be a good idea to consult your doctor first, it is also critical that you think through which factors in your current job could be contributing to your burnout and which factors make you feel good about yourself. Both are important in considering a change, whether major or minor.

First, identify exactly what is contributing to your stress. Consider a regular routine that forces self-reflection; for example, take two or three minutes right before lunch and again before leaving work to document your stress level and feelings about what happened during the day. This should help you understand what is prompting your stress.

IT work in higher education has normal cycles, and perhaps that volatility doesn’t suit you. In many cases, high expectations for your work and idealistic aspirations can be a major cause of stress. Or perhaps a workplace relationship with your boss, your co-workers, or others has negative effects on you. An overwhelming volume of work, or even your physical environment, could be getting you down. Whatever the stressors, knowing them will help you avoid them in the future as you adjust your environment, negotiate relationships, or make a career change. Recognizing your limitations and the limitations of your work may help you avoid total burnout. Your life outside work is equally important: be sure to set aside and enjoy time with your family and friends and time alone. It’s also a good idea to identify the things you like about your current work, so you can keep them in your life while changing the not-so-wonderful things.

Know Yourself

It is also important to know yourself. In the words of Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press, first published in 1989 and annually since then):

“Career choice is always a search for the self, and for work more fitting to that self.”

It is great that you know that you are good at a lot of things, and you should continue to give your strengths careful attention. Many tools are available to help you analyze your personal traits, quite a few online and some free. Bolles has compiled an excellent list of online tests at his website, JobHuntersBible.com. You might also consider the Gallup organization’s StrengthsFinder, which you can access by buying one of their books. You could also just create your own inventory of resources. If you are really adventurous, check out the careers page at the Virginia Education Wizard, which includes a variety of assessments and career cluster information to fit your needs. Although specific to the state of Virginia, it also includes possible jobs, salary ranges, and degree programs to target those careers.

Beware, though: no test can tell you what will be a great job for you. At best these tools will stimulate your creativity and inform your thinking. You’ll also need to do some serious introspection. Analyzing your past experiences is a powerful way to tease out what kinds of work and environment will help you thrive (Bolles’ book can guide you through this process as well). Dan Pink’s recent book Drive (Penguin Group, 2009) — a real eye-opener about human motivation — includes a list of practical suggestions you can follow to help figure out what really motivates you. It might also shed some light on what factors have contributed to the challenges you face in your current position.

Investigate the Environment

Once you have done all this internal evaluation, it’s time to look outwards. You may find that all you really need is a few adjustments to your current position — perhaps something you can negotiate, or even a change you can make yourself. If you are already a valued employee, you will have some leverage to improve your situation. For example, perhaps you could accomplish your work with a flexible schedule or with different working relationships. Or it may be possible for you to work on an interesting and rewarding project outside your normal routine. You might join a carpool or begin taking the bus to reduce stress from a long commute, go to a gym or take a walk over your lunch break, or arrange regular get-togethers with colleagues, depending on what problems you have identified in your current work environment. Just be sure, if you decide to adjust your job situation, that your solution is not a Band-Aid. Almost any change might make you feel better for a while, but unless it gets to the core of your needs and concerns, the stress you are feeling will probably surface again.

Alternatively, you may find that you need to make a more substantial change, to a different employer or location — or career. Changing careers brings up two main questions:

  1. How do I know what work would suit me?
  2. How do I get a job in a completely new field?

Homework is critical in answering each question. To know if a job would suit you, you need to understand what it would be like to do the tasks involved every day. The best way to learn is to talk to people already in that job. Fortunately, most people are happy to share what they know. Arrange a short meeting with people working in your career of interest, and be sure to go in prepared:

  • Ask what the person likes and dislikes about this job, and why.
  • Find out what kind of skills best qualify candidates for the job.
  • Try to get a feel for how this or a similar job might suit you, with a focus on your strengths, weaknesses, and what makes you happy and fulfilled in your work.

The job title and description will reveal only part of what it really means to hold that job — sometimes a very small part. A job with the same title and duties might turn out to be very different at another employer. So gather real-world information about the jobs and the institutions that interest you.

To get the job, you will have to show that you have what it takes to succeed no matter the field. Fortunately, many job skills are highly transferable. Inventories like the Motivated Skills Test can help you think about your skills more generally. The research you did to understand the job you’ve targeted will help you present your skills in meaningful ways. Past “Career Counselor” columns have addressed the job hunt itself, and it’s a topic the column will probably come back to again.

You asked about job security. People say over and over that it just doesn’t exist any more. That is true, to the extent that just showing up to work every day and meeting the minimum requirements will no longer keep you employed, no matter the field you are in. But the better you can fit your job to your unique strengths, values, and personality, the more invaluable you will become. Be curious about the work and people you work with, too. This larger context will allow you to understand the changing environment in which you find yourself and to better position yourself to morph into new roles as they evolve and traditional roles disappear.

Ultimately, the better you know yourself, the better you can adapt and succeed as things change around you. This is true whether you decide to stay in your current job or change careers. So in this way we are all lucky: the job that makes you happiest is probably also the most secure one. As Yogi Berra once said:

“When faced with a fork in the road…take it.”

— The Career Counselor

Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to [email protected]. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)