Tag Archives: Career & Employment Counseling

The lingering crisis of the Great Recession

By Laurie Meyers December 1, 2014

Anyone who has ever lost a job knows that it takes time to find another one, particularly in times of high unemployment. Since the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, millions of Americans have experienced long periods of unemployment. These extended stretches of joblessness are not only financially devastating but also detrimental to the job search itself because in the current job market, the longer a person is unemployed, the less likely he or she is to find a new job. Once job seekers have been unemployed for six months or more, they become part of the population of “long-term unemployed,” and thus much less desirable to employers.

Even as the general unemployment rate has dropped during the past few years, prospects for the Recession-Smalllong-term unemployed have remained slim, causing this population to suffer significant financial, emotional, mental and physical distress. Counselors — particularly career counselors — are working to help the long-term unemployed find jobs and heal the scars of joblessness.

“Policymakers have not fully recognized or adequately addressed the crisis of the Great Recession,” says Dave Gallison, a licensed professional counselor from Portland, Oregon, who specializes in career counseling. He notes that long-term unemployment rates are still higher today than at any point since the Great Depression. “Everyone sees the unemployment rate and assumes that things are improving,” he says, “but the numbers that are not seen and barely counted are the millions of long-term unemployed, people who can only find part-time work and discouraged workers who are not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.”

Part of the problem is that there still aren’t enough full-time jobs for everyone who wants one, according to a September study out of Rutgers University, “Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy.” The study reports that as of August, there were nearly 9.6 million unemployed workers in the United States, including 3 million people who had been unemployed for longer than six months and more than 2 million who had been unemployed for over a year. In addition, the population of involuntary part-time workers (those who want to work full time but can find only part-time positions) grew from 4.4 million people in 2007 to 7.5 million people in June 2014. The study also notes that although the majority of jobs lost during the recession were mid- to high-paying positions, most of the jobs added during the subsequent recovery have been low-wage positions.

In addition to competing in a market with an insufficient number of jobs, those who have been looking for work for more than six months face another significant barrier to employment. A study conducted by Princeton University professor Alan Krueger and using data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that from 2008 to 2013, only 11 percent of people who had experienced long spells of unemployment had found steady full-time work within 16 months’ time.

In a 2012 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, two researchers sent out almost 5,000 fictitious, computer-generated résumés with identical credentials but varying lengths of unemployment in response to job offerings. They found that the “workers” with six or more months of unemployment almost never received a response to their applications, even when they possessed the required experience.

Unemployed, unhealthy and unhappy

As unemployment drags on, many job seekers also increasingly experience physical and psychological difficulties that may make it even harder to find a job. A Gallup survey conducted in 2013 found that 1 in 5 people who had been unemployed for more than a year reported currently having or being treated for depression — a rate double that of the general population.

Numerous studies, not just in the United States but in England, Wales, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, among others, have found that those who are unemployed experience higher mortality rates. The specific mechanisms of the mortality risk have not been identified, but results taken from the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index indicate that obesity levels rise with the length of unemployment. In addition, the long-term unemployed are twice as likely to report having high blood pressure or high cholesterol as those who have been unemployed for a shorter length of time.

Experts note that the mental and physical health problems experienced by individuals who are unemployed don’t just make it more challenging to find work but may also make it harder for them to hold onto a job once they secure new employment. Krueger’s research suggests that many people who have gone through long periods of unemployment return to the ranks of the unemployed within one year of finding a new job. Clearly, job loss is a multifaceted problem, requiring career counselors to assist not only in the job search but also with the fallout of becoming unemployed in the first place.

“For counselors, few client life events rival the emotional strain of job loss,” says Gallison, a member of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), a division of the American Counseling Association. He explains that for many people, what they do is synonymous with who they are. So, when they lose their jobs, they question not only their judgment but also their priorities and ideals.

A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that long-term unemployment had profound effects on a person’s social life, career and confidence level. Approximately 38 percent of those who had experienced long-term unemployment said their degree of self-respect had decreased (compared with 29 percent of those who were unemployed over the short term). Strikingly, roughly 7 in 10 people who were currently unemployed or had been unemployed said they had changed careers or thought seriously about doing so.

Gallison says people faced with job loss and long-term unemployment often deal with a level of grief akin to what someone might experience when going through a divorce. “I help people work through the stages of grief,” he says, explaining that this process aids people in accepting the reality of the loss and working through their pain.

In addition to navigating that sense of loss, clients need help cognitively reframing the self-blame that often accompanies joblessness, says Rich Feller, an ACA member and former president of NCDA. “Self-blame … deflates energy and strips dignity,” he says. “Clients need support knowing what is and is not under their control. Without that, they misdirect psychological energy, blaming and defeating themselves rather than performing job search and networking efforts.”

Counselors can start to counteract clients’ self-doubt and self-blame by helping them recognize that long-term unemployment is a widespread problem caused by a damaged economy, not because they are “damaged” themselves, explains Feller, a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University.

But even if clients have worked through the grief and self-blame associated with job loss, they may need help addressing other disruptive elements.

“They have to adjust to an environment in which [much of] their former social fabric is gone,” says Gallison, offering an example. Most people in full-time jobs in the United States spend more than 40 hours per week at work. In the process, they typically form important friendships in the workplace and engage in activities that become an important part of their social life. Once a job is gone, it can leave behind a big hole in the client’s social fabric. During times of unemployment, staying in touch with friends and family is especially important to retain a sense of connectedness and stave off loneliness, Gallison says.

He also suggests that clients who are unemployed get involved with a group that appeals to them, whether that group is religious, community-based, sports-oriented or interest-based. Becoming part of a group can reduce the sense of isolation that those who are unemployed often feel, while also providing missing structure. Both Gallison and Feller point out that without someplace to be every day, it can be challenging for people to organize their efforts.

Strategies for hope

Lack of support and structure can also contribute to a feeling of being stuck. Clients need to know that “where” they are — a period of long-term unemployment — isn’t a permanent place but rather part of a process, some of which they can work to control, notes Feller.

Gallison agrees. “Unemployed clients must commit to a process — perhaps six to 12 sessions over several months — of self-understanding, internal change and change of work search habits and behaviors,” he says. His process involves helping clients determine their career needs and goals, showing them how to effectively pursue positions in their areas of expertise and teaching them strategies for interviewing.

Gallison is mindful of the need to move quickly. After all, for the long-term unemployed, time really is money. He begins with a general assessment to gauge the client’s job search efforts — how has the client been searching for work, how successful have these efforts been and how could the search be more effective? Gallison is also a big proponent of bibliotherapy to help job seekers clarify what they are looking for in a job search. He regularly recommends that clients read such books as What Color Is Your Parachute?, I Didn’t See It Coming, Transitions and Do What You Are.

Gallison also likes to do a values and motivation assessment because rather than learning simply what the client is good at, he gains insights into what motivates the client. Understanding individual motivation can help Gallison and the client determine the type of workplaces (nonprofit, corporate, large company, small company and so on) best suited to the client.

Developing a focused list of companies and potential positions to target is one of the first steps Gallison encourages clients to take in the active phase of job searching. He first has clients draw up lists of business sectors that interest them, such as health care or finance. Next, Gallison instructs clients to search a list of businesses in their city, town or state (typically available online or at a local library) and select companies for which they might like to work and potential job titles for which they might be qualified.

With their lists in hand, Gallison prompts clients to reach out to friends, family members, former co-workers and other acquaintances to find potential contacts in the clients’ areas of interest. He also teaches clients to mine their alumni associations for job leads and links to industry leaders. In addition, Gallison likes to send his clients to job search groups because he believes participants — particularly in subgroups such as people holding doctorates or moms returning to work — can learn from one another. Gallison also searches his own professional network for possible leads for clients. He believes teaching clients to develop contacts and set up informational interviews is the best way to help them access what he calls the “hidden job market.”

The workplace social media site LinkedIn is also crucial for networking and finding leads, Gallison says. However, most people don’t pay enough attention to their LinkedIn profiles, he says. “A good LinkedIn profile shares things with a good résumé, but people tend to dump their whole history of past jobs [on their profile],” he says. Instead, he teaches clients to focus on setting up a summary that’s short and convincing — much like the proverbial elevator pitch — accompanied by a few bullet points from recent jobs.

Learning how to set up a good LinkedIn profile is only one part of the self-marketing that Gallison teaches clients. “They need to stand out with really great cover letters and résumés that target the specific employer and position they are applying for,” he says.

And when that résumé draws the attention of prospective employers, Gallison makes sure that his clients are ready with mock interviews. “We talk about what their strengths and weakness are, [which] could be anything from taking too long to answer a question to not making eye contact to not knowing how to dress,” he says.

He also teaches clients how to research the company, understand who the company’s competitors are and be familiar with the company’s mission so they will be prepared to answer questions and ask questions of their own that demonstrate their knowledge of the field.

Unfortunately, some long-term job seekers have an even more difficult time than others, Gallison says. He sees a disproportionate number of men over age 50 in his practice and says that older workers, as well as recent high school and college graduates, are most likely to be among the long-term unemployed.

A common problem with recent graduates and older workers is their lack of relevant experience. Because of the economic downturn, older workers may also have gaps in their résumés. To compensate, Gallison gives his clients strategies to camouflage these gaps or their relative lack of experience. “I coach them to use their résumés selectively and, if at all possible, not use the résumés until further along in the process,” he says. When trying to secure informational interviews, clients can draw up a statement summarizing experience rather than providing a full résumé, Gallison explains. In addition, long gaps in employment can be minimized by listing only years — rather than the month and year — with their employment history.

Volunteering is another effective way for anyone who has been unemployed long term to compensate for employment gaps, Gallison says. But beyond that, volunteering is an effective avenue for acquiring relevant experience, making contacts and just getting out of the house and meeting people, he says.

“Helping others [by volunteering] can help job seekers feel more connected [to the world],” adds Feller.

Recent graduates should look to their alma mater for help during a job search, says Rebecca Michel, a licensed clinical professional counselor and assistant professor of counseling at Governors State University in Chicago. “Establish a strong connection with your university career center,” she advises. “Also look to former faculty for possible mentors.”

At the same time, individuals who are unemployed shouldn’t rely on their colleges or universities as the only avenue for making contacts and finding opportunity, says Michel, an ACA member who studies employment across the life span. She advises those who have been unemployed long term to join professional organizations in their areas of employment interest. In some instances, they may be able to volunteer or even seek leadership positions within the organization, she says.

Individuals who are unemployed should also consider looking to local colleges for certificates or courses that can help them regain job skills or acquire new ones, Gallison says.

The road less taken (for now)

Sometimes, the traditional full-time job might not be the best or even an attainable option, says Ron Elsdon, author of the book How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption.

Elsdon, an ACA member, believes the future of employment for many workers will involve putting together different consulting or part-time jobs based on professional skills and personal interests. For instance, someone who works in finance could become a freelance financial writer or teach finance at a local community college or as a tutor, he explains. That person could add to this freelance or part-time work with a completely different job based on personal interests, such as woodworking or massage therapy.

The change in how workers view employment has already started, according to Elsdon, who is a private practice career consultant and coach in Danville, California. “About 40 percent of the workforce has [already] been engaged in some form of nontraditional work,” he says.

Elsdon works with clients to identify their interests and skills and how these might come together for employment opportunities. He claims that people who pursue this kind of part-time, nontraditional path report much higher levels of satisfaction than do people in full-time traditional jobs. [After this article went to print, Elsdon provided links to data he references in his book: here, here and here.]

Gallison thinks it is beneficial for people to reconsider how and why they work, in part because they are more likely to realize that work doesn’t define them, while also being less willing to let their jobs consume them. However, he still thinks the lack of job openings for those who need them is unacceptable.

“Now that unemployment has slipped below 6 [percent] — 5.9 [percent] for September 2014 — for the first time since mid-2008, this issue is in even further danger of seeming passé or irrelevant in the public consciousness and [to] policymakers, and perhaps even [to] mental health professionals,” he says.

The counseling profession should refuse to let the long-term unemployed get left behind, Gallison declares. “We need to and can advocate successfully for change [in employment practices], just like we achieved mental health parity,” he emphasizes.

Gallison urges counselors to contact their legislators to lobby for help for the long-term unemployed. If counselors and other helping professionals don’t stand up to encourage assistance for the long-term unemployed, Gallison is afraid no one else will.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “This should be treated as a national emergency. There should be a sense of outrage.”

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Helping workers with disabilities overcome career barriers

People with disabilities often have the least promising prospects among all job seekers. Discrimination certainly plays a role in that circumstance, but it can also be because disabilities may have prevented individuals from developing the social and professional skills needed for long-term work success, says Deirdre O’Sullivan, an American Counseling Association member and assistant professor of counseling education at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

Sullivan has a background in and still teaches courses in rehabilitation counseling. She is currently researching whether counselors could use the Developmental Work Personality Scale (DWPS) as a tool to help gauge the professional strengths and weaknesses of people with disabilities. The DWPS consists of 27 items that assess behaviors, role models and tasks that individuals encounter during middle childhood.

The scale, designed for adults (either with or without a disability), asks participants to self-assess school behaviors that researchers believe correspond to developing a healthy work personality. Using a scale that goes from 0 (not at all like me) to 5 (very much like me), participants agree or disagree with statements such as “In school I completed my work on time” and “I felt good when I completed my homework.” The DWPS has three subscales or areas of concentration: work tasks, social skills and role models.

Most people develop their abilities to perform tasks in the DWPS’s three areas of concentration, or domains, in school because that is where children learn to interact with peers, listen to authority and meet deadlines, O’Sullivan says. “Most people who are underemployed or chronically unemployed are missing one of these domains,” she explains.

O’Sullivan thinks counselors might be able to use the DWPS and the concepts behind it to go beyond the typical reasons that people may be unemployed. A person’s school and homework habits and whether that person now gets along with bosses and meets deadlines at work may be sensitive areas, but what a counselor discovers can ultimately help the client, she asserts.

“Help people identify if they have any areas they need to improve in order to be the best worker they can be,” O’Sullivan urges. “[Help them ask] ‘How do I improve my ability to resolve conflict? How can I connect with mentors?’”

Thoughtfully considering the answers to these questions could benefit any job seeker, but they are particularly important for people with disabilities, who may be more likely to face problems and, in many cases, discrimination at work, O’Sullivan says.

If a client has experienced disability-related work problems in a former job, a counselor can help the client discover what accommodations he or she needs and how those accommodations can be addressed under provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, O’Sullivan says.

“[People with disabilities wonder], ‘How do I get my accommodations filled and still seem like I’m really working full time?’” O’Sullivan says, adding that counselors can help with that process.

In today’s market, the unemployed need all the help they can get. And as O’Sullivan points out, “People with different types of disabilities — visible or not — experience a lot of barriers [at work].”

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Additional resources

The American Counseling Association has two divisions that specialize in employment and career development: the National Career Development Association and the National Employment Counseling Association. To learn more about these divisions and their professional journals, visit counseling.org/about-us/divisions-regions-and-branches/divisions on the ACA website.

 

Earlier this year, ACA published the fourth edition of Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths by Norman C. Gysbers, Mary J. Heppner and Joseph A. Johnston. The career counseling process outlined in this best-seller is both practitioner-friendly and effective with clients of all ages and circumstances. For more information, visit ACA’s online bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore.

Also, see Counseling Today’s “behind the book” Q+A with coauthor Norman C. Gysbers: ct.counseling.org/2014/07/behind-the-book-career-counseling-holism-diversity-and-strengths

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To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

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Midcourse corrections

By Stacy Notaras Murphy September 24, 2014

Picture a female client facing a bleak employment market, stressing out about finding a new living space and struggling to find a boyfriend who wants the same things she does. She also suffers from low self-esteem and has been dabbling in some disordered eating.

Based on that description, perhaps you are envisioning a millennial in her mid-20s. In fact, this client could just as easily be 60 years old and confronting the same complicated issues that we typically Lady-Smallassign to younger people. Women in “midlife,” defined for our purposes as age 45 and beyond, may face career issues, changes in their primary coupling, challenges parenting adult children and becoming caregivers to their own parents — all at a time of life when Hollywood tells us they should either be enjoying complete success or be thoroughly ignored as popular culture trains its spotlight on ever younger role models.

Counselors serving this population can help put today’s struggles in the context of the woman’s entire life, assisting her with making sense of the past and deciding whether a new lens could be used to process her current circumstances. These counselors must be capable of navigating a variety of topics, from sexuality to career development, often while bumping into lifelong stereotypes about women’s self-worth and poor boundary-setting skills. The rewards are manifold for counselors who can work in this space, and the experience can enrich their own understanding of development across the life span.

Carolyn Greer, a longtime American Counseling Association member and an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, was inspired by the major transitions women in midlife often face, including moves, divorce, the death of loved ones and new family arrangements. She and a counseling colleague developed a workshop to help women facing these circumstances explore some of the new pathways before them, while also considering the mental, physical and social changes associated with these changes. Greer highlights her own personal interest in an evolving approach to adult development.

“As I have aged and dealt with many personal situations, I have gained better insight into what Erik Erikson proposed with his stages of adult development, a theoretical approach I learned in my counselor training and have continued to teach in my counseling courses,” says Greer, who adds that her membership in other organizations studying adult development deepened her interest in questioning old thinking about aging.

“As life expectancy extends, the expected ideas about what individuals will look like, feel like and be doing by middle age continue to be questioned,” she says. “Erikson called ages 35 to 60 middle age, with an expectation that the adult would be at a point midway of having many accomplishments that lead to the personal life dream. However, what once was midlife, with all the preconceived thoughts, no longer fits the picture.”

“The life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, but in 2000, it was 77 years. So, what is middle age?” Greer asks. “Adding to changes in this picture, what one looks like as an aging adult is [changing] as more and more effects from improved medicine, exercise and environment tend to lead to a more youthful life and outlook. There is an accepted premise that the current 50-year-old is the previous 40-year-old, and the changing age concept continues upward. Adding to these phenomena, the fastest-growing population group in our country is 85-plus, with an ever-increasing number of adults living to 100 and above.”

Changing relationships

With such a wide definition of midlife, counselors must be able to walk with these women through an array of topics that can have an impact on mental health. Jean Dixon, a licensed professional counselor with private practices in Houston and The Woodlands, Texas, leads several groups that help empower women facing life transitions. Noting that at age 42, she also is experiencing transitions unlike those earlier in her life, Dixon says she understands the immense change and growth occurring in midlife.

“It’s like adolescence all over again but with the added advantage of wisdom,” she says. “[Women at midlife] are often experiencing emotions that are deeper than they have experienced in the past. Due to increased awareness of themselves, others [and having more] experience, this new stage of life can be trying but also very exciting. It’s a lot for them to take in and process.”

For some women, midlife becomes a time to consider past unresolved issues that they did not have the time or energy to address previously. Dixon says these clients often feel that they need direction and a dedicated space to process their feelings. In her experience, empowerment is a very popular topic for this population.

“These women are often successful in life but continue to feel a sense of low self-worth,” she says. “Many … are wanting to work after being at home with children [but] are facing self-esteem and self-worth issues related to being out of the workforce, feeling inferior to younger women and sometimes even to their own [adult] female children who are not always supportive. … These younger women can be critical, as they have their own self-centered desire to keep mom as mom.” 

Dixon mentions a client who attended one of her women’s empowerment groups. “She talked about how her grown girls would comment to her, ‘Why do you need that group, Mom? You don’t struggle with empowerment.’ Their concept of her as ‘Mom’ was that she was in charge, and she was of them, but they did not see what she felt about herself.”

Carol Boyer, an ACA member in private practice in Montclair, New Jersey, mainly works with women ages 25 to 60. She advises counselors to be on the lookout for relationships as a key component of many of the struggles women face in midlife. For example, she recalls one of her clients who ended a romantic relationship.

“It was her choice to end it, but now she feels like she lopped off her arm and is having trouble moving forward,” Boyer says. “One of the things she brought up was, ‘I’m 60, and I don’t want to start with someone new.’ As we get older, if we’re not in a stable, continuing relationship, I think it can hit us harder when we break up. We are not as resilient as we were in our 20s. The stakes are higher. We aren’t as comfortable in looking for the next one. Meanwhile, we are bringing more baggage to the situation.”

Dixon has found that her clients in midlife possess great interest in discussing their sexuality, often for the first time in their lives. Some are struggling with the way their bodies are changing, while others have accepted those changes but are noticing that sex has a different meaning for them at this stage.

“They often come to therapy asking for help being more open-minded with sex or wanting to help their partners develop a healthier and mature relationship with sex,” Dixon says. She notes that often these women are with partners whose sex drive has decreased, while their own libido is stronger than it was at earlier stages of their life. Dixon works with these women to adjust to the changes and helps them develop the communication skills to address the shifts with their partners.

The women’s husbands or partners often have difficulty adjusting to the changes, at least initially, Dixon says. “I have heard my clients comment that at first, their partners did not really like hearing them speak [up] or share their opinion, and that this would create power struggles,” she says. “But in time, most of them come to appreciate it and can see that the power equality feels more intimate and increases their enjoyment of each other. The intimacy actually encourages other types of intimacy as well and can rekindle old flames.”

Continued career development

With longer life expectancy comes the desire or need to continue investing in a career. As such, career development issues often work their way into therapeutic discussions of life satisfaction and meaning-making. But the career development needs of women in midlife may be quite different from what career counselors typically see.

Jill Dustin, an ACA member and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, specializes in career development. She has found that women in midlife often exhibit a strong desire to embark on new career-related adventures, such as tackling long-held goals or changing careers entirely. But at the same time, they also have financial concerns and struggle with work-life balance, just like younger workers often do. She notes that women in midlife also struggle with barriers to career success that may be structural or even related to their physical and mental health changes at this stage. Finally, women in midlife may be recognizing career dissatisfaction and a loss of self-identity.

Boyer has witnessed this struggle in her own office. “Some people at this midlife point say to themselves, ‘This is the best I’m ever going to feel, ever going to do. This is the most money I’m going to make.’ People get stuck when thinking that forward motion is not an option anymore,” she explains. “There’s a loss when we believe we’ve reached the end of our promotional ability. People find themselves a little depressed that life is kind of over and that things are just going to start getting worse. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Boyer could cite herself as an example of why that line of thinking is too limiting. “For me, I went to grad school at 45, and I’m about to turn 57,” she says. “My career is still on the ascendancy. While chronologically I’ve reached midlife, professionally, I consider myself quite young in the profession. It’s all relative.”

When teaching counseling students how to help women with midlife career development issues, Dustin emphasizes that each woman is unique and comes to the process with diverse experiences and challenges. “It is very important that counselors working with women in midlife do not stereotype their clients,” she advises. “For example, counselors should not assume that since their client is in midlife, she is experiencing a ‘crisis.’ This certainly is not the case. Many women experience midlife as an exciting time of transition in which they can redesign their lives and explore careers that hold greater meaning for them.”

Career development is often viewed as a separate entity from personal counseling, but in reality, Dustin says, it is very personal and can be transformative. For that reason, she encourages counselors to include career development as part of their work with female clients in midlife.

“I would urge [counselors] to actively engage their clients in their career development,” she says. “This can be achieved by supporting, encouraging and empowering women throughout their journeys and assisting them in discovering and uncovering their strengths, barriers, types of support, goals, fears, abilities, values and desires.”

Methods in midlife

While the counseling methods applied to working with midlife women may not be too different from those used with other populations, the enthusiasm these clients show for trying new things can be inspiring. From empowerment workshops to psychoeducational book groups, psychodynamic analysis to mindfulness, women in midlife are often accepting of diverse approaches.

Greer has witnessed this herself. She explains that her workshop for midlife women in transition was not designed to be a clinical experience. But the end result is that many of the participants evaluate their own lives and set out in new directions that were mostly unknown to them at the beginning of the class.

Boyer also agrees, noting that she has used mindfulness techniques to help women connect with their bodies and become more aware of how they experience stress — something many women go through life never truly understanding. She recalls a 51-year-old client whose menopausal symptoms brought her into counseling. But the client’s mother was also in a nursing home, and on top of that, she was managing the stress of a change in her workplace review process and a complicated issue in her marriage.

“She is managing the aging aspect while she’s in a situation caring for her mother because she is an only child. Meanwhile, she’s trying to do an impossible job professionally and trying to save a marriage at the same time,” Boyer reflects. “She’s feeling misunderstood and it’s overwhelming to have to deal with these things all at the same time. Her energy level is different than it has been in the past, her moods are more labile [and] she doesn’t have the same kind of resources to bring to the other issues in her life.” Working with clients to simply name the stressors can be a major turning point for those who have spent decades ignoring their own needs, Boyer says.

Assertiveness training and building decision-making skills are other common techniques used with these clients. Dixon adds that basic decision-making can be a challenge for women in midlife who have rarely felt heard by their families or communities. She explains that they struggle with saying “no” without feeling guilty, often viewing themselves as one-dimensional beings: mothers, wives, workers or children of aging parents.

“Long-standing roles as ‘doers’ and caretakers take a toll,” Dixon says. “These women often report feeling depressed and lonely and very often just not knowing who they are or what they want. For example, often these women even struggle with deciding where they want to go to dinner. They are afraid to make the wrong decision. Having someone angry or disappointed with them is a big deal and creates such anxiety that they would rather just leave decisions to others.”

Dixon also finds that many of these women are afraid of being alone or being left by a partner. “Their sense of self and self-confidence is so low that we work on basic skills and communication, as well as self-talk and self-acceptance, for quite awhile,” she says.

She advises counselors to be sensitive to the client’s past experiences when working with current struggles, noting that understanding how the client managed transitions in her past can offer good direction today. She also suggests asking the client about current resources and supports, as well as what supports she may have possessed in the past. Then ask how her life is similar or different as she transitions through this current stage or challenge. For example, Dixon notes that women in midlife may suffer from anxiety or depression as their bodies age and they face new medical challenges. Being able to connect current frustrations to old struggles that they may have overcome — an eating disorder, for instance — can be transformative, Dixon says.

Dixon’s love of working with women in midlife comes from the joy she finds in helping them finally release their inner voices. “To help someone value and learn to listen and respond to themselves is the greatest gift I receive from my work, and these women have it in them so strongly it can’t be stopped,” she says.

However, Dixon acknowledges, fear of change is the main obstacle to making progress. “Change is hard, and the work it asks of us can often seem insurmountable,” she says. “That is why I spend so very long sometimes just working on the value of the person, improving and uplifting [the women’s] belief in themselves as they ready for the work it will take to change. But many times, luckily, the beauty of working with these women … [is that] they are ready for the work. They actually love the work because it is so very self-satisfying and serves their confidence, and they see their worth increase steadily. It is very satisfying work.”

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Contributing writer Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago relationship therapist practicing in Washington, D.C. To contact her, visit stacymurphyLPC.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Behind the book: Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths

By Bethany Bray July 22, 2014

Within a generation, cultural shifts have transformed the American workforce – and so too the field of career counseling.

Today’s young adults are attending college in greater numbers than their parents, and if they get married at all, they’re much more likely to tie the knot later in life than previous generations have. At the same time, the baby boomers are reaching their 60s and 70s and facing the adjustments of retirement or semi-retirement.

“Far from being a standard or rote procedure, career counseling, in response to these social and economic changes, has become a dynamic, creative and highly individualized process,” write the authors of Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths in the book’s introduction.

Career_Counseling_brandingThe first edition of Norman Gysbers, Mary Heppner and Joseph Johnston’s book Career Counseling was published in 1998. The American Counseling Association released a fourth edition this year.

Although each edition has featured updates addressing the field’s changing landscape – for instance, a chapter on using social media was added to the most recent edition – the authors and counselor educators have always retained their focus on taking a holistic approach to career counseling.

The issues that career counseling clients present with are complex and “interwoven with personal, emotional, family and work issues,” the authors write. “… Many client problems addressed in career counseling originate in the work world and then spill over into other arenas of life.”

Counseling Today caught up with Norman Gysbers to talk about the fourth edition of Career Counseling, as well as the importance of taking a holistic approach – a “wide angle lens,” he explains – to career counseling.

 

Q+A: Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths

Responses from co-author Norman Gysbers

 

What do you and your co-authors hope counselors will take away from the book?

We would like counselors to take away that, contrary to the classic stereotype, career counseling belongs in the general class of counseling because it has the same basic characteristics and qualities that all forms of counseling [have].

The interaction in career counseling is psychological in nature, and the working alliance is critical. At the same time, it differs from the rest of [counseling] in that presenting problems often focus on work and career issues — although personal, social and emotional problems often emerge as the counseling relationship continues to evolve. In addition, quantitative and qualitative assessments and career information are used more often in career counseling.

 

What prompted you to create a fourth edition of this book? What updates or changes will readers see in the new edition?

Since the third edition was published in 2009, new information, new ideas and new techniques have emerged to help counselors work with individuals’ career issues and goals. Also, while the basic themes of holism, diversity and strengths were embedded in the third edition, we wanted to highlight and emphasize them in the fourth edition. In addition, continued career development theory building focusing on postmodern theories also prompted a fourth edition. Finally, social media has become a fixture in the way we relate with others, so we added a chapter on using social media in career counseling.

 

The book advocates for taking a holistic approach to clients’ career development. From your perspective, why is this important?

We believe that we need a wide-angle lens to first view our clientele so we can see them both individually and contextually. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency among some counselors to first view their clientele within the silos of the career, academic and personal/social/emotional domains.

The holistic approach offers us a way to see and understand that these domains are really interrelated, not separate. While it may be appropriate to work with specific problems/concerns/goals in each of these domains, the holistic approach tells us that we also need to continue to see and understand them holistically in the context of clients’ overall lives. Sometimes we need to focus on the figure (the individual), sometimes on the ground (contexts) and sometimes on both the figure and the ground.

 

Who is your target audience for this book?

The book is designed for practicing counselors in many different work settings. It is also designed for counselors-in-training in counselor education, counseling psychology and other helping relationship programs because it provides them with the prerequisite knowledge and skill they need to do career counseling.

 

A chapter of the book focuses on dealing with resistant clients. Is this common in literature on career counseling?

The answer is no, but it should be! Anytime client change is part of the counseling process, client resistance is possible. Since career counseling often deals with clients making transitions, it is important for counselors to understand what resistance may look like in clients’ behavior. In the chapter in our book on resistance, we describe various forms of client resistance and some possible ways to deal with it. We believe it is important for counselors to know what resistance may look like so that when it takes place during counseling, it will be recognized and can be dealt with.

 

What originally inspired you and your co-authors to collaborate and write this book 16 years ago?

The first edition of the book that the three of us wrote was based on an earlier book that I had written with Earl J. Moore in 1987 titled Career Counseling: Skills and Techniques for Practitioners. A number of years after the publication of this book, the three of us talked about the need to take the basic ideas in the 1987 book and expand and extend them, given the continued and expanding interest in career development and career counseling in the 1990s. As a result, the first edition of our book was published in 1998.

 

What would you want all counselor practitioners — marriage and family, school, addictions counselors, etc. — to know about the book’s subject matter?

We would like counselor practitioners to know that the book presents a theory-based, practice-focused approach to career counseling. It presents career counseling from a holistic perspective using the concept of life career development as a way to understand overall human development in general and career development specifically. It is a strengths-based conception of career development and career counseling, and it focuses on working with diverse clientele of all ages and circumstances.

Specific attention is given to the ever-changing work world. It emphasizes the importance of the working alliance in career counseling. It describes selected modern and postmodern career theories, and it presents a number of qualitative and quantitative assessments. Client resistance is discussed, and the use of information in career counseling is described. How to use social media in career counseling is also featured, as is information on how to close career counseling relationships.

 

 

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Career Counseling: Holism, Diversity and Strengths is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222

 

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About the authors

Norman Gysbers is a professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.

Mary Heppner is a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri.

Joseph Johnston is a professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri as well as director of the university’s career center.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

 

Grown-up bullying

Lynne Shallcross March 1, 2013

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18073513Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series examining the culture of bullying at various stages throughout the life span. The first article, “Bully pulpit,” addressed bullying among children and adolescents.

When you think of bullies, do you envision them on the quad of a college campus or in a university dorm room? Perhaps you should, says Brian Van Brunt, former director of counseling at Western Kentucky University (WKU) and now senior vice president of professional program development at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

Aren’t college students, most of whom are entering adulthood, finally past the actions and insults typically associated with childhood bullying? No, says Van Brunt, a past president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association. “They’re not beyond that. Bullying has grown up and gone to college.”

Indeed, in a 2011 study, researchers at Indiana State University found that 15 percent of college students reported being bullied, while almost 22 percent reported being cyberbullied.

“It can come as a surprise to some when the cruelty, cliques and popularity contests of high school are now propagated into the college classroom and dormitories,” says Van Brunt, author of the book Ending Campus Violence: New Approaches to Prevention, which was published by Routledge in 2012. “Some may also be disappointed that these kinds of behaviors continue in an academic setting where the pursuit of knowledge and the preparation for a future career should be the focus of students’ attention. There can be an anger and resentment from other students, faculty and staff when they are placed in a position of witnessing bullying behavior or are required to stop their own academic pursuits and jobs to deal with a problem they thought most people should have outgrown by this stage of their lives.”

The college environment presents an added wrinkle to bullying, Van Brunt says. College students are often far from their families, home communities and friends with whom they grew up, so targets of bullying on college campuses can feel particularly isolated because they lack the built-in support network of home. At the same time, Van Brunt notes, these bullying targets potentially have easier access to weapons, alcohol, drugs and other substances and may turn to these outlets in an effort to cope. The increased risk of violence or substance abuse resulting from bullying during college makes this a critically important problem to address, Van Brunt says.

Similar to school-age bullying, the root of college-age bullying often boils down to how someone is different, according to Van Brunt. Targets might include a student with an autism spectrum disorder, an undergrad who is overweight or a classmate who is viewed as being the professor’s favorite. On certain campuses, college students may be targeted for being too smart, while at other schools, students may be bullied for not being smart enough, he says. The prospect of elevating one’s social status is another common motivating factor for bullying in college, Van Brunt says, just as it is in secondary and elementary school.

More concerning, Van Brunt says, is when college-age bullies are motivated by the prospect of power and the urge to control others through fear. “The pleasure at causing harm to others [and] dominating nonconsenting others in a relationship are both risk factors present for those who move on to larger forms of violence, such as campus shootings,” he says. “It often contains an objectification of the target that increases the risk of more serious violence.”

Another less common motivation for bullying on college campuses is when groups “gang up” on someone because of what they deem to be a righteous cause, he says. In some instances, these groups may have a history of being picked on or treated poorly themselves. For example, Van Brunt says, a small group of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) college students might band together and bully another student who has spoken out against LGBT causes.

As is the case with bullying at younger ages, bullying at the college level can take a variety of forms, from cyberbullying via text messages and social media to more traditional tactics such as teasing, making fun of, isolating or physically intimidating someone, Van Brunt says.

Van Brunt views hazing on college campuses as a potential form of bullying as well, although he acknowledges that others hold hazing in a different light because the targets voluntarily subject themselves to poor treatment temporarily in order to become part of a particular organization. It is possible that the effects of hazing might be less severe than the effects of traditional bullying, he says, because the targets can look back on the treatment they received and know they endured it to obtain something they desired. Still, Van Brunt says, “It doesn’t give permission for the behavior.”

Dual focus

Van Brunt says the work of college counselors in combating bullying is twofold: providing education about bullying across campus and working with individual students who have been targeted. In educating members of the campus community, Van Brunt says counselors should reach out to faculty and staff, talk with leaders of student clubs and organizations, and offer classroom trainings with students. Education should include what to look for, why bullying isn’t acceptable and how to report it, he says.

In recent years, bystander intervention has become an increasingly popular way to combat bullying, Van Brunt says. At WKU, a Green Dot program (livethegreendot.com) works to empower incoming first-year students by giving them the skills to effectively address those who objectify, target and bully others and engage in behaviors that lead to sexual assault, he says. The overall focus of the program is involving campus community members in efforts to reduce harmful behavior.

“It addresses the problem from a systemic and group perspective,” Van Brunt explains. “The solution is broader than educating potential victims. Instead, it involves enlisting the community to address unwanted behavior.” Incoming first-year students at WKU are educated about factors that contribute to an atmosphere where negative behavior is acceptable. “At its center,” Van Brunt says, “bystander intervention is a social norming campaign — teaching students about appropriate behavior and avoiding falling into the trap that ‘everyone just behaves this way.’”

Engaging the student community extends the reach of anti-bullying efforts. College students spend a significant chunk of time socializing with each other in dorms, at parties and at a variety of other campus activities where staff and faculty members aren’t present, Van Brunt points out. “The bullying behavior often occurs away from the common areas on campus, so by adopting a community responsibility standard, we increase the number of individuals willing to confront disruptive behavior at the point of origin, whether this be sexual assault, objectification, teasing, bullying, cyberbullying or substance abuse.”

Van Brunt points to five major ways that college counselors find out about individual cases of bullying:

  • Self-referral, with a targeted student coming to the counseling office and seeking help on his or her own
  • Notification by the parents of the student being targeted
  • Notification by faculty or staff
  • Notification by resident assistants
  • Notification by behavioral intervention teams. These teams are composed of campus staff members, such as the dean of students and the director of counseling, who meet regularly to discuss at-risk student behaviors, Van Brunt says 

When a target of bullying comes to the counselor’s office, the counselor’s first step should always be to listen, Van Brunt says. “There is nothing more important than listening to the person’s story,” he says. The student should be allowed to share what is going on without the counselor jumping to quick conclusions or making rash decisions, he emphasizes. Next, Van Brunt advises, help the student review possible options. What can the counselor do for the student? What can the student do for himself or herself? What support is available on campus?

When working with a college student who is being bullied, Van Brunt gravitates toward narrative therapy techniques because they allow the student to share his or her story. “The central concept is helping your clients develop an ability to own their individual story, take responsibility for what they can change and learn to not beat themselves up for things that are out of their control,” he says. “The narrative approach is also helpful to externalize the negative experience of being bullied and work toward a separation from the negative emotions attached to that narrative.”

When it comes to addressing bullying, Van Brunt says, college counselors would benefit from trainings on threat assessment, both to assess bullies for their potential to escalate to other violent behavior and to assess targets of bullying for their potential level of explosiveness, especially if they have been holding in emotions connected to the experience of being bullied. The National Behavioral Intervention Team Association, for which Van Brunt is president-elect, offers a yearly training based on the principles of threat assessment.

Suicide prevention must also be on the minds of college counselors, Van Brunt says. “Not every student bullied will become suicidal,” he says, “but that can be an ultimate choice, and there is no second chance.” Van Brunt is trained in QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer. Counselors trained in QPR can also train others on campus, better enabling peers, resident assistants and others in the campus community to intervene, he says. Using this method, the person intervening would question the suicidal student about how he or she is feeling, try to persuade the student to get help and then refer the student directly.Suicide prevention must also be on the minds of college counselors, Van Brunt says. “Not every student bullied will become suicidal,” he says, “but that can be an ultimate choice, and there is no second chance.” Van Brunt is trained in QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer. Counselors trained in QPR can also train others on campus, better enabling peers, resident assistants and others in the campus community to intervene, he says. Using this method, the person intervening would question the suicidal student about how he or she is feeling, try to persuade the student to get help and then refer the student directly.

When it comes to the college environment, Van Brunt stresses that simply educating victims and equipping them with ways to fight back against bullying isn’t enough. Instead, he says, educating the campus community and pushing to create an environment in which bullying isn’t acceptable will go much further to eradicate what many consider to be a “childhood problem” from higher education.

Bullying in the workplace

Unfortunately, graduating from college still doesn’t guarantee an end to bullying. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — an estimated 53.5 million Americans — report being bullied at work. An additional 15 percent said they had witnessed co-workers being bullied.

These statistics are all too familiar to Jessi Eden Brown, who serves as WBI’s administrator and also runs a private counseling practice in the Seattle area. About half of her clients deal with issues related to workplace bullying.

One such client, a 51-year-old woman, came to Brown’s counseling practice after receiving the first negative performance evaluation in her 20-plus-year career. “She told me she had a new supervisor — a woman in her 30s who seemed overeager to please executive management from the start,” says Brown, a member of ACA. “My client mentioned the relationship with her supervisor started out well, but within six weeks, she noticed a distinct shift in the supervisor’s behavior toward her.”

The client’s workload increased dramatically, and her relationships with her husband and kids began to suffer as long nights at the office became the norm. The supervisor started criticizing the woman’s work in staff meetings and threatening to demote her if all of her tasks weren’t completed on time and free of errors. After receiving the negative evaluation, Brown says, her client was given an improvement plan and was required to meet twice weekly with her supervisor. The client reported to Brown that, among other things, the supervisor berated her behind closed doors and isolated her from her co-workers.

“By the time the client sought my help, she was in a state of crisis,” Brown recalls. “Her blood pressure was dangerously elevated, she was unable to sleep most nights, she’d gained over 15 pounds, and she reported symptoms of severe anxiety related to work, including tremors and vomiting during her morning commute. My client’s relationship with her husband was so strained that he’d recently brought up the idea of divorce with intent to seek custody of the kids. She told me she’d missed so many of her children’s recitals, soccer games and special events that she felt they were beginning to resent her.”

After listening to the client’s story, Brown thought it was clear that workplace bullying was an important contributing factor to the situation, so she began educating her client on the topic. “You could see a rush of relief wash over her,” Brown says. “All this time she thought she wasn’t working hard enough. She’d worried that she had lost her mind.”

Like many targets who experience workplace bullying, this client blamed herself, Brown says. “In truth, her work performance wasn’t the problem — it was her boss,” Brown says. “She consulted with an attorney, but because the harassment wasn’t age related and they were both women, my client’s legal remedies were limited. She approached human resources (HR) and her supervisor’s boss, but they were not helpful. There was not a policy against what was happening, and my client said HR and upper management discounted her report immediately. They stood behind the improvement plan and reminded my client of the possibility of termination if she was noncompliant.”

Brown says her work with the client focused on addressing her health, finding a sense of safety at work and reestablishing connections at home. “I worked closely with her doctors as they introduced antianxiety and blood pressure medications into her treatment regimen,” Brown says. “We explored the client’s options for creating safety at work, but in the end, it was clear the best choice would be to help her move on from that job. We worked on her self-esteem, practiced coping skills and also focused on her relationships at home. Her husband and children attended a couple of sessions so we could address the strain and conflict introduced into the home by my client’s job-related stress. We also worked on fine-tuning her résumé, soliciting letters of recommendation, honing interviewing skills and other specific tasks designed to boost her confidence and facilitate the process of securing new employment.”

After a couple of months, Brown’s client found a new job. “During that transition, the client’s husband and children noticed her efforts to change the situation at work, which subsequently reduced the stress at home,” Brown says. “Also, she described a greater degree of support and understanding from her family after they learned about workplace bullying. My client tells me she is much happier now. A few months ago, she emailed to inform me she’d won an award at her new job.”

Abuse with little recourse

According to Brown, WBI’s definition of workplace bullying includes repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more targets by one or more perpetrators in the form of verbal abuse, offensive conduct or behaviors that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating, and/or work sabotage, which prevents work from being done.

Unfortunately, Brown says, workplace bullying is illegal in only about 20 percent of cases, such as when the behavior violates civil rights or whistle-blower protections. In most other cases, workplace bullying is considered status-blind harassment, for which there is no legal recourse, she says. “Few employers have specific policies to address workplace bullying, so internal remedies are often limited as well,” says Brown, who in her role with WBI provides professional coaching services over the telephone each year to hundreds of individuals — nationally and internationally — who have experienced workplace bullying.

Brown calls workplace bullying a form of psychological violence. “Although popular media frequently portray the workplace bully as a volatile, verbally abusive boss, in actuality, the behaviors tend to be more subtle, insidious and persistent,” Brown says. “Examples include stealing credit for others’ work, assigning undue blame, using highly public and humiliating criticism, threatening job loss or punishment, denying access to critical resources, applying unrealistic workloads or deadlines, engaging in rumors and gossip, endeavoring to turn others against a person and deliberate attempts to sabotage someone’s work or professional reputation.”

Stacee Reicherzer, the assessment coordinator for Walden University’s School of Counseling and Social Service, echoes Brown in saying that workplace bullying tends to be based in nonphysical forms of aggression. “Whereas physical violence does of course occur, these types of incidents are generally less problematic over the long term because companies tend to have policies that address workplace violence, in addition to the legal consequences that occur for people who commit assault,” says Reicherzer, a member of ACA who has also done consulting work with organizations on this topic.

One common form workplace bullying can take is relational aggression, in which bullies use tactics such as gossip to create experiences of rejection and diminished worth, Reicherzer says. When a target’s supervisor is involved in the gossip, Reicherzer says, this can lead to the target feeling that he or she has no power to remedy the situation.

Certain environmental factors in the workplace can add fuel to the fire, Brown says. For example, professional climates and cultures that emphasize competition for resources and status may end up rewarding workplace bullies with public recognition and promotions. Additionally, the current high level of job insecurity across many industries, combined with demands for increased productivity, can create “boiler room” environments that heighten stress and set the stage for bullying, Brown says.

Reicherzer agrees that the economic tumult can bring out the worst in people in the workplace. What further complicates the situation, she says, is that in this economy, those who are targets of workplace bullying often feel they can’t simply leave a bad situation because it won’t be easy for them to find a new job.

It is the fact that these bullying behaviors are repeated again and again that make them especially damaging, Brown says. “The cumulative effects and prolonged exposure to stress exact a great toll on the bullied individual,” she says.

“There is a significant body of research linking workplace bullying to physical, mental, social and economic health harm for the bullied target,” Brown says. Studies have linked repeated exposure to stressful events such as bullying to severe physical ailments, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems and increased levels of cortisol, among other things, Brown says. The psychological harm from bullying can be just as devastating. “Panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, major depression, substance abuse and dependence, acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder are but a few of the diagnoses encountered when working with targets of workplace bullying,” Brown says.

And then there are the effects on the targeted person’s relationships outside of work. “WBI conducted an online study of targets in 2010 to examine the effect of the bullying on the target’s primary support relationship — spouse, parent, child, best friend, etc. The majority of respondents — 76 percent — reported negative consequences for that relationship, indicating it was marked by more conflict and stress or had been completely dissolved since the onset of the bullying.”

‘Believe them’

It is rare for a company to invite a counselor to assist with a comprehensive response to workplace bullying because in most cases, Brown says, employers and employees look to HR for a solution. But she points out that a recent WBI online survey found that respondents who identified as targets of workplace bullying said HR helped them satisfactorily resolve the situation only 4.7 percent of the time.

A more likely entry point for counselors, Brown says, will be through individual counseling, which bullying targets may seek on their own as they deal with the stress of the bullying or as a result of being referred by a concerned physician.

Brown says counselors have the empathy and skills necessary to help these clients. “First, and most importantly, we can believe them when they tell us about the mistreatment at work,” she says. “The stress and exhaustion that targets endure is often isolating and paralyzing. After all, it is generally the bully’s goal to disempower the target. Even when they do speak up, targets of workplace bullying tell us their employers, family and friends do not often believe them nor understand how it could be so distressing. As counselors, we can listen to the story, convey a sense of belief and offer a distinctly different response than the target has received thus far.”

It is imperative not to blame these clients in any way for the abuse they have experienced, Brown says. “In most cases, the target has done nothing to deserve the treatment [he or she is] receiving,” she says. “The bully chooses the target, timing and tactics. Also, the target may have very little control or influence over these factors. The responsibility to stop the abusive behavior rests with the employer. Teaching your client to be more assertive or to stand up to the bully is not the answer. Most of the time, this only makes the situation worse. Remember, 72 percent of bullies are bosses, and standing up to the boss can easily be misinterpreted as insubordination.”

The therapeutic recipe is fairly simple, according to Brown. “The best support a counselor can offer targets of workplace bullying is to help them prioritize their health, explore ways to heal from the psychological injuries associated with the abuse and examine realistic solutions to the problems they face,” she says. “Do not ask too much from these clients. The unrelenting stress they’ve experienced may be quite debilitating. Be patient, be accepting, be encouraging [and] be a resource for them.”

Promoting self-care and enhancing social support are imperative, Brown says. “This may mean helping the client figure out a way to take time off from work, teaching new coping skills and encouraging time spent with loved ones — time that is deliberately not focused on recounting the situation at work.”

Counselors can also offer psychoeducation to clients, Brown says, allowing them to learn about the phenomenon of workplace bullying, giving a name to what they have been experiencing and helping them to find relevant resources. In working with these clients, it is also important for counselors to keep the focus on the present and the immediate future, Brown says. “Many of the targets that come to counseling arrive in a state of crisis. Their physical and emotional health, personal relationships, finances and job may be in jeopardy. Counseling approaches that focus heavily on the past — family of origin, childhood memories, etc. — will not provide the immediate support and direction these clients need,” she explains.

Taking a goal-directed and strengths-based approach will also prove helpful, Brown says. She advises counselors to listen for the client’s assets, strengths and past successes, and then design interventions that keep the client in touch with those qualities.

Reicherzer also advocates for a strengths-based approach and adds that the particular course of counseling will vary by client. “When we have an understanding of the client’s demonstrated strengths and resources across her or his history, it’s helpful to draw from these in reminding the client of personal capabilities,” she says. “Remedying a bullying situation is really based on the needs of the client. For some, it’s simply beginning a new job search and making a plan to leave the current job. For others, it’s about having the courage to report the problem to a manager or human resources or to pursue legal action when the organization has failed to resolve the matter satisfactorily.”

Brown adds that she does a fair amount of role-playing with her clients. “In session, they try out new responses, process the success or failure of the steps they are taking to address the situation at work, rehearse coping skills we’ve identified, etc. I strive to create a safe place to practice and experiment with new skills and behaviors.”

WBI research indicates that once targeted, an individual has a 77.7 percent chance of losing the job, Brown says. “After exhausting their options, many targeted workers choose to transfer or quit,” she says. “The decision to leave on one’s own terms can be empowering and frequently results in better emotional health than being fired or laid off.”

Not surprisingly, Brown says, career counseling techniques can play a vital role in working with these clients because the approach helps them to explore alternative career possibilities and plans for seeking employment elsewhere.

But perhaps no intervention is as effective or helpful as simply listening. “Targets tell us few people really listen to them,” Brown says. “There is immense power in this simple act.”

Brown encourages both new and seasoned counselors to get relevant training before working with clients who are experiencing workplace bullying. Clinical supervision may be helpful as counselors develop knowledge and skills specific to this population, she says, and ongoing consultation is a good idea.

Simply being mindful as a counselor that workplace bullying exists is crucial, Brown says. “In the U.S., there are deep connections between one’s career and his or her identity,” she points out. “Work-related stress is a common topic of discussion in the counseling relationship. With nearly half of all working Americans reporting direct experience or witnessing bullying in the workplace, it cannot be overstated how important it is for counselors in all settings to be aware of this phenomenon.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article:

For additional information about the Workplace Bullying Institute, visit workplacebullying.org.

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Making life work

Lynne Shallcross January 1, 2013

intertwinedWhat sets counseling apart from the other mental health professions? In many cases, the lines between the different helping professions can be blurry, causing even counselors themselves to debate the correct answers to that question.

But one truly distinguishing feature of the counseling profession is its roots in career development, says Spencer Niles, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Pennsylvania State University. “It is the cornerstone of the profession. It’s something unique to counseling and counselors. It separates us from others,” says Niles, who has written multiple books about career counseling and also serves as the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

In fact, Niles contends it is crucial that counselors not only stay mindful of the unique role of career development within the profession but also realize that career is a topic that can — and should — be addressed in almost every counseling setting. “My perception is that general career counseling is undervalued, [especially] when we realize how important and essential it is to having a sense of hope in one’s life,” says Niles, who is a past president of the National Career Development Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

“Everyone has a career, and everyone is connected to people who have careers,” he continues. “There is no escape. As Freud noted, love and work are critical life tasks that must be managed effectively for life to be satisfying. So, because there are few things more personal than a career choice, every counselor will encounter clients or students with career challenges — whether they are the need to address normal career development tasks or career challenges emerging out of crisis situations such as job dislocation. Moreover, every counselor will encounter clients who are part of a network that contains people with career challenges that must be addressed. We know that when career situations go awry, mental health issues increase. Thus, having at least a basic awareness of career development processes and interventions is essential regardless of [a counselor’s] work setting.”

NCDA President Rich Feller likewise believes that issues related to career can find their way into any counseling setting. “The changing nature of work, learning and family leads counselors within any specialty to explore the connection among personal, career and well-being issues,” says Feller, professor of counseling and career development and university distinguished teaching scholar at Colorado State University. “Positive psychology and attention to social justice issues — long advocated by career development — are now center stage among all counselors and advocates regardless of title or training.”

The number of counselors completing NCDA’s career development facilitator training suggests to Feller that counselors increasingly see that personal and career issues are tightly interwoven. The concept of career means finding meaning, satisfaction and choice in all of one’s life roles, Feller says. “Career counselors understand that you can’t separate one’s vocational role from other roles, that career transitions are not on schedule and that learning is lifelong.”

Thomas Ayala, president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a division of ACA, says professional counselors have a responsibility to be competent in as many areas as possible, including employment counseling and career development. “The role that work plays in people’s lives varies greatly. Therefore, the types of issues people seek counseling to help them manage are likely to include aspects of their working life,” says Ayala, who runs a private practice in Lebanon, Ore. “As many [counselors] who are in private practice know, the nature of our next call is undeterminable. I am certain many of my colleagues who are members of NECA would suggest career development and employment counseling proficiency should be compulsory for all counselors.”

Two or three decades ago, Niles says, there was a dichotomous mode of thinking when it came to career counseling versus personal counseling. But that thinking has changed. “What happened is we turned the century and we experienced massive downsizing,” he says. “People are realizing there are few things more personal to them than career choice.”

There is a subjective nature to every career choice, Niles adds. “This makes career development personal in that people seek to make meaning out of their life experiences and translate that meaning to a career direction that they find purposeful.”

Niles agrees with Donald Super’s concept that career choice is the implementation of one’s self-concept in an occupational role. “If that ideally is true, what you believe to be true about yourself matters relative to what you decide to do occupationally,” Niles says.

What people believe to be true about themselves can be positive, hopeful and functional, Niles say, but it can also be fractured and influenced by challenging life situations. “I think that counselors increasingly encounter people who have career concerns no matter what setting they work in,” he says.

Ayala agrees. “Counselors need to know about employment counseling just as much as they need to know about the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], trauma interventions, anxiety or any other issue that has the potential of presenting in their office,” he says. “Employment counseling should not be considered in a different light than any other type of mental health counseling. When we consider Adler’s individual psychology, we understand the need for people to be productive and make worthy contributions to our community.”

A hope-based intervention

In the past, career interventions were very objective and rational, Niles says, and were most commonly focused on standardized, formal career assessments. Now, he says, the focus includes engaging clients in a meaning-making process. The idea is to take what has happened to clients, make meaning out of it and turn that into a career direction, he explains. However, both the world of work and one’s self-concept evolve over time, which means that making choices and adjusting are continually required, Niles says.

For students and adult workers alike, being able to see connections between current activities and future possibilities fosters a sense of hopefulness about what the future can hold, Niles says. “That’s where career counseling comes into play — making those connections,” he says. “It’s a hope-based intervention.”

With career counseling, Niles says, neither the past nor the present has to dictate the future. He gives the example of a college student who meets with a career counselor because the student is not doing well in school and is on the verge of being dismissed from college. His performance in school might be suffering because he chose a major that doesn’t relate to his interests, skills or values, so he is struggling to remain engaged and motivated. “Part of what a career counselor can do is help students look at the possibilities that might be more meaningful, more in line with who they are, therefore helping them to develop more hope and engagement relative to academic pursuits and future possibilities,” Niles says.

Niles also subscribes to Super’s idea that career development reflects the total constellation of life roles that a client participates in over the course of a lifetime. A holistic view of career counseling takes into account how each person combines all of these life roles into a life that he or she finds meaningful, Niles says.

In Western cultures, Niles says “tremendous expectations” exist concerning what work can provide, from financial support to human interaction to a sense of purpose. But not everyone will find all of those things through work, Niles says. By taking a holistic view, he says, counselors can explore how a client makes decisions about work not just for the sake of work but also for the sake of allowing that client to create the sort of life structure he or she will find meaningful.

For instance, he says, some clients might want to work a 60-hour week, leaving themselves time for only a few friends and hobbies. Other clients might regard that as a life sentence and would gravitate toward a 30- to 40-hour workweek, leaving themselves more time for other life roles such as being a parent or spouse. “Work doesn’t hold the same level of importance for everyone,” Niles says. “We can’t assume that we know how important work is for a person’s overall life structure.”

If work and other life roles are intertwined, it stands to reason that a problem in one area will spill over into the other, Niles says. “If a relationship is causing stress and it’s not going well, you bring that to work with you” and vice versa, he says. For that reason, Niles suggests that when a client is having a problem in one area of life, the counselor should also explore the effects that problem might be having on other areas of the client’s life.

Another consideration today is that the economy is creating some level of anxiety for almost everyone, Niles says. The old social contract that said your employer would take care of you if you were loyal and hardworking no longer exists, he says. As a result, more people are taking another look at their life roles and considering whether they need to reorient. “As people are dislocated from their work involuntarily, they become less willing to sacrifice everything for their employer when their employer is so willing to sacrifice them,” he says. “Rather than living to work, many people are working to live and seeking fulfillment in life roles other than work.”

Niles contends that counselors in every setting need to understand the meaning of career in clients’ lives, including what their values are and what gives them a sense of purpose. After that, he says, counselors can focus on the types of activities those clients can move toward to help them fulfill those needs.

Niles also points out that a person’s self-concept evolves over time, making career choice and adjustment continual processes throughout the life span. “With each interaction with your environment, you learn more about yourself and your environment, [and] adaptive learners use this new information to inform their sense of self as well as their place in the world relative to work. Moreover, the world of work evolves over time, making choosing and adjusting continuous requirements. You must be a lifelong learner and stay abreast of the evolving requirements within the workplace as well as the emerging skills needed to perform your work effectively.”

Looking forward to the future

What is the best predictor of both career success and job satisfaction? It might be optimism.

Surprised? So was Roberta Neault when she uncovered that finding while conducting doctoral research about 13 years ago. Neault, a private practitioner in Aldergrove, British Columbia, was at the time earning her doctorate while also consulting at a corporate career center during a time of widespread downsizing throughout North America. The company with which she was working was in the telecommunications industry, which had been particularly hard hit. Studying approximately 180 managers at that company, Neault looked at a broad range of factors in trying to determine what helped them find career success and satisfaction, regardless of whether they remained with the company or were laid off. The attribute of optimism came out on top.

“Working [with clients] on hope or optimism is not just nice to do, but in fact, it makes a measurable difference. At least it did in my research,” says Neault, a counselor educator at a number of Canadian universities and a member of both NCDA and NECA.

Neault, who co-authored the 2010 book Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development with Niles and Norman Amundson, says some people use the terms hope and optimism interchangeably. She is unaware of any research that has measured them differently and tested for them in the same study. Neault and her co-authors write that “optimistic people tend to have faith in the future, a sense that things will work out. They tend to believe in their industry and organization; they also believe in themselves.” In the book, Neault, Niles and Amundson also link hope to positive psychology, encouraging people to pay close attention to and build on their hopes and the positive elements in their lives.

Neault continues to research optimism because she views it as a foundational piece of career development and a vital factor in building resilience. If, for example, a student can’t envision a positive future for herself or can’t see herself getting a job, that will affect how she approaches applying for jobs or whether she thinks it is worth it to seek additional education, Neault says.

“Likely, hope and optimism are both important in any era or economy,” says Neault, a past editor of NECA’s Journal of Employment Counseling. “However, most of what the news covers about work these days is doom and gloom, whether it’s about downsizing, economic crises or high unemployment. Also, the job search cycle is, on average, more often repeated than in previous times. Most people realize their current job isn’t a ‘job for life’ but rather that they’ll need to find other jobs at some point in the future. If people focus on the negative aspects of this — future unemployment, a possible need for retraining, competition for ‘good’ jobs — they may lose hope, become pessimistic and either settle for a less-than-suitable job or lose motivation to continue growing their career. However, instilling hope and optimism can reenergize job seekers and, due to that renewed energy and positive attitude, contribute to their future career success and job satisfaction.”

Beyond the state of the current economy, a variety of life situations can cause clients to lose hope in their career futures, Neault says. For example, a client in a rehabilitation counseling setting who has been injured on the job might find that the future he once pictured no longer seems realistic. Or a client who has just come through a divorce may need to determine how she is going to support herself from now on. Another client might have recently taken on the responsibility of caring for aging parents, causing him to turn down a promotion and interrupting his career. In all of these cases, it could be easy for the client to lose hope, Neault says.

Returning to the example of the student about to enter the workforce who looks at her future and feels that she won’t find anything because of the economy, Neault says she would start by helping the student look for exceptions to that perception. “Even if the unemployment rate is 10 percent, that means that 90 percent of the people in the labor force are working,” she says. “I’d encourage my client to investigate who is still working or finding new work in this tough economy and why.”

Neault would also help the student access relevant labor market information to find where skill shortages and “hot jobs” are located, encourage her to do some informational interviewing about how to get a foot in the door and possibly urge her to explore nonstandard work as an entry point. If she can’t find a job with a salary of $50,000, can she find two part-time jobs at $25,000 each? Alternatively, can she find a “survival job” that pays the bills but leaves her with some free time to accept part-time work when it is available in the industry the client is targeting?

The key to resilience

Hope and optimism are key elements of the flexibility required of people to select and manage their careers in today’s world, Neault says. “Things aren’t as lockstep as they used to be. People optimistic about the future are more likely to be resilient and roll with the changes when they need to,” she says. Someone without hope is locked in a “dark place,” she says, and an unexpected change in career, such as a layoff or a reassignment of duties, can become the last straw for that person.

In fact, Neault had a client for whom that was the case. He had been laid off, and Neault remembers that he looked distraught. He told her that getting the news about the layoff was worse than if he had been told he had terminal cancer. “As a counselor, [that] was terrifying for me to hear,” Neault recalls.

The first thing Neault did was to assess for suicide risk, staying with the client until he seemed stable and safe. Later that day and the following day, she checked in with him and was happy to find that he had been making calls and exploring job options. This was Neault’s first indication that the client retained a glimmer of hope.

“I encouraged him to attend workshops at [his former corporation’s transition center], where he had the opportunity to work with others in a similar situation. They supported each other, normalized their experience and feelings, and kindled a bit more hope that a positive outcome was possible,” she says. “I encouraged him to set some short- and midterm goals, to celebrate small successes and to write a résumé that highlighted his accomplishments. I also encouraged him to get written references. Reading them fostered a bit more hope. Eventually he chose to start his own business. By taking control of his career in that way, his goal was to ensure that he would never again be in the position of being involuntarily laid off. This, too, contributed to his increased sense of hope.”

When counselors keep optimism in mind, they are more likely to look for interventions that will strengthen and bolster that attribute in clients, Neault says. Importantly, Neault emphasizes that optimism is something that can be strengthened in clients, not an attribute that people are born either with or without.

One way counselors can build optimism in clients is to have them look for other instances in their lives when they dealt with a struggle or challenge but managed to stay hopeful, Neault says. Counselors can then encourage clients to draw from that example of previous resilience. Another approach is to use the concept of story with clients, sharing examples of others in similar situations who ended up being successful. It is important to use appropriate examples, however, Neault warns. For example, a happy, upbeat story isn’t appropriate for a client who is feeling particularly low.

Neault also offers the following tips that counselors can use to build a sense of optimism and hope in their clients:

  • Help clients to envision their dreams.
  • Help clients to set measurable, achievable goals.
  • Help clients to identify small action steps.
  • Help clients to create opportunities for success.
  • To ensure that clients maintain hope, prepare them for the unexpected.

Neault says she isn’t entirely sure why optimism supports career success and satisfaction, but she thinks that when people feel hopeful, they are perhaps a bit braver about looking at the future. “They’re not turning away from it. They’re embracing it with the sense that something good can happen,” she says. “That means that they’re more likely to perhaps take reasonable risks, be positive and enthusiastic in networking and making career contacts, [and] invest in their own learning or career development activities because they feel there will be some sort of payoff. [Optimism] helps them engage in the activities that will, in turn, make them successful.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who feel low and lack optimism might find it hard to get off the couch and engage in the types of activities needed to find success, Neault says.

It behooves all counselors, regardless of setting, to be aware of the client’s career development and level of optimism, Neault says. “I see an individual’s work integrated with all other aspects of his or her life. Whether or not one is engaged in meaningful work that pays sufficiently to meet one’s needs [and] within a workplace with a positive and respectful atmosphere will impact self-esteem, personal relationships, mental and physical health, life satisfaction and the ability to achieve other life goals. Counseling without attending to career-related issues leaves a very important aspect of one’s life out of the conversation. Research has demonstrated that optimism is the single best predictor of career success and job satisfaction. Therefore, it makes sense that enhancing optimism and hope will positively impact the client’s job satisfaction and career success and, in turn, positively impact other key areas in his or her life.”

The next stage of life

Seventy-eight million. That’s the number of baby boomers in the United States, according to an article on Bloomberg’s Businessweek.com. And each day, the article notes, 10,000 baby boomers are reaching age 65.

As a counselor, if you aren’t paying attention to the career needs of the baby boom generation, you need to be, says Cheri Butler, associate director of the career center at the University of Texas at Arlington and past president of both NCDA and NECA. Being fully prepared to work with these clients is important for a number of reasons, Butler says, not the least of which is the sheer size of their generation.

Butler says the significantly smaller size of Generation X means that a workforce shortfall is approaching as more baby boomers retire. It is important for career counselors to know this, Butler says, because they can communicate to baby boomer clients that their experience and knowledge are still needed in the workplace. “Career counselors should be aware of these demographics, particularly when working with clients who have been forced to take early retirement as part of a downsizing,” she says.

Also important for career counselors to recognize, Butler says, is that although substantial numbers of boomers are nearing retirement age, many are finding themselves financially unable to retire fully, in large part due to the recent recession. Although some baby boomers can and will continue in their current jobs, many others have been laid off and forced to find something new instead of retiring, she says. And still others who need or want to keep working desire a new challenge instead of doing what they’ve always done.

Regardless of why baby boomers are reassessing their career options, Butler says career counselors need to help these clients realize that they still have something to offer. “Help them bust the myth that they’re too old. Help them see the value in their maturity and be able to sell it,” she says.

Career counselors should also help baby boomers explore what something new or different might look like, Butler says. “Use questions like, What did you play when you were young? What were you doing the last time you lost track of time? Do you have a passion about some cause? What demographic of people do you like to be around? What do you want people to remember about you when you are gone?”

As a group, Butler says baby boomers possess a positive work ethic. They are generally regarded in the workplace as dependable, competitive, hardworking and optimistic, she says. They also like their success to be visible and often feel defined by their jobs. That is important to know, she says, because if a counselor is working with a baby boomer client laid off after 35 years on the job, that client will be grieving the loss of identity that was tied to that job and organization.

Butler recalls working with a 65-year-old client who was essentially forced to retire. As they talked, it became clear that the client had never found closure. Butler said to the client, “We have to come to the realization that you are a human being, not a human doing. You need to separate yourself from your previous title. How could we do that?”

Butler and her client planned a ceremony in which they burned all of the client’s old business cards. Butler then told him, “You’re no longer that title. You’re you. So how are we going to redefine you?”

Eventually, the client was faced with a decision concerning how he wanted to move forward. He was presented with an opportunity to get back into the traditional workforce with another company, or he could travel with his wife across the country in their RV, working odd jobs at national parks.

“We discussed how both [choices] would feel and the pros and cons [of each], but the telling activity was a simple one,” Butler remembers. “I gave him a quarter, and we said, ‘Heads, you go back to work, and tails you get in the RV.’ He flipped the coin and it came up heads. I immediately asked him, ‘It says go back to work. How do you feel?’ He said, ‘Yuck!’ That feeling said it all, and he got in the RV.”

‘Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair’

The baby boom generation spans roughly 1946-1964, putting these clients between the ages of 49 and 67. That age range encompasses a large variety of life stages and decisions, Butler points out. A person who gets laid off at age 50 will likely be looking at much different options than someone who gets laid off at age 60. Butler calls 50 a “pinnacle age” in life at which clients might be thinking about going back to school and pursuing a complete career change. “They might look up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not where I want to be [in life],’” Butler says. “I find that group in my office all the time.”

At age 60, some clients might be looking at ramping down their careers, Butler says. “Maybe they’re old enough to take retirement from their 30-year jobs, but they want to do something else to feel relevant. They might not want a full-time, 80-hour-a-week job; they might want to do something fun.”

At 70, many clients are looking to wind down to something slower, but what that will be depends in part on the individual client’s financial situation, Butler says. Those who are able might want to fill their time with family, travel and volunteer work, while others might need to keep working at least part time. Either way, Butler points out, “Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair.”

Even for those baby boomers planning to ramp down into retirement and who aren’t likely to be transitioning into another new job, a career counselor’s input can be helpful, Butler says. As opposed to a financial adviser who discusses money issues surrounding retirement, a career counselor can talk with these clients about time, Butler says. “Questions to ask may be, ‘Do you want to slow down with what you have been doing or do something entirely different and fun? How much time do you want to commit to these activities? What other activities do you want to pursue?’”

In general, Butler says, baby boomers are introspective. So, in helping them determine what might be next in their careers, asking questions about why they chose a career path originally and whether they would follow the same path over again can be illuminating, Butler says. Those details can then be used to move forward with the client. Boomers also like career assessments, which produce tangible results and information, she says. In addition, they like to know that the person working with them possesses solid credentials, so Butler recommends that counselors share details of their professional background early on.

Butler also advises career counselors never to assume that a client’s life stage or preferences can be pinpointed strictly on the basis of age. Rather, she suggests asking probing questions related to the individual’s demeanor, interests, enthusiasm and passions to find out his or her “virtual age.” For example, with a 60-something client who is as energetic and passionate as a 50-something client, Butler might suggest seeking certification for a new career rather than discussing the pursuit of a fun part-time job.

More widely, Butler says, counselors shouldn’t make assumptions. “Don’t assume that a 70-year-old doesn’t have the energy to work. Don’t assume that a senior isn’t computer savvy. Don’t discourage someone from going in a direction that you think wouldn’t be a good fit. Suggest that they try it out rather than steering them away from it.”

Career counselors must also keep up with workforce trends to truly provide informed guidance, Butler adds. For example, a career counselor might see a 50-something client with a background in manufacturing who was recently laid off or who is looking for a way to beef up his or her skills. If the career counselor knows that one of the current trends is increased demand in logistics and supply chain management, Butler says, the counselor can discuss this with the client, determine if that might be the right direction to head toward and help the client see how to market his or her maturity and experience. “We [as career counselors] need to have good listening skills just like a [general] counselor, but we also have to have that additional layer of knowledge of what the trends in the industry are,” she says.

Writing life stories

In Pamelia Brott’s view, career counseling in the 21st century is about much more than simply finding a job. It is about career well-being, which she says encompasses clients finding their purpose and looking forward to each day.

Brott, an associate professor in the counselor education program at the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center, believes a narrative approach offers clients a helpful path for finding that career well-being because it provides them with a natural way to share the stories of their lives. That is why she has developed what she calls the “storied approach.”

With the storied approach, each client is the editor of his or her own life story. “You can write your future story as you want,” says Brott, a member of NCDA and the immediate past president of the Virginia Counselors Association, a branch of ACA. Framing career counseling from a narrative viewpoint allows clients to feel more control over their lives, Brott says, whether they want to change career paths or continue in the same direction they have already been traveling. “By uncovering the patterns, themes and significant people and events that have occurred in previous chapters of the life story, the client identifies preferences for future chapters across [his or her] life roles,” she says.

Using her storied approach, Brott sees a person’s life story broken down into five life roles:

  • Relating, such as relationships with friends and family members
  • Learning, which includes both formal and informal learning
  • Pleasuring, including play, activities and hobbies
  • Working, which includes employment, home and classroom duties
  • Valuing, which Brott calls the “center of personality” and one’s authentic self. “The valuing life role is how choices are made for one’s career well-being,” she says.

Employment over the life span can naturally include unexpected twists and turns, and the bleak economic landscape in recent years hasn’t helped. Brott says shifting the focus solely from employment to all of life’s roles, and to clients’ strengths across those roles, can help clients find satisfaction and fulfillment even if they aren’t landing the exact job they want. “Helping clients identify what is ‘good enough’ for now can be a chapter that bridges the story and provides hope in what may be extremely trying circumstances,” Brott says. For instance, a client who is unemployed might find that while he is searching for a new job, he can also focus on his “relating” role by spending more time with his children. The goal of career counseling, in Brott’s view, is to make clients feel more empowered in their lives.

Using the storied approach, Brott says counselors can work with clients through the dynamic interplay of coconstruction, deconstruction and construction. Co-construction guides clients in celebrating past chapters of their life while finding themes across symbiotic life roles. Deconstruction opens space to articulate future dreams. Construction of future life chapters is centered on achieving those dreams on the basis of the clients’ strengths, relationships and passions.

As part of her approach, Brott uses three exercises — a lifeline, life roles circles and a goal map — that assist clients in telling their stories and planning out future chapters. “In coconstructing the chapters of the life story, the client and counselor collaborate and develop the narrative language that has meaning to the client,” she says. “Early memories are sketched on a lifeline as the client tells the story, and the counselor illuminates the chapter by reflecting meaning and feelings. Clients are able to see the reoccurring patterns in living a life and begin to articulate those patterns that [they] want to change and those patterns that need to be part of future chapters. Life roles circles are drawn to represent current functioning and then drawn again for a future point in time — a future chapter — which begins the process of deconstructing to open up space in the story and uncover preferred ways of being. A goal map is used for constructing a future chapter based on these preferences so that the client can identify the goal, initial steps in constructing the next chapter, obstacles that may get in the way and resources to use for overcoming those obstacles.”

The idea Brott wants to drive home with her peers is that career counselors can help people not only advance and excel in their working roles but also identify and move toward the total life they want. “We need to have a more dynamic definition when we say ‘career,’” she says. “It isn’t just about the job you have, it’s about the life you lead. You get to write your life story.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org