Strategies for Career Counselling
As a counsellor, you will likely encounter clients who are anxious about career-related concerns. They may be kids, teenagers, or adults, and may come from any number of social or economic strata; vocational pressure effects people of all demographics, and there is a robust literature that suggests strategies that counsellors can use to attend to these anxieties as they appear in these populations.
This is incredibly important work, though not often acknowledged as so. People who are anxious about their careers are at higher risk for mental health issues than their peers. Controlling for demographic variables, roughly one third of all people who do at least 6 months of psychotherapy report that career concerns were a factor in their current mental health status; this is a form of “career burden” which can predict serious mental health issues (Vo et al., 2021). This study found that people with career concerns are more likely to be anxious, depressed, and to engage in maladaptive work and life behaviours; they are also more likely to present with low productivity at work, and fail to manage their work/life balance. In short, their problems are very real, and if you are clinically or sub-clinically involved in mental healthcare you might well see a great deal of these clients over time.
This is why it’s important for us as counsellors to attend to the concerns people bring up about their careers. Research in the area suggests that career counselling should be delivered broadly, though counsellors often have limited expertise in such work (Rodriguez, 2017). Thus, it is not surprising that many counsellors can feel out of their depth when the key theme of a client’s anxieties relate to career hardships rather than psychological distress – let-alone a combination of the two.
In this article, a variety of career development strategies will be reviewed. Each of these strategies will be based on current and emerging research findings and will form a toolkit for any counsellor who wants to expand their capabilities in their discipline. But first, what exactly is involved in the field of career counselling?
What is career counselling?
Career counselling can effectively help individuals cope with the stress and uncertainty of the work environment and their motivations within in (Van Esbroeck, 2008). Career counsellors work with individuals in their personal, professional, and educational lives to identify their needs and interests, clarify career goals, information gathering, sector research, development of realistic job search strategies, providing support at interviews, and helping them with their mental health. This will lead to successful employment where individuals are able to contribute fully to their success while achieving personal fulfilment in their chosen vocation. Career counselling offers a degree of hope and direction where there may be none; it is this hope that can bring stability into someone’s life.
There are several theoretical approaches that counsellors can use to achieve this; some of the most reputable theories will be outlined here, and it is advised that you become familiar with them in preparation for when you inevitably encounter a client experiencing career concerns.
Narrative approaches to career development can provide useful insights into what people want out of work, and how they experience the world as they go about their daily lives (Mcilveen & Patton, 2007). This is one of the most widely used techniques and can be effective when used as a standalone strategy or then combined with other therapeutic approaches.
Savickas explores how narrative psychology can be applied specifically to career anxieties – namely attending to ‘vocational identity’, which relates to the extent to which a person has integrated their career aspirations into their personality (2019). As a counsellor, there are a number of ways to promote a clear vocational identity in clients using narrative techniques.
One way to do this is to develop a “career story” for your client – essentially, a kind of biography that highlights key moments in the individual’s life, and how these have influenced career decisions. For example, helping their parents prepare meals as children might have influenced their decision to pursue cooking as a career. By creating a cohesive ‘story’ which captures the patterns and themes relevant to your client’s life and work, they can see how their issues fit into a wider framework and can identify appropriate pathways forward. By talking through those experiences with the counsellor, they can think about how to progress effectively, and can resolve the kinds of issues which might have led them to seek psychological services in the first place.
A counsellor using narrative techniques should also look for themes which are affecting their client’s lives outside of work; if there are problems in areas such as family relations or finances, these might be influencing job satisfaction (Savickas, 2019). Once potential stressors have been identified, developing a coherent career story is a good way to help the client identify appropriate means of resolving those issues. Again, this is a useful tool which can be applied in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches to produce better results for clients.
Of course, to examine the totality of one’s life story can be a daunting task for many. Oftentimes the past is littered with trauma and conflict, and a careers counselling session may not be the most appropriate environment to unpack them (Mcilveen & Patton, 2007). Discretion of the counsellor is key here, and one must discern whether the client would benefit from a narrative approach or not. Regardless, narrative counselling strategies can be of tremendous use when alleviating work-related anxieties in clients.
Solution-focused therapy is an approach which asks the counsellor and client to focus on solutions rather than problems. It is a common technique, and unlike narrative approaches, it focuses on the future and how to plan for it. In solution-focused interventions, counsellors tend to ask clients questions that promote solutions rather than explore problems and note when they make incremental steps towards a more positive future (Corcoran & Pillai, 2009); this has clear implications for career-related concerns.
At its core, solution-focused therapy it is a strengths-based approach that asks the question “considering your current skillset and situation, what can you do to move forwards?”. One common anxiety regarding career work, for example, is how to get from point A to point B – a client might be in a ‘dead end’ job and be fearful of being stuck there forever. The way out of this situation might not be clear, and it is the counsellor’s job to help identify potential solutions that are within the client’s capabilities. Looby (2014) attests to the efficacy of a solution-focused approach for career concerns, and claims that it is a valuable strategy for moving clients through their work-related issues.
One of the most important things you can do as a counsellor in this context is help your client develop realistic goals; this will mean asking them about their current situation, identifying goals they wish to accomplish in the future, then making incremental steps towards those goals over time. For example, a counsellor might ask “what’s a major goal you’re trying to accomplish in your life, and what could you achieve by the end of next week to move towards it?” Systematically taking small steps towards their goals and moving along a timeline is an effective process for moving people through their anxiety about their future and helping them develop greater motivation for change (Schiersmann et al., 2012).
These kinds of processes can be used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches, such as solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), motivational interviewing, or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). In fact, the solution-focused approach has been shown to be helpful in career counselling because it works through interventions that are often associated with CBT, while simultaneously building the client’s self-efficacy and motivation.
Of course, solution-focused counselling is not meant to be used for all kinds of clients – like narrative approaches, this technique is often suited to clients experiencing mild-to-moderate mental health concerns rather than severe psychological concerns. In most cases, however, it has been shown to be particularly effective in helping clients who struggle with self-efficacy and confidence, motivating them to pursue solutions to their work-related problems, and can be a useful compliment to existing therapeutic approaches (Corcoran & Pillai, 2009).
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used interventions in careers counselling – and in counselling more broadly. It’s most associated with depression but can also be helpful for other psychological problems such as anxiety and stress that arises due to uncertainty about the future (Raypole, 2022). CBT asks the question “how do you feel about that?” rather than “what happened to you?”. It also involves identifying situations which trigger negative feelings, and then using a series of problem-solving approaches to overcome these challenges. CBT is best suited to clients who tend to focus on their thoughts and emotions, as this process requires a high degree of awareness regarding the nature of those processes. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety disorders.” Studies have shown that a diagnosis of depression can be prevented with CBT, while people with an anxiety disorder can successfully reduce their symptoms through CBT. It is not very useful, however, in clients with a primary personality disorder or psychosis.
So how does CBT relate to career counselling? A study by Ji Young Lim and colleagues found that CBT therapy positively impacted career attitude maturity, decision making style, and self-esteem of nursing students (2010), while another study found that high school students exhibited higher self-efficacy regarding career decisions after engaging with CBT (Rismawan & Gading, 2021). These results are due to the fact that CBT is based on the belief that it is possible to change a person’s thought patterns for the better. Essentially, this means that even if someone feels like they are stuck with their current career or unclear about their goals, CBT can be used to help them consider new ways of thinking that may not have been anticipated. The result of this can either be realising that their current position is not as bad as they initially thought, or that they are able to change their careers autonomously for the better. In comparison with a solution-focused approach, CBT attends to the feelings associated with the situation rather than the situation itself. For example, being stuck in a ‘dead end’ job might produce anxieties not due to the job itself but due to certain cognitive biases that are being exercised around it.
This is just one example of how CBT can be implemented as a technique in careers counselling; counsellors may also use other cognitive behavioural techniques (such as focusing on relaxation strategies) to help clients feel better about the future. Elements of mindfulness are often involved in the use of CBT, and in the context of a career counselling session it can help clients to stay calm in the presence of anxiety, and to make more purposeful and effective decisions in those moments.
In short, research shows that CBT can be a very useful strategy when counselling career-anxious clients. Our working lives can throw a lot of unexpected events our way, and this approach can help to develop the ability to remain calm and rational in moments of high intensity. It involves the exploration of one’s inner world to untangle the anxieties associated with certain life circumstances, and this quality can be applied effectively to vocational concerns.
Chaos theory of careers
Chaos theory is a somewhat unusual approach to careers therapy. It was developed within the counselling field with the goal of helping individuals deal with situations in which they feel as if they have no control over what’s happening. The underlying concept is that even very small actions can have major outcomes, and these outcomes are difficult (or impossible) to predict. Chaos theory helps clients to come to terms with this reality – that the path forwards is often unpredictable. The goal is to accept their inability to control outcomes and learn ways of managing their feelings of anxiety or stress based on that understanding. The goal of this process is not to generate certainty, but rather to help clients feel more in control than they would otherwise feel by providing an explanation for uncertainty (Ziogas, 2021).
Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) is relevant in the 21st century because it acknowledges the often-rapid pace of economic and technological advancements that occur. In 2014, a review was published in the Australian Journal of Career Development that outlines the impact of CTC in clinical settings, and the results indicate that it is a highly adaptable, practical, and efficacious approach that continues to positively impact clients’ lives for years after the intervention (Bright & Pryor, 2014). Many people seek counselling because they feel somewhat lost – adrift in a world that is moving faster than they can keep up with. As mentioned, however, this theory does not aim to help people to ‘keep up’ with these unpredictable changes – rather, it guides them towards remaining as stable as possible during these changes so that they can make appropriate real-time decisions in response to them. This accounts for its long-lasting therapeutic effect.
CTC is an approach that is undergoing continual development – in-keeping with the principles of the theory itself. Some techniques that are used include mind maps, reality checking checklists, archetypal narratives, career education models, and more tools that help clients comprehend the chaotic nature of the job market and to navigate it with minimal stress. It is recommended to investigate some of these strategies if you are a counsellor who believes that CTC could benefit your clients.
All the approaches mentioned here have their own pros and cons. Solution-focused and narrative are mainly useful in cases when the client can focus on a concrete goal. Narrative therapy offers several useful techniques, but it is important to remember that the client must be willing to open up for those techniques to work. Narrative therapy can also help people who feel stuck by helping them see that they have more choices than they previously believed. CBT can also be helpful for dealing with these anxieties, and it focuses on what goes on inside our heads as opposed to what happens around us. Chaos theory is useful when there are major changes happening, such as economic or technological change. It can help people understand those changes so that they aren’t overwhelmed by them; it also helps them to understand that they have the power in their own lives to respond to those changes in a purposeful way.
It is important not to think of any of these treatments as more effective than another; rather, the counsellor and client should decide what would work best for the situation at hand. Each of them, as mentioned, has a body of evidence supporting its effectiveness, and there is a wealth of information online as to how to enact them in your sessions.
- Corcoran, J., & Pillai, V. (2009). A review of the research on solution-focused therapy. British Journal of Social Work, 39(2), 234-242. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcm098
- Lim JY, Kim MA, Kim SY, Kim EJ, Lee JE, Ko YK. (2010) The effects of a cognitive-behavioral therapy on career attitude maturity, decision making style, and self-esteem of nursing students in Korea. Nurse Educ Today. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2010.01.014. PMID: 20381932.
- Looby, M. A. (2014). Solution-focused career counseling. Solution-Focused Career Counseling. Retrieved from https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/89853/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false
- Mcilveen, P. & Patton, W. (2007-09-01). “Narrative career counselling: Theory and exemplars of practice” (PDF). Australian Psychologist. 42 (3): 226–235. doi:10.1080/00050060701405592. ISSN 1742-9544.
- Pryor, R. G. L., & Bright, J. E. H. (2014). The chaos theory of careers (CTC): Ten Years on and only just begun. Australian Journal of Career Development, 23(1), 4–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1038416213518506
- Rismawan, K. S., & Gading, I. K. (2021). The effectiveness of cognitive behavior group counseling to improve career decision making self-efficacy of senior high school students. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Technology and Educational Science (ICTES 2020). https://doi.org/10.2991/assehr.k.210407.228
- Raypole, C. (2022, May 17). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/cognitive-behavioral-therapy
- Rodriguez, L. (2017, January). Empowering choices in career counseling through a collaborative approach. Retrieved from https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/133649/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false
- Savickas, M. L. (2019) Career Counseling (2nd ed.). American Psychological Association
- Schiersmann, C., Ertelt, B.-J., Katsarov, J., Mulvey, R., Reid, H, & Weber, P. (eds.) (2012). “Core Competences for Career Guidance and Counselling Professionals”. NICE Handbook for the Academic Training of Career Guidance and Counselling Professionals. Heidelberg: Heidelberg University, Institute of Educational Science. pp. 41–60. ISBN 978-3-944230-03-0.
- Van Esbroeck, R.; Athanansou, J. (2008). “1. Introduction”. In Athanasou, J. & R. Van Esbroeck (ed.). International Handbook of Career Guidance. Springer. pp. 1–19. ISBN 978-1-4020-6229-2.
- Vo, M., Callaghan, G., Borges, N., Gill, A., Good, B., Gollehon, N., Mehta, J., Richards, B., Richards, R., Serelzic, E., Tenney-Soeiro, R., Winward, J., & Balmer, D. (2021). Planning for Happenstance: Helping students optimize unexpected career developments. MedEd. https://doi.org/10.15766/mep_2374-8265.11087
- Ziogas, G. J. (2021, August 18). How ‘chaos theory’ can help you get ahead in your career. Medium. Retrieved from https://forge.medium.com/how-chaos-theory-can-help-you-plan-your-career