Career interruptions are breaks, pauses, or disruptions in one’s current career. A career interruption occurs when an individual’s typical and usual work is interrupted or changed by some internal (e.g., change in one’s desired career path or life’s goals) or external (e.g., job loss or disability) event. Alterations or changes in a person’s career activities can change the course of one’s work either temporarily or permanently. For example, a temporary career interruption may occur when a woman decides to leave the paid workforce to care for her children and reenters that same career at a later time. An example of a permanent interruption of one’s career may occur in the face of an incurred disability or illness that makes it difficult or impossible to return to one’s previous job. The world of work can be conceived of as a series of starts and stops, accelerations and waiting periods. With advances in technology and other global occupational and economic changes workers are increasingly being faced with expanding career options and the challenge of more frequent involuntary career interruptions. Research indicates that a career interruption or transition can be an opportunity for either growth or deterioration. An understanding of career interruptions is needed for counselors to effectively facilitate healthy adult functioning through all types of career transition processes.
There are various ways to categorize career interruptions. Career interruptions can be either anticipated or unanticipated, voluntary or involuntary. Anticipated interruptions are events that are expected to occur. Examples of anticipated career events are quitting a job, changing careers, or retirement. Unanticipated interruptions are those that one does not expect to happen, such as the loss of a job or an injury or illness that interferes with one’s ability to continue in the same type of work or even engage in paid work at all. Career interruptions can also be classified as voluntary or involuntary. In a voluntary interruption, one chooses to interrupt the current course of one’s career. An example of a voluntary career interruption is a person who chooses to exit the paid workforce to obtain a college or advanced degree. An example of an involuntary career interruption would be getting fired from one’s job. It also is possible to have an anticipated career interruption that is involuntary and an unanticipated career interruption that is voluntary. For example, an individual may anticipate an impending layoff as a result of organizational downsizing. Similarly, an unanticipated voluntary career interruption can occur when a company is sold to another corporation that then offers continued employment, but under less than acceptable terms. In these circumstances, some people voluntarily choose to resign from their jobs, interrupting their careers in order to reassess their career and life goals. As a result, some people might choose to search for more desirable paid work; others may choose to use this opportunity to change careers completely; and others might decide to exit the paid workforce entirely to care for young children or elderly parents.
Although not all career interruptions are experienced as negative, there are a number of common issues faced by those experiencing breaks in their careers. For example, individuals might experience fear and anxiety as they establish a realistic appraisal of their currents skills and abilities, confront financial loss or instability, or experience the loss of job security, colleagues, identity, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Counselors attend to three sets of important factors when facilitating transitions through career interruptions: (1) the individual’s perception of the interruption (e.g., voluntary versus involuntary, anticipated versus unanticipated); (2) the characteristics of pre- and post-career interruption environments (e.g., financial, social, and health and ability status); and (3) internal resources (e.g., confidence and abilities) and adaptability. While attending to these factors, counselors can help people achieve adaptive transitions by facilitating the development of agency, optimism, clear and realistic planning, and perceived opportunity. Specifically, counselors can assist people in developing agency, or an internal motivation to take action to make adaptive changes. They can help people reframe the experience from one of loss to one of opportunity. Counselors also can assist clients in developing clear and detailed plans for achieving their goals. Finally, by encouraging the exploration of diverse alternatives, counselors can encourage individuals to expand the range of their perceived opportunities.
Career interruptions can occur for a number of reasons, including leaving paid work to concentrate one’s energies on other life roles, such as caring for children or aging parents, job loss, and illness or disability. It is important to have an understanding of the important issues involved in each of these interruptions. One of the most common career interruptions occurs when someone takes a leave from paid employment to care for his or her children. This type of career interruption is more common for women than for men, as women continue to be more involved in caring for the home and children, despite their increased presence and responsibilities in the paid workforce. Much of the literature on women’s career interruptions focuses on the difficulty of combining family and labor market work. The length of the break from paid employment can be influenced by a number of factors, including eligibility to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, availability of acceptable child care, financial resources, work role salience, and compatibility with the role expectations of full-time work in the home caring for one’s children. For some women, leaving and reentering the paid workforce might go relatively smoothly given that family leave programs can allow for people to reenter their previous positions without a loss of pay or status.
Other individuals reentering the workforce might find their previous careers to be unsatisfactory given the multiple life roles they must negotiate. For those who choose to stay out of the paid workforce for longer periods of time, a whole new job search process could be necessary. Reentering paid work may be motivated by vocational, family, or financial concerns. For some people, reentry might be precipitated by circumstances related to their spouses or partners, such as disability, divorce, death, or a geographical move due to job relocation. These individuals may never have anticipated working outside the home, may lack the necessary skills and confidence, or may be unsure of how to manage the reentry process into paid employment.
Navigating life transitions through complex life roles such as those of paid worker, parent, and caregiver can result in a number of personal and professional challenges that have the potential to disrupt one’s life. The work of raising children and sustaining families can be a barrier to paid employment and lead to professional marginalization and loss of status in the paid workforce. These issues are especially relevant for women, and women of color in particular, who may already be facing the consequences of gender and racial discrimination that have impeded their access to work or advancement within their fields.
Job loss is the second major reason for career interruption. Mergers, downsizing, restructuring, and economic downturns can all contribute to job loss. Losing a job can create stress and negatively affect one’s finances, family life, and mental and physical health. Loss of one’s previous vocational role, function, and status can be very disruptive in a person’s life. Many individuals face shock, confusion, anger, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, failure, rejection, and decreased self-confidence and self-esteem.
Reactions to career interruptions due to job loss change over time, creating an identifiable pattern. Five phases (disbelief, sense of betrayal, confusion, anger, and resolution) have been identified in the transition process from unemployment to reemployment. Disbelief is frequently the initial reaction to news that one is being let go from one’s current job. It is typical for these situations to be totally unanticipated and for the affected individuals to ask, “Why me?” A sense of betrayal results from a disruption in the belief that if one is a good, responsible worker, one will always be rewarded with continued employment and benefits. It is as if a psychological contract, or agreement, has been breached and one has been dealt with unfairly. Once people recover from the initial shock of job loss, confusion typically ensues over what comes next. When employers provide outplacement or career counseling services, some people vacillate between anger, betrayal and anxiety, and feeling grateful and excited about future possibilities. Over time, most people are able to come to some resolution by moving on to new employment situations. The degree to which an individual is able to successfully move through these transitional stages will depend on a number of factors, including one’s psychological resources and abilities, educational and financial resources, coping skills, and personal and demographic characteristics that may make one vulnerable to career barriers related to age, gender, race, and social class.
Counselors can assist individuals in moving from unemployment to employment in several ways. They can provide counseling to deal with the negative effects of job loss and enhance optimism and self-efficacy. They can also encourage people to seek out social support and encourage them to maintain an active daily schedule. A flexible and adaptive family appears to be important for women, so encouraging communication with family members is recommended. For men, problem-focused interventions, in addition to emotionally focused interventions, are also important. The literature suggests that the psychological effects of job loss need to be addressed before individuals can successfully engage in employment seeking. This includes helping individuals more adaptively cope with emotional and financial concerns, providing support and encouragement, and enhancing job-search skills and job-hunting strategies. In today’s economy, counselors must also help individuals to adapt the changing nature of work and recognize the need to be flexible and adaptable and to upgrade their skills.
Disability and illness create a third reason for career interruption. These interruptions occur when individuals are no longer able to function in the capacity required by their current jobs. For example, a surgeon who develops a degenerative eye disease that results in blindness will no longer be able to perform surgical procedures. Although many of the same psychological and physical consequences of job loss for other reasons can accompany job loss from disability and illness, these individuals also are faced with fears and concerns associated with their physical condition.
One of the challenges of conceptualizing the career interruptions of individuals with disabilities and/or illness is the immense heterogeneity of individuals with these difficulties. Thus, individual and environmental factors must be considered in the career interruptions of these individuals. Despite the great strides that have been made in medicine, technology, and accessibility, paid employment presents a challenge to people with disabilities. National polls indicate that two-thirds of working-age people with disabilities are not employed, despite their desire to work. An array of factors has been identified to explain this persistent lack of employment. These include federal policy concerning disability benefits and access to health insurance (e.g., people who qualify for social security disability may be discouraged from considering employment for fear of loss of benefits, including health insurance), employer attitudes and discrimination, inadequate preparation for work, lack of postsecondary education and training, lack of available community employment services, and perceived difficulties in providing vocational guidance to this group.
A number of factors influence the vocational behavior of those whose careers have been interrupted by disability and illness, including external issues or barriers (such as social policy and laws) and internal factors (such as functional capacities and psychosocial issues). The literature suggests that employers tend to rely on stereotypes of disability and hold inaccurate views of the extent to which a functional impairment may interfere with vocational performance. Despite legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), these attitudes continue to have an effect on individuals’ perceptions of their capacities and their emotional reactions to them. The rehabilitation literature has focused on the effect that negative attitudes have had on lowering work-related self-efficacy, future work expectations, and work motivation. The ADA has positively influenced the formation of occupational goals by reducing environmental barriers that may have previously constrained vocational options. Accommodations mandated in the ADA enable individuals with disabilities to perform a much wider array of jobs than was previously possible.
An important internal factor for career counselors to consider is the meaning of work in the lives of people with disabilities. Work may or may not continue to be incorporated into an individual’s life planning. Instead, individuals whose careers have been interrupted by disability or illness may choose or need to focus their energies on managing their physical condition, shifting attention away from previous vocational roles and involvement in paid work.
Career counseling for people experiencing career interruptions due to disability or illness might include a strength-based assessment approach that incorporates informal interview and observational techniques. It might also include helping clients assess and improve self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Counselors may be particularly interested in assessing how these beliefs may have compromised their clients’ interests, goals, and future expectations. They may focus on anticipating, analyzing, and preparing clients to deal with contextual barriers, as well as building up support systems to help them persist with their career goals.
Change can be difficult for many people. Given that one’s career consumes a large amount of one’s time and energy, interrupted careers (whether anticipated, desired, or not) can create anxiety. Unwanted and unanticipated interruptions can be extremely disruptive life events. However, such events also can provide opportunities for positive change given that they require people to regroup and consider new, and possibly more fulfilling, possibilities.
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