Career Changes after Traumatic Life Events

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Using the Rock Bottom Model to Counsel Clients with Career Changes after Traumatic Life Events

There are many different stories behind people’s job losses and each one comes with its own particular flavour of emotions and challenge, but job losses that are the result of traumatic life events can be some of the most difficult to cope with.

Life-changing events can come from any angle at any time, and studies have looked at job loss or career change that stems from varying types of traumatic events, including injury, chronic conditions, cancer, mental illness, burnout and entrepreneurial failures.

Losses of these sorts often necessitate a whole new career plan because the individual may well not be able to return to a similar role, which means that the loss of a career path then goes hand in hand with a loss of work identity. When your hopes and dreams for the future are shattered, and part of your identity stripped away, it can be very hard to adjust to and trying to rebuild your life from this point can take considerable effort.

The Rock Bottom model (Shepherd & Williams, 2018) offers a helpful framework for working with clients who have been compelled to turn their back on their previous career. The model centres on the point when the individual is at their very lowest, and suggests that this moment, just when the individual may feel that they can’t sink any lower, is crucial for their rehabilitation and restoration.

Rock bottom is described here as the time when all of a person’s negativity about their current situation is brought together and becomes fused with their future beyond those negative feelings. It is at this point that individual changes their view of the situation, seeing it as not just a straightforward job loss but a deeper loss of identity, understanding that they haven’t just lost a job, they have lost a part of who they are, and realizing that there is no way to recapture this.

For the individual, this can be a pivotal moment. Until this point, the person’s old work identity is still part of them, central to who they are. To move forward the person needs to realise that there is no hope and no chance that they can recover and be that person again. It is only then that the individual can start to look for and develop a new, alternative identity.

The rock bottom model in practice

Shepherd and Williams identify three processes that can help clients to find and embrace a new identity.

1.   Identity Play

Identity play is exploratory, not goal-focused, but rather aimed at trying a range of new identities, to see how clients feel about being that new version of themselves, and how they feel they fit. The different identities they explore don’t need to be realistic, or sensible, — it’s more about a mindset — giving permission to contemplate possibilities.

Identity play needs to be more than just imaginative, and to be a useful first step towards a new identity, it needs to involve some action. Clients might consider volunteering, taking up a hobby or enrolling in a course, and could also incorporate starting to spend time in a new social circle.

2   Disciplined Imagination

Alongside this identity play, clients should be encouraged to engage in disciplined imagination. This sounds like a contradiction in terms but entails alternating two processes: asking sensible questions could be things like, ‘What do I like doing?’, ‘What kinds of jobs would value my skills?’, ‘What other people’s career paths sound interesting to me?’ and should be used to help the individual develop ideas about possible futures, directions or useful first steps.

3.   Identity Refinements

The final process is one of refinement. In this, you spend time with your clients discussing their ideas and activities, and helping them to gradually whittle down the options and make some decisions about next steps.

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  • References
    • Shepherd, D. A., & Williams, T. A. (2018). Hitting rock bottom after job loss: Bouncing back to create a new positive work identity. Academy of Management Review, 43(1), 28 – 49.
    • Zikic, J., & Richardson, J. (2007). Unlocking the careers of business professionals following job loss: Sensemaking and career exploration of older workers. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 24(1), 58 – 73.
    • Waters, L., & Strauss, G. (2016). Posttraumatic growth during unemployment: A qualitative examination of distress and positive transformation. International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(1).

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