Towards career adaptabilities

Ageing populations, globalisation and digitalisation have recently unleashed a wind of change at a fast pace. What yesterday counted as “secure” and lifelong professional careers may today no longer be “safe” for everyone. Work transitions are currently a challenge for both individuals and employers. Research has shown that beyond the importance of personality traits, contextual and psychological resources play a key role in helping prevent, plan, manage, or overcome critical work transitions. These resources pertain to people’s personal, social and professional networks as well as to various psychological resources, among them career adaptabilities. Counsellors or coaches may want to work preventively with their clients on career adaptabilities in order to foster career development. Their interventions might also remedy individuals’ stress following major organisational changes, job loss, long-term unemployment or the transition from school-to-work. As a set of self-reflective capacities, career adaptabilities may be stimulated through individual sessions, assessments or coaching activities working on issues related to concern, curiosity, confidence and control. Studies suggest that increasing career adaptabilities also strengthens employability, well-being, self-esteem and job-search efficacy. Individuals with high levels of career adaptability also appear to have better employment prospects and satisfaction. Yet career adaptabilities are no panacea: certain individuals may not respond positively to intervention as they are less open to changing themselves or require more intense intervention due to particularly strong stressors in their life histories. Thus, more vulnerable people may need more time to remobilise their contextual and psychological resources.

Contextual and Psychological Resources for Critical Work Transition

Evolving demographics, rapid technological advances and economic and political changes at the dawn of the 21st century are transforming people’s relationship to work. Vocational psychology has increasingly discussed and stressed the importance of helping individuals prepare for work transitions and understand the meaning of these transitions as part of their life course.

Personality traits certainly play a role in individuals’ ability to adapt to changes in their working lives. In addition, resources derived from the social context and the work experience also shape career developments as do more adaptable psychological resources.

Contextual resources range from the support of spouses and family members to social relationships at work and the extent of personal and professional networks. They may also refer to institutional policies and facilities which individuals use to find help with challenging work transitions. Meanwhile, psychological resources consist of self-efficacy, work-volition, goals, belief systems, cognitive and emotional aptitudes or career-adaptability. 

Preventive or Remedial Interventions

Contextual and psychological resources combined with external factors such as the specificities of one’s occupational context shape the course of individual careers. Through preventive and remedial counselling interventions, career counsellors and organisations can work on strengthening and widening these resources and address challenges of and hindrances to various transitions.

Preventive interventions are aimed at helping individuals find decent work that fulfils fundamental needs, including those related to subsistence, the sense of belonging to a meaningful social group, and self-determination. Interventions geared towards preparing, and counselling individuals for work transitions may take the form of interviews, assessments and coaching activities.

Remedial interventions focus on providing help to individuals who experience difficult career transitions, such as young people neither in education, employment nor training or individuals suffering from long-term unemployment or burnout. Such interventions will consist of psychological help to overcome the mental damage caused by these critical life events.

Easing Transitions by Strengthening Career Adaptability Resources

Activities led by career counsellors and professionals centre around identifying and stimulating their clients’ personal and contextual resources. Four to five face-to-face sessions have been shown to help with difficult career decisions and increase in general life satisfaction.

In particular career adaptabilities demonstrate useful potential when targeted in interventions. This set of psychological resources includes individuals’ concern, or the readiness to make choices for the future of one’s career; curiosity, or the exploration of one’s career options and of the broader world of work; confidence, one’s positive attitude to obstacles and self-efficacy beliefs to overcome them; control, one’s sense of responsibility for career choices and decisions.

Involving more readily modifiable resources (compared to personality traits), it has been shown that individuals with higher career adaptabilities often hold a host of other positive resources, including: increased employability and well-being as well as higher levels of self-esteem and job-search efficacy. According to research, they also have higher income and work rate, perform better and show more entrepreneurial aspirations. Over time, they also experience more job satisfaction and less job stress. What is more, among unemployed people, supporting career adaptabilities appears increasingly important after three months of fruitless job hunting.

One-Day Training Sessions for Young Graduates

In the context of school-to-work transitions a one-day training session has been shown to increase career adaptabilities. Targeting all four resource dimensions,  participants were asked to complete a series of exercises, thus exploring (1) the self and the occupational environment with a view to stimulate curiosity, (2) the planning of information-seeking strategies and short- and long-term goals aiming at increasing concern, (3) decision-making about possible options, actions and goals so as to strengthen control and (4) problem solving by means of role plays and discussions on possible obstacles in order to reinforce confidence in one’s decisions.

This intervention with university graduates increased three out of the four career adaptability resources. Six months after the intervention, concern and control were still higher among the university students who followed the training. Last but not least, the group who had undergone the training session also generally reported higher job satisfaction and employment suitability as well as more favourable perceptions of career success.

However, not all people respond in the same way to interventions aimed at activating career adaptabilities. For one, it must be said that they might be more effective with people who are motivated to achieve self-change. Secondly, adaptability might not be equally accessible to individuals with lower levels of education. As a result, working with more vulnerable people sufficient time should be invested to facilitate the identification and (re)mobilization of career adaptability resources. An adequate number of follow-up sessions should be planned in order develop a good working alliance. In these circumstances, motivational interviewing techniques and the mobilisation of contextual resources might also prove useful.

Dr. Greg Bollmann, senior researcher, Universities of Zurich and Lausanne
Dr. Shékina Rochat, researcher, University of  Lausanne

Suggested Further Readings:

  • Nota, L., & Rossier, J., eds. (2015). Handbook of life design: From practice to theory and from theory to practice. Göttingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
  • Rudolph, C. W., Lavigne, K. N., & Zacher, H. (2017). Career adaptability: A meta-analysis of relationships with measures of adaptivity, adapting responses, and adaptation results. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 17–34.
  • Duffy, R. D., Blustein, D. L., Diemer, M. A., & Autin, K. L. (2016). The psychology of working theory. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 127-148.

With many thanks for the support of the team at the Research center in vocational psychology and career counseling of the University of Lausanne.

LIVES Impact (ISSN: 2297-6124) publishes regularly briefs with policy-relevant research findings from studies  conducted at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life-course perspectives” (NCCR LIVES). It is aimed at professionals, public officials and representatives active in social policy and related fields.

Series Editor: Pascal Maeder, KTT Officer,