The Working Worried - How Career Development Practitioners Can Help

By Caitlin Williams

We all know people who were not laid off.  These people can be described in any number of ways: as the "nervously employed" (Feller & Wichard, 2005), or as those suffering from "recession rumination" (USA Today, 2008), or, as they are referred to here, as the working worried. Whatever we call them, the number of people going to work each day hoping it won't be their last appears to be at an all time high. While news reports indicate signs of economic recovery, for most, this doesn't change their personal reality.

As career professionals, our attention has been riveted to news of the unprecedented job loss. At the same time, we cannot ignore the survivors  - the workers still on the job who are holding their breath, hoping they can ride out these tough times and continue to collect a paycheck.

What can we, as career development professionals, do? How can we reach out to these working worried? Beyond identifying skill sets and writing resumes (as important as these activities are), we need to step forward with compassion and guidance to help those we serve find solid footing while giving them career tools to explore and prepare for what's next.

Here are some items we can pay attention to and some suggestions we can use as we counsel and coach the working worried:


  1. Recognize that many of the working worried will not be showing up at our door. These employees do not want to call attention to themselves. Consequently, they work in isolation and aren't sure how - or with whom - they can voice their concerns. So consider what types of outreach might be most effective.
  2.  Refrain from colluding in the myth that things will soon return to "normal". Glossing over current economic realities as a temporary bump in their career road only fuels the anxiety of the working worried and increases the disconnect they may be experiencing. While it's likely an economic recovery will eventually take hold, the future will not look the same as it did in the past. Our clients need skills in adaptability, resilience, and change-ability, and information on the specific skills they need to be employable tomorrow.
  3. Curb our tendencies to remind working worried clients just how lucky they are to still have their job. It's likely they have already heard this same message from family, friends and envious former co-workers who lost their own jobs. Remember, the working worried are probably doing their own jobs, plus that of one or two other workers who were let go. So suggestions that they should be "grateful" may increase their sense of guilt, or their belief that you don't really understand their situation.
  4. Teach them to focus. When worried, anxious or feeling a bit desperate (all possibilities for the working worried), employees are vulnerable to water cooler gossip, insider rumors and the latest doom and gloom headlines. Focusing on the task at hand and doing it well can help them minimize the "noise" of these confusing distractions.
  5. Coach them to think outside their job title and job description. If they have been doing the same or similar work for several years they may see themselves as simply the sum total of their job title and duties. The result of such thinking means less future job opportunities (in their eyes) because jobs with their specific title or duties may be hard to find in the future. Remind them that new job titles are being created daily in response to new markets, technologies and needs. Suggest they recombine their skills in new ways. Show them how it is possible to apply their skills in new settings. They will be more able to leverage their skills to take on other jobs in their company, should their own job become at-risk.
  6. Challenge them to find what still brings them joy in their work and how they make a difference. If going to work each day feels like an exercise in survival, or a temporary reprieve from a pink slip, then the quality of their work will suffer and so will the quality of their life.
  7. Encourage them to hold on to their career aspirations. Though current circumstances may have clouded over their career dreams of a promotion, relocation or early retirement, these dreams don't need to completely disappear. Some dreams may need to be put on hold; others rearranged. Throwing the dream away outright diminishes the person. Remember, too, that dreams die in isolation. Help them connect with their support network.
  8. Teach them to be their own futurists. Show them how to glean information from news stories and labor market reports. By becoming more alert to where the economy is going and where the jobs are being created, they can spot places their company may soon be growing. Such information can position them for future opportunities.
  9. Teach them to plan and prepare - not for the worst-case scenario - but for handling whatever challenges show up. If they don't like the idea of a "Plan B", which may suggest a failure to reach their real goal, suggest they come up with another term - one that describes an alternative path, or a different possibility. Help them name it and then help them build it so that they have several ways of moving forward.
  10. Encourage them to set limits. In desperation, some working worried embrace the notion that if they just try harder, work harder, push harder - they will be recession-proof. While they do need to give attention to their performance and their contribution to their company's bottom line, these employees also need to practice self-care and give attention to the non-work aspects of their life. Though some current workplace advice may recommend canceling vacations, offering 24/7 availability and continuously asking for more work, such actions can take their toll and offer no guarantees. Thoughtful, strategic actions are key.
  11. Help them recognize and attend to signs of stress. Research has shown that during major layoffs, those who practice resilience and stress hardiness can maintain their health. Connect your clients with professionals, resources, and groups to learn stress relief and resilience techniques.
  12. Encourage them to nourish their lives outside the job. Discuss how they might revisit traditions and routines that have been helpful in the past, such as family outings, church and community involvement, creative avocations and pastimes. We are all more than our jobs and the people and projects that nurture us can also be a source of replenishment and support during tough times.


Feller, R. and Whichard, J. (2005). Knowledge nomads and the nervously employed:  Workplace change and courageous career choices. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

USA Today (May 8, 2008). "Recession rumination strikes worried workers." p. 8.

Caitlin WilliamsCaitlin Williams, Ph.D. is a career development consultant and coach in San Jose, California. She teaches in the master's program in Counselor Education at San Jose State University and she also is Associate Editor of Career Convergence's Organizations department. She can be reached at caitlin@DrCaitlinWilliams.com

Printer-Friendly Version