From stagnation to satisfaction: How career counselling can set you on the right path

6 March 2023

The last few years allowed us something rare: an extended stretch of time to reflect. Many of us reflected on our careers – and realised we wanted more.

Maybe we feel undervalued in our role. Maybe we’re well-paid and well-respected, but we can’t find any meaning in the work. Or maybe something just feels… off.

The reasons for wanting a change are many. And our very own Cathy Caballero, organisational psychologist and Positive Psychology co-founder, has seen them all.

Cathy assures us there’s nothing wrong with wanting something new. But before we do a career one-eighty, she stresses, we need to understand why.

Otherwise, we risk jumping ship only to find ourselves in the same predicament – just in a different workplace.

Career unrest en masse

Cathy has worked as an organisational psychologist for over 10 years. She’s midway through a PhD in work readiness and career development, is a lecturer and researcher at Deakin University, and is a seasoned career counsellor.

She knows, from her work and her research, that feeling dispirited about work is common. But it’s rare for so many of us to act on it in unison – on a global scale.

“The pandemic gave us all time to examine our lives – of which our careers are a huge part,” says Cathy. “I suspect a lot of people realised they weren’t happy. Out of that came post-COVID work phenomena like the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and, more recently, resenteeism.”

Quiet quitting describes workers who feel apathetic towards their work. They show up and do only what their role and pay packet require.

Resenteeism shows up in those who feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled at work – and choose to actively display their resentment.

All three are related, but it was the Great Resignation that first flipped the script on work culture. Employees left or changed their jobs out of pandemic-induced exhaustion. For many, a career change was a survival strategy.

While Cathy is fascinated by the movement, she sees one problem.

“The Great Resignation really normalised dramatic career transitions,” says Cathy. “If you see other people doing something, you naturally think, ‘Well, maybe I should do that, too.’

“A career change is an exciting prospect, but also a big life decision. It’s important we give it the time and attention it deserves.”

Finding the why

So why do we want a career change? What’s missing from our current role?

Our instinct might say that our workplace is the problem. But Cathy says we shouldn’t be too quick to assign blame – especially right now.

“In a post-COVID world, organisations are still recovering,” she explains. “The fallout from the pandemic has naturally impacted the culture of many workplaces, simply because they’re under so much pressure.

“It can take a long time for organisations to make positive changes. So we should avoid thinking a new workplace will solve all our problems.“

That doesn’t mean we should blame ourselves, of course. ‘Blame’ may be the wrong word: for most of us, the problems are hard to see.

“Sometimes we feel out of alignment with our work,” Cathy explains. “Maybe someone’s job clashes with their values. If they don’t address that, it can get really hard to drag themselves to work.”

On the other hand, we might feel aligned with our work itself – but are forcing ourselves to work in an unnatural way.

“Some people, for example, really need close relationships with their colleagues,” Cathy goes on. “For others, that couldn’t be less important.

“If we’re in the latter camp, pushing ourselves into workplaces with a strong team focus won’t be where we do our best work.”

We can’t always see when these dynamics are affecting us. That’s why Cathy stresses the importance of cultivating greater self-awareness – through a process of deep, intentional reflection.

Career counselling? Like therapy for my career?

Culturally, we associate this kind of reflection with personal challenges. That might explain why career counselling isn’t most people’s first thought when they’re in a career conundrum.

We go to therapy for anxiety, depression or relationship problems. Why should we see someone about our career?

Well, for one thing, a fundamental mismatch between us and our work can exacerbate – or lead to – mental ill health.

“When we aren’t in the right role, the right environment, the right industry, we start to question ourselves,” Cathy explains. “We can think we’re incompetent or incapable, when really our work conditions just aren’t right for us.

“When we aren’t aligned with our work, it can hurt our self-esteem – and mess with our sense of identity.”

As Cathy reminds us, professional challenges are personal challenges. That’s the philosophy she brings to her work.

“Many of us compartmentalise work and life – but I think that’s a mistake. We’re the same person at work as we are everywhere else.

“So part of the career counselling process is re-integrating a person’s work with their sense of self. We try to clarify how work fits into their broader life vision.”

Inside a career counselling session

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true counselling session without revisiting our past. One of Cathy’s favourite career counselling exercises involves a trip down memory lane.

“I’ll have someone recall every job they’ve ever had,” she explains. “Together, we’ll look at each role: the aspects of they found satisfying as well as the aspects they didn’t.

“What did they like about one job and not another? Maybe they loved one in the beginning and then grew to resent it. What happened there?

“It’s those changes, those ups and downs, that we want to explore and unpack.”

These insights from our past experiences will help guide our future career decisions.

The money thing

Connecting our work and our identity may sound indulgent – even naive. We have to consider reality, of course: what about money?

It’s true that we need a certain amount of money to have a good quality of life. Beyond holidays and new shoes, we need to pay mortgages, feed mouths and keep the lights on.

But that doesn’t mean we should minimise the existential aspect of work. In fact, money figures into that picture more than we might expect.

“After a while, money no longer engages us in the way we think,” Cathy says. “Research has shown that people’s life satisfaction stops increasing at a certain point.

“Salaries between $89,000 and $112,000 bring the greatest improvements in wellbeing. The optimal salary for life satisfaction is $140,000 per year. Beyond that, we see diminishing returns.

“The thought that earning more will always make us happier is a misconception,” Cathy continues. “I see some people get stuck in jobs they don’t like just because they pay well. Eventually, our unhappiness catches up to us.

“The hope is that we find something we’re so engaged in that getting paid is like a bonus.”

New perspectives

Leaving our career in pursuit of a new one is a challenging process – both logistically and emotionally. When we do find a job that suits us, we might feel like we’re back where we started: inexperienced and uncertain. But, at the same time, full of renewed vigour.

The work we do in career counselling can set us up for a successful career transition. We’ll have a better handle on our skills, strengths, likes and dislikes. And we’ll feel more assured in our career choices.

That alone can be enough to help us finally take the leap. It will just be a considered leap.

“We need time to think through big life decisions,” says Cathy. “I never rush people through the process.”

Career counselling can’t guarantee us the job of our dreams. But it can set us on the path to a career that fits us like a glove.

Want to find a more fulfilling career? Our trained psychologists and career counsellors can set you up for a smooth transition.

Get in touch to get started.