Career wellness

One of the most positive developments in the workplace over the last decade is the recognition that employee wellbeing goes beyond health and safety and should include a holistic view of wellness. It has become common to see work colleagues exercising, taking part in health checks and participating in various wellness education programmes. But any wellness programme is incomplete without including “career wellness”.

We know that people who are productively occupied, including through employment, have a greater sense of wellbeing than those at a loose end. The activities that consume our days are clearly linked to our sense of purpose and self worth. Just being busy, though, isn’t enough. We are most satisified and gain the most overall benefit to our wellbeing when we feel that we are being fairly compensated for our contribution, engage in positive social interactions, have a realistic schedule and experience personal growth.

Organisational wellness programmes could be even better if they fully integrated the benefits of career wellness. This is different to the regular investment made in career development but will, undoubtably, enhance these endeavours. Where career development focuses on progression, career wellness should be focused on personal sustainability. A sustainable career is not just satisfying but also maintains the employability of the individual.

Most organisations measure employee engagement, but few ask social or schedule questions. Social questions can focus on whether the human interactions they experience are positive and meet their needs. Schedule questions can test the alignment of the pace of work with personal goals.

A career wellness view on compensation for effort is not the same as career progression on salary. It should be about fair exchange of value overall. This is much harder to test as career progression negotiations get in the way, but questions about recognition and mutual worth go much of the way there.

Where employers can be much more active is in personal growth for a sustainable career. With personal skill growth comes options to resolve any social, schedule or compensation imbalance. Without it, even the best arrangements in the short term become obsolete and redundant.

Andrew Smith wrote recently in The Australian “we must ensure that we are preparing young Australians to be confident participants in our digital future”. Smith should know, he is chief executive of Education Services Australia and draws heavily on research including the Building the Lucky Country report I had the privilege of helping develop.

We need to set people up with the right skills for the future but we also need to help them maintain their currency throughout their career. Our research into the capabilities that people bring into their jobs indicated that the average employer most values qualifications and skills that have been held less than five years, as evidenced by demand outstripping supply across the majority of skill categories. However, after five years, supply is greater than demand. This reversal of fortunes is dramatic, growing to an average of eight times the supply (people) to demand (jobs) after nine years.

I’ve already argued that we need to think about career paths and learning differently (see Navigating the future with lifelong learning) but I believe this is also an argument that aligns to the wellbeing and wellness of our people, which we know has benefits for employer and employee alike as well as society more generally.

Many people are very happy doing what they are doing and underinvest in their personal capability. This results in a gradual siege mentality and, even for the initially happy employer/employee relationship, there is a gradual mutual disenchantment. Ultimately, having the wrong skills and being stuck in a job because there is no alternative is in the interests of no-one, sapping confidence, satisfaction and the overall wellness of the individual.

The career wellness objective should be to help people at risk of being stranded by their skills to pick the right capabilities to develop. There is no shortage of opportunity in the majority of organisations with online learning now almost ubiquitous. However, the same approach that is being adopted to make wellness a priority should be used to better create the environment where learning is a natural part of the working day.

We spend such a substantial part of our lives at work that dissatisfaction with our career progress makes it almost impossible to be completely satisfied overall. All too often, skilfulness at a task leads to encouragement to stay focused on that activity. Mastery is only healthy when greater degrees of mastery provide the dopamine of progress in some way.

In the long run, this sense of achievement, sustainability and satisfaction, is only possible if we have access to broad training and we don’t let our skills, or careers, atrophy.

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