If you've been employed for more than fifteen minutes over the past five years, you know that the workplace is a stressful environment. Corporate America's addiction to "doing more with less" and downsizing has added more tasks and higher expectations to everyone's day with very little additional pay. That reality was recently confirmed by a report from the academic community. It found that more than one-third of all workers (34%) had greater difficulties at work because of ever increasing stress. Stress on-the-job was hurting their performance and thus their prospects for the future.
There are, of course, many reasons why we feel stressed at work. These include worrying about:
- Meeting current financial obligations
- Being able to retire comfortably
- Falling victim to the next downsizing or reduction in force
- Getting all our work done (and often the work of someone else who was laid off), and
- Feeling burned out, used up or dead-ended in our career.
So, how can we avoid employment insecurity? As my long time readers know, I think there's only one way to meet this challenge: we have to alter our view of what work is and why it's done. In other words, we have to abandon the traditional notion that work is either a race up some company's career ladder or a quest for wealth by the age of 30, 40, 50 -- you pick the birthday. Comfortable as those familiar goals may be, they will not protect us from the triple threats of nonstop layoffs, ever higher performance requirements, and the souring sense that our career has become an endless expanse of ever more dull 12 hour days.
What will protect us from these stressors? I call it Career Fitness. It is a philosophy of working based on two simple tenets drawn from what we know about physical fitness. A healthy career, like a healthy body, depends on our recognizing that:
- We are -- each of us individually -- responsible for the state of our career (not our boss, not our employer, not the Government) and
- We have to work at protecting the health of our career every day.
Employment security is based on a person's ability to contribute to the success of an employing organization. They may not work continuously in the same job or even for the same employer, but they will be continuously employed. Why? Because they can deliver skills, knowledge and experience that organizations need to achieve their goals. How do you achieve such career strength and endurance? You must:
- pump up your cardiovascular system, and
- increase your flexibility and range of motion.
Pump Up Your Cardiovascular System.
The heart of your career is your expertise. It is the knowledge you have and can use on-the-job. Now, expertise is often misunderstood.
- It's not unusual for recent graduates (and many hiring managers) to believe that expertise is based on one's education, on having the latest knowledge in a particular field. It is, in their view, all about being at the state-of-the-art.
- Those who've been in the workplace for awhile, on the other hand, often believe that expertise is grounded in experience on-the-job. It is, in their view, all about knowing how to apply skills in the workplace.
That's what this exercise is all about. In order to be able to contribute to your employer's success today and to the success of your employer (whoever it may be) tomorrow, you have to stretch and strengthen your muscles of expertise all of the time and without let up.
Increase Your Flexibility and Range of Motion.
The reach of your capabilities defines your (current and potential) value to an employer. In other words, the more you can do in and outside your job, the greater your contribution will be to an organization. To extend the reach of your capabilities, you should:
- add skills that will enable you to take on a broader array of assignments in your current job. These might include the ability to speak a second language, to make public presentations, or to use a specific software program. The goal is to enhance your ability to adjust and respond effectively to whatever new circumstances and/or requirements may emerge in your workplace.
- add skills that will enable you to expand the scope of your job beyond the limits defined in the official position description. These might include your ability to work in diverse teams or to manage special projects. The goal is to extend your (real and potential) contribution beyond the confines of what you are required or even expected to do in your workplace.
Stress can endanger our career health as much as it can undermine our physical well being. While there is no single way to alleviate stress, exercise can have a significant positive impact. For your physical health, that exercise must promote strength and endurance; for your career health, it must build expertise and capabilities with broad reach.
Peter Weddle is a veteran as well as the author or editor of over two dozen employment-related books, including the recently released The Career Activist Republicand Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System, one of the most innovative career success books in print. Both are available at Amazon.com.