Well-being-based career practices and interventions for preventing and treating mental illness
Career development practitioners should take a holistic approach, supporting their clients’ mental health while helping them navigate career planning
By Derrick McEachern
Career planning is a mental-health intervention and a well-being practice. What people do each day shapes who they are and how they feel about their daily lives.
People who are disengaged from their work, unemployed, undergoing a work transition or ambivalent about their career path may struggle to varying degrees with stress, uncertainty, low self-worth, anxiety and, in many cases, depression. However, government programs traditionally focus solely on employment: helping people find work using their current skills or retraining them in specifically targeted fields with a high probability of employment.
Well-being and mental-health research (Walsh, 2011) suggest a more holistic approach is necessary. There is a need for more comprehensive services that account for employees’ lifestyle factors and support employee engagement and retention while also addressing mental-health problems.
Well-being and mental health
In their book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter document research conducted across 155 countries that suggests five interconnected elements are predictive of overall well-being.
- Career well-being: liking and finding purpose in what we do each day
- Social well-being: having positive, supportive relationships
- Physical well-being: having good physical health and energy
- Financial well-being: having financial stability and security
- Community well-being: taking pride in, and contributing to, our communities
Well-being goes beyond happiness. According to Gallup, people with high well-being in these five areas have the resources to meet and manage the challenges of everyday life.
Research from other organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO, 2018), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, no date) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2016) emphasizes the importance of comprehensive and holistic approaches to improving individual and community well-being.
Although Canadians in general score high in well-being, some worrying trends have been identified by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (Canadian Index of Wellbeing, 2016). Since 2008, Canadians on average are spending:
- ⅓ less time on vacation
- 16% less time volunteering
- 30% less time with friends
- 15% less money on culture and recreation
In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari documents research from social scientists around the world challenging the prevailing wisdom that depression and anxiety are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. This research provides a new window into the rise and prevalence of mental illness as a result of disconnections in people’s lives from:
- meaningful work
- other people
- meaningful values
- childhood trauma
- status and respect
- the natural world
- a hopeful and secure future
Such research may begin to explain the prevalence of mental-health issues – one in five Canadians in any given year experiences a mental-health or addiction problem (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). It also supports a more comprehensive approach to understanding, preventing and treating mental illness.
The relationship between well-being, mental health and career development
Career service providers work at the cross-section of where work, well-being and mental health meet. Therefore, they should be skilled at recognizing and supporting client well-being and mental health while helping clients navigate the career-planning and employment process.
The following example illustrates this complexity:
Toniesha is 28 years old and has been working full-time at a grocery store for the past eight years. She is currently going through a divorce and is struggling financially. She has two children ages 4 and 7. Concerned she cannot provide for her children’s needs on her current income, she is considering moving to a small apartment in a more affordable but less safe community. With only a high-school education, she fears finding more reliable work with a significantly better income isn’t promising. She says, “I know it’s the middle of August, but I am thinking about going back to school and I’m looking for help. I can’t afford to make a colossal mistake.”
Given Toniesha’s personal and financial situation, the pressure she is under, and the short timeline she has to make a decision, choosing an unsuitable career path is a real risk.
The above case is not a unique one faced by guidance counsellors, post-secondary counsellors, employment advisors and other career practitioners. Companies and organizations also encounter employees like Toniesha who are suffering, disconnected, unable to make ends meet financially, or longing for more meaning in their life or work.
Career well-being as a mental-health practice
Career well-being occurs when a person’s life and work are aligned with their mental-health needs. They like what they do, are highly engaged in their work, have a feeling they belong and are making contributions through their work.
Reversing our trends in mental health and increasing individual well-being require greater understanding of what makes people thrive, as well as the causes of mental illness. It requires greater compassion and a more holistic approach in government-funded programs, companies and organizations, schools, colleges and universities. We all have a part to play in facilitating career planning, employee well-being and improved mental health.
Government-funded programs could:
- Provide well-being-based career-exploration and planning services for employees in low-paying jobs with little long-term security to retrain and advance their careers
- Ensure people who are unemployed have access to career counsellors and practitioners who are trained in well-being-informed career services and interventions as an integral part of the career development process
- Implement employee success planning that incorporates well-being and career planning into their annual reviews
- Ensure access to employee assistance program (EAP) services that offer well-being-based career counselling, interventions and planning
Schools, colleges and universities could:
- Provide well-being-based career planning for high-school students to help them envision and identify their career and well-being needs
- Provide comprehensive career-development services for prospective students, helping them make informed, well-being-based life and work decisions
- Train counsellors and advisors in assessing and improving student well-being by identifying areas of disconnection as risk factors for mental illness
Career counsellors could:
- Include assessment of five interconnected elements of well-being as a central part of career counselling services
- Incorporate well-being-based career interventions that support behavioural and lifestyle changes to sustain long-term well-being and mental health
Preventing mental-health problems and supporting people who are living with them requires institutions and individuals to take a more proactive and compassionate approach.
It is important that we remember that employment isn’t enough. Organizations need healthy, productive, engaged employees. People need work and lives where they can make meaningful contributions and have a hopeful, secure future.
Well-being-based workplace practices and career interventions can improve mental health, sustainable employment, an organization’s productivity and, ultimately, the economy.
Derrick McEachern is a Registered Counselling Therapist (RCT) in Nova Scotia, and Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC). He has worked as a Therapist and Career Counsellor in post-secondary student services for 12 years and is the owner of Five Star Wellbeing Counselling and Coaching. fivestarwellbeing.com
Canadian Index of Wellbeing. (2016). How are Canadians really doing? Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/sites/ca.canadian-index-wellbeing/files/uploads/files/c011676-nationalreport-ciw_final-s_0.pdf
Center for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics
Centres for Disease Control. (2016, May 31). Well-Being Concepts | HRQOL | CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/wellbeing.htm
Hari, J. O. (2019). LOST CONNECTIONS: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions. S.l., NY: BLOOMSBURY.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (n.d.). Measuring Well-being and Progress: Well-being Research – OECD. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/statistics/measuring-well-being-and-progress.htm
Rath, T., & Harter, J. K. (2014). Wellbeing: The five essential elements. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
Walsh, R. (2011, October). Lifestyle and mental health. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-66-7-579.pdf
World Health Organization. (2018, March 30). Mental health: strengthening our response. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response