Journalling: A strategy to better navigate career transitions
Clients can respond to writing prompts, write unsent letters and make lists as a way to process emotions and explore their options
Nora M. Kelly
In a classic experiment on “Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss” documented in The Academy of Management Journal (1994), recently unemployed professionals who wrote about the thoughts and emotions surrounding their job loss were re-employed more quickly than those who did not.
Research by Dr. James Pennebaker and others has shown that journalling has positive impacts on physical, psychological and emotional health; goal achievement; and the development of emotional intelligence. However, aside from the work of Pennebaker and his colleagues, very little has been written on the benefits of journalling during a job search. Could journalling be a useful addition to the job search tool kit of some of our more introspective clients?
Job loss has been significant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada hasn’t seen unemployment rates like this since 1976, and south of the border, rates rival those of the Great Depression. Journalling can help jobseekers process emotions, flesh out ideas, explore options, make decisions, visualize their future and acknowledge progress as they navigate their career transition.
Recommendations for a journalling practice
Clients can use a number of techniques. They can respond to writing prompts, engage in freewriting (or stream-of-consciousness writing), write unsent letters and make lists (e.g. of skills, values or preferred working conditions).
Here are some suggested prompts to help clients get started with journalling:
- What emotions are you feeling right now about this job loss? (e.g. sadness, grief, anger, relief)
- What do you need to say to be complete about this ending? Is there anything you would do differently in the future?
- What career accomplishments are you most proud of?
- What are your non-negotiables for your next job or career?
- What do you want to start, stop and continue with your next role? (skills, responsibilities, etc.)
- Which new skills do you need to hone to better position yourself for your next job? How can you go about learning these skills?
Clients can choose to keep a paper (typically, a notebook) or digital journal. Committing to a short period of time at a high frequency is recommended: either 5-10 minutes daily or 15-20 minutes a few times a week.
Topics for journalling
There are several ways that clients can use a journal throughout the job loss cycle. Career development professionals can also individualize topics according to clients’ needs.
- Write about their emotions and feelings on losing their job. Considered one of the most stressful life events, job loss can prompt a wide range of emotions and seemingly contradictory feelings. It’s important for clients to deal with these emotions up front and to release them in order to pursue a successful job search. Clients can begin to process these emotions by reflecting on the emotional rollercoaster or “job loss cycle” (Amundson, N.E., & Borgen, W., 1982), a model for understanding the stages and emotions that people experience during job loss and transition. Other models could include Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief or the Bridges Transition Model, which identifies three stages an individual goes through when they experience change: Endings, Neutral Zone and New Beginnings. Some clients may want to communicate and release unresolved feelings (e.g. hostilities, resentments, embarrassment) by drafting an unsent letter, a form of writing therapy, to their former employer or colleagues. Kathleen Adams discusses this technique in her book, Journal to the Self.
- Explore what’s next. This inquiry is best made after clients have started to process their negative emotions. As we prepare our clients to look toward a new job or even new career, we may be helping them to identify or re-assess their work values and priorities, their strengths, their career accomplishments and the skills they wish to use going forward, as well as further training and development. Career and Job Search Coach Cheryl Simpson recommends a values check-in throughout the process. “Clients can use journalling,” she said in an interview, “to clarify their values and to ensure that the work they are doing and pursuing honours those values. For example, during the interview process, they can analyze interview responses to determine whether those values are being reflected.”
- Make sense of advice. Jason Alba (2017) acknowledges the barrage of (often well-meaning) advice that jobseekers are subject to from career experts, family, friends and professional acquaintances. As they progress through their job search, clients will need to discern the good advice from the bad.
- Visualize their ideal next chapter. Jobseekers can write a script for a fantasy interview (Vandewater, 2012); describe their ideal work day, boss, and colleagues; as well as the types of projects they will be working on and the conversations they wish to be engaged in.
- Celebrate their wins (e.g. applications sent, interview offers and productive informational interviews), process “rejection” and vent their frustrations (lack of response, slow response, etc.). What are they learning about themselves and about how they deal with failure, rejection and lack of response? Some clients may wish to write about their discomfort with networking, for example, and explore solutions that can make the process more comfortable and even enjoyable.
- Journal their responses to expected interview questions. Clients will want to consider a positive reframe of their job loss, so they can focus on the opportunity before them. They also may want to refine their career stories, and if they are looking to move into more senior roles, reflect on how they describe their leadership style/philosophy.
“Being able to see their progress, or lack thereof, through journalling can empower clients to self-coach,” said Simpson. They can note patterns, areas where they get stuck and changes in their experience over time. Hopefully, they will also see how their negative emotions have dissipated and been replaced by excitement for their new direction.
This new reflective practice can shift with them into their new job/career. Being able to reflect on work situations and document career accomplishments will be valuable to their professional growth and ongoing career management.
Nora M. Kelly is an experienced career development professional with over eight years’ experience in the non-profit sector – leading youth employment programs and employment services teams, and facilitating workshops on employability skills – and a past presenter at CERIC’s Cannexus conference.
Adams, K. (1990). Journal to the self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth – Open the Door to Self-Understanding by Writing, Reading, and Creating a Journal of Your Life. Grand Central Publishing.
Alba, J. (n.d.). Use a Career Journal to Track Career Progress and Aid a Job Search. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://www.livecareer.com/resources/jobs/search/career-development-journal
Amundson, N.E., & Borgen, W. (1982). The dynamics of unemployment: Job loss and job search. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 60, 562-564.
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Press.
Kacewicz, E., Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2007). Expressive writing: An alternative to traditional methods. In Low-cost approaches to promote physical and mental health (pp. 271-284). Springer, New York, NY.
Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of management journal, 37(3), 722-733.
Vandewater, C. (2012, May 29). Dear Diary: Journal Your Way to a Job. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://www.vault.com/blogs/job-search/dear-diary-journaling-your-way-to-a-job
Zucker, R. (2019, October 27). How to Manage the Emotional Roller Coaster of a Job Search. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-to-manage-the-emotional-roller-coaster-of-a-job-search