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Responsibilities May Include

Career practitioners are natural helpers, but what happens when they get overwhelmed?

It is the nature of our work to be of service, but we have to remember to look after ourselves as well.


Our lives have changed drastically in the past several weeks. If we are fortunate enough to remain employed, our face-to-face contacts with colleagues and students have been replaced by hours at the computer, connecting through Zoom and email. We may be experiencing grief, moral fatigue, fear, and untold demands on our time. Many of us are fluctuating between emotional extremes, sometimes hourly.

In our work as career advisors and practitioners, we are tasked with not only adjusting our own lives, but also thinking about how to serve our graduate student and postdoctoral populations as they achieve their own professional goals. It is the nature of our work to be helpers, but what happens when the helpers are also overwhelmed?

I find myself thinking of Abraham Maslow’s theory, which places needs in a hierarchy: physiological (survival), safety/security, love and belonging (social), esteem and self-actualization (achieving full potential; creativity). Perhaps during times such as these, it is helpful to use Maslow’s theory to help us navigate our own capacity to care for ourselves, and our clients (i.e. the students!).

1. Physiological and survival

Despite our shared pandemic, our individual situations will differ drastically. First and foremost is survival. Our minds may be occupied by the need to meet basic needs: are our families fed, housed, healthy, and do we have enough toilet paper? Are we able to obtain enough groceries and necessities? Those practitioners and clients who are acting as caregivers for children or other family members may have drastically more physiological concerns to consider, and this likely occupies the majority of their time. Some days, the bare minimum or less may be all we can do, and the same is true for our students. At this stage, connecting students to vital university or community support such as food banks or emergency financial relief may be our most important task.

2. Safety and security

As humans, we desire order, predictability and control. The COVID-19 situation is beyond our control, and it is very difficult to predict how life will look in a week. Burdens on our mental health should not be underestimated, and many organizations, including The Canadian Mental Health Association, have collected resources to help support mental health during this challenging time.

It can be argued that career development assistance exists within this stage. Career development has been shown to have positive impacts on mental health, and access to support during this very precarious time may do more good than we are aware of. Reaching out to our students to remind them of this support may allow them to regain at least a small sense of control and agency over their future.

3. Love and belonging/social connections

One could argue that our social connections are the most impacted by physical distancing recommendations, as we are unable to connect in person in our usual ways. In times of crisis, we need to come together, albeit virtually. For the past several weeks, the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network has met for weekly zoom calls to connect and share resources. Practitioners across the country are using a variety of tools to connect with colleagues and students, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, Blackboard, D2L/Brightspace, and Webex. We have heard of daily coffee chats, weekly social hours, Q&A sessions with campus stakeholders, virtual writing communities, webinars, and much more.

Connecting virtually frequently lacks the buzz of in-person events. In webinars, it can be helpful to welcome participants to provide you with non-verbal cues like nodding, hand raising, smiling, or even just looking into the webcam when they can. It can also be helpful to take advantage of technology features that allow us to connect with increasing levels of trust. For example, begin with anonymous polls (Zoom, Mentimeter, etc.) and “reactions” features such as thumbs up or down, before building to call-and-response methods or soliciting questions from participants. These are also great ways to increase inclusivity in online environments.

4. Esteem

Esteem is the feeling of accomplishment that we obtain from internal factors such as dignity, as well as external factors such as status, or gaining the respect of others. For many higher education practitioners, the feeling of being productive and helpful is a significant source of satisfaction. When that is removed, for example through the loss of regular activities for which we receive feedback, or the loss of face-to-face connections with students, we may be grasping for new sources. How do we build esteem? Consider connecting with others to share ideas and resources, or revisit your past feedback. In any future events or connections, ask clients to verbalize significant take-aways from the session.

5. Self-actualization

While the first four levels are termed “deficiency needs,” wherein deficiency in any level provides motivation, self-actualization is different. It is a growth need. “Growth needs do not stem from a lack of something, but rather from a desire to grow as a person. Once these growth needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.”

As we settle into the “new reality,” maybe it is time to consider adding in some new and creative ways to connect with students. Start small, collaborate, and listen to your stakeholders – what are they asking for? Sessions on how to network remotely, shine up their LinkedIn profile, or learn about new careers might be good ideas. For practitioners, this is the stage when we consider learning and growth for its own sake, not simply as a means of survival during a pandemic. Taking an online course or building a new skill may be great, if you have the capacity.

Do what you can

Simply put, these times are unlike anything we’ve ever experienced, and we are learning as we go. While we may feel pressured to  thrive at this time, recognizing that this situation may trigger various needs within us will help to normalize the feelings that come up, and we can allow ourselves to simply “be,” rather than “become.”

Stephanie Warner
Stephanie Warner is the career development specialist for PhD students in career services at the University of Calgary. She completed her PhD in experimental medicine at the University of British Columbia in 2014.
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