The New Normal: Navigating an Unknown Future


Tina Papadakos is a careers counsellor, coach and psychologist with over 25 years’ experience counselling and advising individuals and organisations to maximise their potential and enhance wellbeing. She has worked in both education and commercial settings, with secondary and tertiary students, and with adults embarking on career and life change. 

We have entered a new reality that we could never have predicted at the start of 2020. In the space of a few months this pandemic, COVID-19, has changed the way we work, live and play as individuals and, collectively, as a community. The horrors and losses in lives, health and economies have impacted on millions around the globe. We will feel the repercussions for years to come. It consumes our media, and we are constantly reminded of the precariousness of our situation as we go about daily tasks of engaging in the world and with each other.

Several months in, the disruption to our lives has been profound. For many, home-schooling children whilst trying to work from home has become the expectation. For others, their livelihoods have taken a drastic turn as they are stood down from what was previously stable employment. For those left standing the fear that their job could suddenly disappear, or that their front-line essential work presents a potential threat to their health, is real.

Currently, many of us are just trying to survive and manage immediate priorities – securing some form of income, equipping our homes with the necessary technology, adjusting to doing our work or study remotely, navigating new digital platforms to connect with each other, and ensuring we remain physically and mentally healthy. These are present concerns for us, and as careers practitioners, for our clients.

As a profession, how do career development practitioners support our clients to move forward with hope and optimism when the future is unknown? Now more than ever, the mandate that career practitioners have espoused to prepare people to be their own career managers, is vital. At this time of great uncertainty economically, politically and socially, we suddenly find ourselves in a position to reassess and reimagine the way we do our work. I know I have had to take stock and reconsider how I work with clients when their priorities have suddenly shifted and familiar road maps are erased.

To assist our clients to navigate their careers through this time of uncertainty and unpredictability, it seems to me the positive psychology movement has much to offer to complement the wonderful suite of career development theoretical models and constructs at our disposal. We can incorporate into our own toolkits strategies offered by the pioneers in positive psychology: Professor Martin Seligman in building optimism and human flourishing, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness, Carol Dweck describing growth mindset as essential for success, Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory to build positive emotions to enable creative ways to think and act, Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory of Motivation to build self-efficacy, to name a few.

There are also newer models emerging, such as Appreciative Inquiry, to enable a collaborative strengths-based approach to finding deep, personal meaning and bring light to new possibilities. These offerings enrich and ground people to be resilient and resourced to navigate their lives more successfully.

What are some of the ways we can draw on such models to assist clients to revive, refocus and reconnect? How do we give life to what works rather than what doesn’t in unprecedented times? Here are some strategies that can be beneficial during a pandemic:

  1. Finding meaning: to build motivation when fears and anxieties are rife. Although tackling immediate roadblocks may be a necessary priority before moving onto future concerns, clients can be encouraged towards a more positive and hopeful stance by focusing on meaning-making. The work of Dr Victor Frankl, captured in his renowned classic publication “Man’s Search for Meaning”, promoted the position that within suffering there are glimpses of light to behold. Disruption can breed innovation – get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

    I heard an expression today by Michelle McQuaid, one of the world’s leading positive psychology researchers: “Change can be messy and magical”. So here are some questions we can ask of our clients to hold them up in their state of discomfort. “What has resonated with you and inspired you during this crisis? What powerful stories have you seen or heard about? What are you grateful for? What has worked for you at this time? What strengths have you harnessed during the pandemic and what has supported them? How will you deploy your strengths and skills to help others? Who do you want to include in your support team as you build community remotely? What new ways of working have you adopted, and hope to hold onto, in the future? What impact will this have?”

    We can reflect back what we hear to reinforce important discoveries using phrases such as “What I’m hearing is…..” and “I noticed you were fully engaged and energised when you talked about……”. We can work with clients to generate new, powerful narratives for the purposes of developing and recognising personal insights, building their brand and networks, and promoting themselves.
  2. Encouraging mindful and innovative practices: People suddenly have more time as they may no longer be commuting to and from work, or may not be working at present. Can they slow down and be more intentional about how they use their time? Can they employ mindfulness skills for self-care, to create work/life balance and to use this newly acquired time to devote to what they “want to do” rather than “what they should do”. What do they care enough about? What passion projects would they devote some energy to if nothing else stood in their way? Can they find a space to fully immerse themselves in chosen activities in mindful ways? This might be an ideal time for people to give themselves permission and space to devote to things that matter to them.

    I’m in awe of the novel and creative ways some people are using their time currently to initiate and develop new skills, learn languages, write music, promote worthy causes, reach out to those around them in need, and come up with business ideas. Some have discovered, or re-discovered, passions that have been latent or ignored due to lack of time or energy to engage or commit. The investment in such projects may be a source of future career re-crafting or realisation.
  3. Acceptance and commitment: Assist people to focus on what they do have control over – and accept and let go of what they can’t control. Incorporate the identification of values to then develop values-aligned action plans for work and life to build commitment and agency. According to Dr Russ Harris in his work based on Acceptance and Commitment therapy, helping people to act according to their values promotes a deep sense of meaning and vitality that builds commitment, even in more challenging times.
  4. Be socially connected: While people are physically distancing themselves, they can still be socially connected. At a time when people may be experiencing increased loneliness due to enforced isolation, we can encourage them to identify avenues to connect with others in meaningful ways, network, give to others and build a sense of community to tackle the detrimental impact of seclusion. This is also an imperative in career-building.
  5. Online impact: With the focus on being online currently, work with people to maximise and curate their online presence effectively, creatively and consistently. Assist them to hone their use of social media and digital platforms to network, apply for jobs and conduct their work. Do they have a LinkedIn profile? Are they using social media effectively to connect, contribute, and inform themselves? Do they know how to prepare and conduct themselves in online interviews? There is a multitude of ways that we can coach and groom people to have impact online.

In our roles as career development practitioners, we can make monumental contributions to helping people shape their futures in the coming months and years. Although we are operating in uncertain times, we can bring people back to regaining focus on what they can do and choices they can make to endure through this crisis. This is powerful and important work!