The relationship between career choice and stress

A good career fit is ensuring that there are matches between the organisation and the individual

If you are a keen jogger, but find yourself wearing shoes that don’t fit, you’ll soon end up suffering from painful blisters, sore shin splints and aching muscles. And if you are a hard-working professional, but find yourself in the wrong kind of job, you’ll also run the risk of experiencing various stresses and strains. Probably mental rather than physical but potentially more damaging. In both cases, the wrong career choice can cause stress.

Career choice and stress: the prolonged panic attack

In my early twenties, I started working for Unilever, the global consumer goods company, one of the largest in the world. Its household brands, like Dove, Axe, Knorr, Magnum, and Domestos are available in around 190 countries.

Unilever also has one of the most respected management trainee programmes for young people who want to forge a career in marketing. I succeeded in joining it when I was 25, working for Birds Eye Wall’s, one of its operating companies at the time and I was pretty proud of my achievement. The career roadmap was now neatly laid out in front of me and the future seemed bright.

Twelve months later, I found myself pacing up and down the basement of the Birds Eye Wall’s building like a caged animal. I was alone, surrounded only by freezers full of frozen peas, beef burgers and fish fingers and my own confused thoughts.

I was trying to work out why I was suddenly feeling so anxious, why I seemed incapable of completing the most basic of tasks at my desk upstairs. I needed a bit of headspace, away from people, to think clearly and work out what on earth was going on in my frazzled mind.

At the time, I was only a trainee, the lowest of the low. Admittedly, I had been now handed a little more responsibility and people in the team were relying on me to get things done, but I was still a relatively insignificant cog in the wheel.

I didn’t know it at the time but I was experiencing a prolonged panic attack. During those ‘basement wandering days’ I felt frightened and agitated all the time.

Back in 1908, two psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson discovered that mild electric shocks could be used to motivate rats to complete a maze, but when the shocks became too strong, they would start panicking and scurry around the maze haphazardly in an attempt to escape. This became the basis of the Yerkes-Dodson Law which suggested there is a clear link between performance and arousal.

For example, an optimal amount of stress will help you focus on an exam and remember all the key facts. You might feel energised, stimulated, even exhilarated. That is ‘good stress’ and this might help you perform even better. But too much anxiety can impair your ability to remember anything worth writing down on the exam paper. You might freeze and become incapable of thinking straight. That’s ‘bad stress’ when you might not even perform at all. For what it’s worth, I felt like that electrocuted rat.

A round peg in a square hole

When I was writing my book, Beat Stress at Work, I reflected back on that period and tried to work out what had gone wrong. What was it that had caused me to suffer from the prolonged panic attack and the years of discomfort that followed working at Birds Eye Wall’s? The problem was fit. I was a round peg in a square hole.

The Matchmaker table identifies a number of characteristics that define the DNA of both the company and of the individual. The goal is to try and ensure that there are as many matches as possible, because the more matches there are, the more aligned the needs of both parties will be. And the less likely that ‘bad’ stress will rear its ugly head.

You can see in the Matchmaker table above for Birds Eye Wall’s and me that it was only ‘team orientation’ where alignment existed. For really crucial pairings like ‘focus on people development’ versus ‘focus on task completion’, ‘bias toward introverts’ versus ‘bias toward extroverts’, the company and I were misaligned. And over a period of time, this misalignment began to cause me more and more ‘bad stress’.                            

So, how do you use the Matchmaker?

  1. If your current job is causing you significant ‘bad’ stress, use this framework to highlight the differences that exist between you and the company, dimension by dimension. Put your name and your company’s name in the relevant boxes and insert a star where your names appear side by side.
  2. Use the completed framework as the basis for a constructive conversation with your employers to see if you can achieve greater alignment. Be prepared to discuss the source(s) of your stress. Try and agree what they can do, what you can do.
  3. Alternatively, if you are on the lookout for a new job, then use the dimensions of the Matchmaker to help you identify companies/positions where there is likely to be greater alignment between you and them.

Remember that fit is everything. Blisters can be really painful, ‘bad stress’ even more so.

Mark Simmonds runs a creativity agency called GENIUS YOU and is the author of Beat Stress at Work.

In this article, you learned that:

  • So-called ‘good stress’ can fuel productivity while ‘bad stress’ can stop it altogether
  • Better alignment between yourself and a company means less ‘bad stress’
  • You can do the alignment test when looking for new roles to ascertain fit

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