Values Clarity: Why it Matters in Career Development
By Anush Hansen
Case Study: Andrew
Andrew is a 33-year-old electrical engineer working for a consulting firm. He sought out career counseling because the pace, workload, and hours required at his job was exhausting and unsustainable. He wanted to spend his free time exploring the outdoors, playing soccer with friends, and being with his fiancé; however, he was either too exhausted or depressed to leave the house, or he felt extreme guilt and shame for not working more. Andrew was struggling with daily panic attacks, ruminating thoughts about work, insomnia, and irritability, and his relationship with his fiancée was suffering.
On paper, Andrew had a successful career. He was earning a six-figure salary and was happy with his project portfolio, which tapped into his natural strengths, interests, and skills; however, he rarely had time to focus on actual project work due to constant interruptions and competing demands from his clients and manager. The overarching culture of his firm was to take on as many clients as possible (without hiring additional staff) and to be available to coworkers and clients 24/7, compounding an already unmanageable workload. Andrew felt trapped, emotionally exhausted, and hopeless. He often spent counseling sessions in tears, and stated; “This cannot be my life”.
Clients with stories like Andrew’s show up for career counseling every day. They are hard-working employees, from every industry, dedicated to their jobs and employers. They have followed all the rules for career “success”, and have been encouraged to achieve the next level in their career, and then the next, often at the expense of their health and relationships, leading to burnout. A work culture that perpetuates chasing achievement at all costs simply is not realistic or sustainable. While employers may drive and reward employees with impressive job titles and high salaries, it does not matter much if the result is a burned-out workforce trying to survive jobs in environments and cultures that are making them sick.
Useful Frameworks for Understanding Values
Regardless of whether an individual is doing work they love and are naturally good at, if their values are misaligned with those of their employer’s, it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction, disengagement, and burnout. Harvard Business School Professor and happiness researcher Arthur Brooks explains, “Decades of studies have shown that the people most satisfied with their work are those who find a fundamental match between their employer’s values and their own” (Brooks, 2021, para. 7).
While knowing one’s values won’t alone help clients choose a career direction, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what is held most important, both in work and life, and is equally important as assessing and understanding skills, interests, aptitudes, strengths, and personality type. Values assessment and clarity should be woven into the career exploration work career professionals do with every one of their clients, regardless of age or career level.
Burnout researcher Dr. Christina Maslach has consistently found that a key risk factor for burnout is when there is a mismatch between employee and employer expectations and values (American Psychological Association, 2021). More specifically, burnout is correlated with a mismatch in:
- control over work
- reward and recognition
- work community and culture
- fairness and equity at work
When these elements are not aligned, clients are more likely to feel disengaged and disconnected from work, emotionally exhausted, and ineffective at work – the three telltale characteristics of burnout (Leiter & Maslach, 1999).
Recently, the burnout epidemic led the U.S. Surgeon General to develop a public health framework titled the “Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being” (Murthy, 2022). The framework (see Figure 1) highlights the need for employees to have
- Protection from Harm
- Connection and Community
- Work-Life Harmony
- Mattering at Work
- Opportunity for Growth.
Each element is rooted in Worker Voice and Equity. The five essentials are either basic human needs (e.g. safety) or values (e.g. flexibility/autonomy; Murthy, 2022).
Five Essentials for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being
As we move toward a more holistic approach in career development, another useful framework for career practitioners to understand is the Eight Dimensions of Wellness (see Figure 2). This model includes eight dimensions of wellness and health, all of which are mutually interdependent. The eight dimensions are: emotional, physical, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, financial, environmental and social wellness (Stoewen, 2017). Encouraging clients to clarify which dimensions they are thriving and which need more attention can help them understand their values better, especially those related to balancing their career with personal health and well-being. Once clients have clarity about their values, they can take informed and meaningful action toward a more balanced and sustainable career and life.
Eight Dimensions of Wellness
Tools that Help Clients Clarify Their Values
Card sort assessments and career games are an effective way for career practitioners to aid clients in value identification. These tools provide an engaging and powerful approach for helping clients understand their values in a way that will support career fulfillment, growth and whole-person well-being. These tools encourage clients, in an interactive and non-threatening way, to understand, make meaning of, and shape their career narrative as it relates to their values.
Below are examples of tools (each available digitally and in hard-copy) that can be used to help clients and students clarify, vocalize, and make career decisions based on their values and what is most important to them in work and life:
- Knowdell Career Values Card Sort
- OneLifeTools - Who You Are Matters!
- SparkPath - Challenge Cards
- Student Career Values Card Sort
- Work-Life Balance Assessment
Following Up with Andrew
After completing and processing through the Work-Life Balance Assessment card sort, Andrew determined that the money and prestige that came with his role were not priorities he valued, and were no longer worth sacrificing his health, time for his hobbies, and relationship with his fiancé. He spoke to his manager about reducing his hours and workload but was told it was not possible. He eventually left his consulting position, pivoting to a new job working for a large utility company, which offered him less money, but a different pace and very clear boundaries between work and his personal life. This change gave Andrew time to take care of himself and spend time doing the other things in life that matter most to him. Andrew now feels he is living a life that is more authentic, sharing that his health and overall well-being have improved since he gained clarity around his values and priorities. This is what “success” truly means to him.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Why we’re burned out and what to do about it, with Christina Maslach, PhD. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQy1Zc37Bd0
Brooks, A. C. (2021, September 2). The secret to happiness at work. The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/09/dream-job-values-happiness/619951/
Leiter, M., & Maslach, C. (1999). Six areas of worklife: A model of the organizational context of burnout. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 21. 472-489.
Murthy, V. (2022). The U.S. surgeon general’s framework for workplace mental health & well-being. Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/workplace-well-being/index.html
Stoewen, D. L. (2017). Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508938/
Anush Hansen is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Career Counselor, and owner of Kennebunk Career & Wellness Counseling. She is also the founder of Balanced Card Sorts. Anush holds a master’s in Mental Health Counseling and a master’s in Public Health. Prior to her work as a counselor, she worked for 17 years as a public health researcher and program evaluator. It is Anush’s background in health promotion research, mental health, and public health that fuels her commitment to using a holistic, wellness-centered approach when working with clients, and that helped to shape the Balanced Card Sorts tools. She can be reached at email@example.com